Will the fight against COVID-19 bring back 5S?

In April 2019 I posted an article titled Will 5S resist 4.0 tech? sincerely thinking 5S were doomed as 4.0 tech spread. Roughly one year later, May 2020, most countries of the northern hemisphere try to get back to a new normal after being locked down in order to contain the COVID-19 pandemic.

Lisez-moi en français : La lutte contre COVID-19 ressuscitera-t-elle les 5S ?

But the return to this new normal implies accepting new rules, new behaviors and rethinking much of the daily life, especially at work. Social distancing, wearing facemasks and frequent hand cleaning are the basics, but other rules and behaviors must be reinforced in order to protect us, the community from another uncontrolled outbreak of the pandemic.

And this is where the 5S could make their comeback.

Simple, known, barely sustained and possibly returning

5S have been around for 40 years or so. They have been the forerunners of later Lean trainings and workshops. 5S taught or reminded with exotic japanese words to Sort out, Set in order, Scrub, Standardize and Sustain.

Not yet familiar with 5S? Read my Quick Beginner’s Guide to 5S

Very simple, yet very complicated to implement beyond the third S not to mention making them stick. The Shine of 5S faded as more glamourous or techno-funny stuff followed. But with a reinforced and better understood urge to sanitize everything, 5S could come back handy.

First, efficient disinfection and sanitation require neat places. The more stuff, clutter, nooks and crannies in the way of sanitation, the more possible refuge places are provided for the dreaded virus to hide and wait for the next victim. To ease and ensure proper disinfection, places, work posts, offices, benches, machines… must be cleared of all unnecessary items. Therefore 5S start with sorting out what is really needed, what should be dumped and what can be put somewhere else for the need of it is infrequent.

Second, when looking for something in a potentially contaminated area, it’s not a good idea to have to grasp and move a lot of stray stuff for finding what is needed. When the place is neat, with only the very necessary items around, it is easy to visually locate what is needed or to understand it is not around.

Which brings us to the second S, Set in order. When the needed items are displayed for everybody to see them from afar, it saves the walk  and rummaging to check if those items are available when they are not.

The shadow board with the outlines shapes of tools is the iconic example of arranging or setting in order.

Yet good old tool board once praised for allowing the sharing of hand tools and make savings, which in bigger workshops can be significant, is no more in favor. When common tools have to be sanitized after each use, it may be cheaper to setup every worker with his/her personal set of tools!

The cleaning or scrubbing that made the third S is meaningfully replaced by Sanitizing. This third S, not always the most popular among workers, may get greater attention now that it’s more than removing dirt and dust but prevent infection, protecting oneself and the others.

Standardize, the fourth and one other difficult S to implement will be forced by circumstances. The new standard is to stand at clear distance from others (note that ironically the appreciation of safe distance is not now standardized among countries), to used one-way pedestrian lanes in order not to brush against somebody, sit at safe distances in the cafeteria, to wear facemasks, use hydroalcoholic gel on given spots and wash hands frequently.

My guess is that this standardization, once dreaded by 5S implementers, will be much easier and seamless, given the perceptible benefit for everyone to protect oneself and the others. Even so some management’s reinforcement will be necessary here and there, the general acceptance of the rules should be better than with traditional 5S.

The final S is sustain, which means both keep it working but also improve it. In the classic sense, improvement was about preventing clutter and stains in order to reduce the need of sorting and cleaning. It was about improving the common rules, where and how to store things, how to identify them easier, faster. In the new normal improvement will emphasize reducing the risk of contamination, thus the need to sanitize frequently.

At the moment of writing these lines, May 27th, 2020, this is a prospective thinking with some of the mentioned examples of the structured preventive actions against COVID-19  already seen. Near future will tell if 5S will return and revive. This is what I hope for we don’t want the virus to return and revive!


About the author, Chris HOHMANN

About the author, Chris HOHMANN

View Christian HOHMANN's profile on LinkedIn

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