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Lean office: an introduction to 5S

Lean manufacturing, originally invented by Taiichi Ohno and popularized by the Japanese company Toyota in the 1950’s, has known many evolutions ever since. Coupled with Six Sigma methodology in the 1990’s, it has even become an industry standard to understand in depth production processes, eliminate wastes and low-value activities, and finally reduce variations on the product to gain efficiency.

More recently, Lean practitioners started to extend these principles to support services, first directly connected to industrial production (purchasing, supply chain, maintenance), and finally to all departments within a company: accounting, human resources, controlling, sales etc. Lean Office was born.

Applying Lean principles to activities focused on service delivery created new challenges, for various reasons: an unclear value stream, a lack or absence of standards, a poor understanding of workflow processes, very few performance indicators, teams or people working in silos and not communicating with others. All these aspects tend to generate wastes (time, money, efficiency), and are actually representing a real playground for Lean practitioners, as the hunt to reduce waste is the DNA of the Lean philosophy.

A common purpose: bring value to the customer

Whether you implement a Lean approach in a manufacturing or a service environment, the final objective remains the same: create value for the customer. It needs to be stated and clarified at the very beginning, as the most common mistake is to only focus on what we, as employees of a company, consider as non-effective or to be improved. The Lean effort needs to be closely linked with the potential advantage for the client, not the company itself.

Let’s take an example: a department in charge of processing expenses notes for the sales representatives of the company wants to improve its efficiency of treatment and validation. In that situation, the clients are the sales representatives, and the value that can be created by the Lean project is being able to reimburse expenses quicker (target: going from 60 days to 30 days).

Several solutions can be designed: hire a new person to increase the volume of expenses processed, automatize the encoding of expenses through a new software, validate the expenses in batches instead of one by one, etc. Each solution could be a good one, but only if it answers the following question: will it decrease the expense reimbursement from 60 to 30 days? If yes, it is viable solution that can be implemented. If not, you need to consider other options. Potential side benefits (less errors in the treatment, faster validation, easier encoding of expenses) can not justify the launch of a Lean project, as the expected customer value is not reached by default.

Once the future value for the customer has been clearly identified, Lean practitioners can launch an improvement project using various tools: value stream mapping, Kaizen workshops, 5 why, Poka Yoke… Many of these tools are, by design, dedicated to production and industrial applications, but some of them are transferable to an office environment. This is the case for 5S.

What is 5S?

5S is part of the toolbox at the disposal of practitioners to implement Lean principles. It is usually considered as the first step of a Lean project, either in a manufacturing or office environment. It comes from the japanese Seiri (Sort), Seiton (Set in order), Seiso (Shine), Seiketsu (Standardize) and Shitsuke (Sustain).

This methodology aims, in 5 steps, to create a continuous improvement approach within a team, a department or a whole company. Each step has the following objective:

Sort: erase the unnecessary; in the workspace, identify and archive / sort / throw away every document or equipment that is not necessary on a regular basis, and keep available and accessible only what is necessary to your daily activities.

Set in order: a place for everything and everything in its place; the purpose is to organize the workspace to avoid wastes of energy or efficiency in the daily operations.

Shine: keep your workspace clean; once the workspace has been set in order, it becomes easier to clean it regularly. In a manufacturing environment, it can avoid equipment malfunctions and incidents, in an office environment, a clean workspace increases the comfort and the overall efficiency.

Standardize: repeat the effort; the purpose is to establish standards and create a clear planning to make the sure that the 3 first S are repeated.

Sustain: becoming responsible and self-disciplined; set regular check points, assign roles, train and support people to make them responsible, in order to ensure that the 5S cycle is stable through time.

How to make it sustainable?

The two last steps of the 5S cycle (Standardize and Sustain) are the most difficult to implement, especially in an office environment. In a production line, set up a daily visual inspection of your material does make sense, as the consequences if you don’t do it are pretty tangible (malfunctions, safety issues, losing pieces of equipment etc.). In an office, everyone can understand the interest of cleaning a desk once in a while, or sort some papers at the end of the day. Making it a routine requires a real discipline, as the motivation can easily drop.

Lean methodology often uses visual management tools to make the principles obvious and impactful: shadow boards, colored labels, communication boards, red tags, Kanban boards etc. In Lean Office, one simple and powerful tool to ensure the sustainability of your 5S can be a Kamishibai card board.

The principle is extremely simple: you list the activities that need to be done on a given period of time (you can add names on the cards to assign responsibilities to certain persons) and you create double-sided cards . When the card is red, the activity is yet to be done, and the card is flipped to the green side when the activity has been completed. It is an efficient tool to visualize and pilot your workflow as well as your 5S tasks.

In addition of visual tools or techniques, the importance of management has to be highlighted to create sustainability. Enforcing lean habits within a team or a company is a long term effort, that needs to be supported by sponsors / managers every day, especially since 5S and more globally lean principles are usually initiated and implemented by external consultants and experts. People within the team / company need to be properly trained and involved at every step, to understand the meaning of it and remain consistent in their future 5S application.

Is 5S valuable in an office environment?

The answer should be yes, for two main reasons: 75% of our today’s economy is about office and service delivery activities. The potential playground for Lean Office application is huge: to illustrate that, a recent study has demonstrated that office employees spend 13% of their actual working time just to retrieve documents, either physical or virtual, that are necessary to complete their daily tasks. Besides, 5S is a very simple methodology, scalable to any team or company, that can generate visible and quick results.

However, if the potential value of 5S is rather obvious, implementing it in an office environment remains challenging on a long term basis. Many studies about change management show that companies struggle to maintain benefits over time: lack of long term vision, unclear client value target, people leaving and new ones joining the team / company etc. Various reasons can eventually cause the failure of the project. 5S is not self sufficient: if it is an easy and efficient way to start a continuous improvement work, it needs to be carefully planned, completed with other tools, explained and closely managed on regular basis. Only on these conditions, 5S can be a real value to your company.

Nicolas Caillet

Associate at AION Consulting


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