How clean is clean enough?

By Ron Pereira Updated on June 28th, 2009

Here’s a question for you. When practicing the 3rd step of 5S – often referred to as shine or sweep – how clean is clean enough?

Should the area you’re working in shine as bright as the Texas sun? Should the floor be clean enough to eat off of? Or is “pretty clean” or “cleaner than it was” acceptable?

Clean to Inspect

The answer to the questions above can be summed up with one word – possibly.

But, you see, the key to this third step of 5S is not how sparkling clean the area is.

No, the key to this third step is to clean until you know why the mess is there to begin with. In other words, the true purpose of this step is to clean to inspect.

Why are you sweeping?

Here’s a way to practice. The next time you see someone sweeping or cleaning the floor politely ask them why they’re doing what they’re doing (sweeping or cleaning).

They’ll likely look at you funny while responding, “Cuz it’s dirty bro. Open your eyes.”

This is then your cue to ask why several times until you identify the root cause of the dirt or grime (e.g. dirty filters, machine malfunctioning, etc.) enabling you and your friend to think about a countermeasure.

What do you think?

What do you think? Do you agree with me? If not, why? If so, do you have any stories to share where you’ve done just this… namely identified a root cause that when addressed eliminated the need to shine or sweep altogether?

  1. Mike Alderman

    June 29, 2009 - 6:17 am

    Ron, you bring up some very good points.. When I read this story it brings back some memories I always tell the people that I am training that “the best cleaning, is not need cleaning”! Meaning just what you said. Find and eliminate the causes of it getting dirty.. good point!

  2. John Hunter

    June 29, 2009 - 1:51 pm

    Good post. I agree with you. The title reminded me of Dr. Deming’s point that you could not clean a table properly without knowing why. Do you need to use the table to do work? Do you need to clean the table to eat diner? Do you need to eat directly off the table? Do you need to perform surgery on the table. Clean enough depends on the purpose. For the table example it is often know but when workers don’t understand how the product of their work is used the system is not as good as it should be.

  3. Graeme Reeves

    June 30, 2009 - 7:24 am

    I did just this after reading this yesterday. My mate was sweeping up and I asked him why the mess was there. After discussing it we realised the metal shavings were on the ground because the “catcher” was not working properly. A few hours later our maintenance team repaired the problem. No more sweeping. Brilliant!

  4. Tim McMahon

    June 30, 2009 - 5:49 pm

    Ron this is so right. I get this a lot with the introduction of TPM and autonomous maintenance. The act of cleaning is one of inspecting the equipment so as to catch leaks, corrosion, or other issues as early as possibly so as to prevent a catastrophic failure. The key or motivation is to prevent the mess so that everything stays in a production ready and process capable state all the time. This detection is the key to sustaining and continuous improvement.

  5. Mulyadi Ginanjar

    June 30, 2009 - 8:53 pm

    Ron, you have very good point of cleaning meaning. I will share it with my fellow suppliers, to refresh or remind them again about how clean is clean.
    Currently I found they do cleaning, without understand what is the purpose of the activity itself. Last week I conducted 5S audit, almost all spot is clean, but they didn’t understand why it should be so clean.

  6. Observer

    July 11, 2009 - 11:56 pm

    I once read in a Japanese article this true meaning. A shop floor is dirty. They do not notice a oil drum is leaking. When they start cleaning they find the leakage due to visibility of the oil slick. The solution at this stage is not cleaning of this oil spot, but to fix the oil leak.

    In a messy place the ambient noise is high and hence you do not see the signal. Cleaning is a way of surfacing special cause variance above common cause variance by reducing the common cause variance.

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