Visual Management of Our Readiness

By Jon Miller Updated on September 19th, 2021

One of the most accessible and basic continuous improvement tools is a workplace organization and visualization practice known as 5S. It has roots that go back perhaps 100 years. The 5S as we know it today seems to have roots in the CANDO system at the Ford Motor Company, adopted by Japanese industry, and translated back into English words.

In many ways, these practices are common sense. They seem easy to do. We can set up a cluttered workplace and one that’s better organized with 5S principles, then compare safety, productivity, and quality. It stands to reason that the workplace where people are searching, rearranging, and tripping over things will be less effective. So it’s a wonder that these practices aren’t more well-known and widespread. In fact, it’s not rare that we’ll hear from customers that even after years of working at continuous improvement, keeping up or expanding the discipline of 5S remains challenging.

There are many reasons for this. A common pitfall is that we’re too aggressive or pushy when encouraging 5S, since to those who have seen it work, it seems so easy and obvious that we forget to bring people along at their pace. Another common challenge is that over time, we personalize our workspace, seeing our workstations as an extension of our own personal space. Even well-intentioned 5S interventions can feel like a dinner guest telling us how we should rearrange our kitchen. At other times, it can be a simple matter of doing it wrong.

Visual Management of Work Tools with the Shadow Board

A common 5S half-measure is the tool board. It’s a whole lot better than digging through drawers or toolboxes for the right tool. However, it fails to accomplish a few things. We can’t quite tell whether everything we need is there or not. It appears that there may be a thing or two in use and not on the board. It’s also not clear whether everything that is on the board belongs there. Just because there is a place to put something doesn’t mean the right item is in that place. And third, these boards are often located away from their actual point of use, requiring walking, retrieving, rearranging. As a result, even after what seems to be the successful first two steps of 5S, the person using the tools may find the new setup inconvenient in some way, resulting in backsliding.

The shadow board addresses the first two of these concerns. We can see at a glance if anything is missing by using an outline of each item on the board and/or a shadow of a different color. At the end of a workday, it’s easy to see if every item is back in its place and ready for the next shift. However, the problem of walking back and forth to a centralized shadow board still remains. One way to address this is to put tools and shadows directly on the machine or workstation. This may require duplication of tools. Putting tools very near their point of use also may not be safe or practical in every situation.

One way to combine the need for “tools on the go” with the visual organization of a shadow board is to use material like Kaizen Foam from FastCap. We can outline and carve out the shapes of tools in this layered, multi-color foam to form a 3-dimensional shadow board. The foam can be fit into a toolbox, drawer, or other appropriate space to make point of use tool storage practical, safe, and productive. This allows us to create very local and fit-for-purpose kits of tools and materials that are portable, visual, and ready to use.

Point of Use Storage Into the Information Workspace?

But this type of visual display of readiness can feel wrong to some people. This is a common reaction in the information workspace. Knowledge workers may wonder, “Why do I need to mark a rectangle with blue tape over my stapler?” and indeed, why? It’s important to have a good reason, regardless of continuous improvement tool or where it’s applied. Many improvement practices have industrial origins. Their adaptation to knowledge work needs proper consideration of context and purpose. When promoters of 5S insist on “copy first, then adapt” and resistors find this to be below their intelligence level, it’s common for 5S to struggle.

This requires taking a step back to consider what will make knowledge work easier. There are situations where office work is repetitive, standardized, transactional, and production-like. In these cases, 5S is a good fit. In others, work is more variable, non-repetitive, or creative. Unlike the physical workspace, there may be easier places to make initial gains in the information workspace. Getting people access to the information, tools, decisions, and so forth may be less a matter of arranging things. It can be more a matter of putting limits on virtual WIP, documenting process policies, and setting service level agreements on response times between knowledge workers. When disorganized information, materials, or equipment prevents any of these, it may be time for office 5S.

We Can’t All Be Julia Child

I used to think that making a performance out of 5S was a factor contributing to its eventual failure. This is anecdotal and I don’t have data to back it up. The 5S level would rise for the purpose of impressing touring visitors, execs, or customers. Some companies take this to the level of always being tour-ready. It seemed some organizations mistook being performative for being performance-focused. The workplace is a bit cluttered. So what, as long as our safety, quality, delivery, cost, and morale metrics are trending in the right way?

Images source: In Julia’s Kitchen: Practical and Convivial Kitchen Design Inspired by Julia Child by Pamela Heyne and Jim Scherer

The book In Julia Child’s Kitchen: Practical and Convivial Kitchen Design might have helped change my mind. On Julia Child’s famous kitchen pegboard there are so many pots and pans. There is a wall of pastry items, multiple stoves, and fridges. She seems to have put nearly everything out and on display. The 5S dogma is that it’s easier to make “a place for everything, and everything in its place” when you start by having a clear definition of “everything”. It shouldn’t be every single thing, but rather whatever is needed to do the work properly. Reduce before rearranging.

In the celebrity chef’s case, her kitchen may have been as much a functional arrangement as a visual way of presenting her brand. It’s meant to be practical and convivial. Perhaps 5S in our workplace should also be friendly, joyful, lively, and inviting. At the same time, there’s no doubt that the master chef had whatever she needed visible within reach and ready to prepare great food.

In each case, these visual arrangements are a way of showing that we are ready to serve. We have enough extra time, will, and resource to set and maintain a clean and orderly workspace. This takes work. If we are too busy, or have the time but lack the commitment or will to do it, 5S will fail. So in some way, the performative aspect of 5S services is a performance function. It forces us to find the time, ideally by cutting out wasted time in other parts of our life and work. We can’t all be celebrities like Julia Childs. But perhaps we should show off our readiness to do a quality job as if we were.

  1. Andrew Bishop

    September 20, 2021 - 12:40 pm

    Three thoughts –

    -One requirement, often shortchanged, is giving people time for daily cleaning. “Shine” (not called out in the article) is a critical, daily feature.
    -Being “Tour Ready” should never be the objective. It is, however, the outcome of a highly evolved workplace 5S. We didn’t plan on being “tour ready” but we didn’t have to get ready for tours!

    -And a story, reinforcing that 5S, like all standards, is for making problems apparent. Early in my lean journey I heard a story about a supplier losing a shot at a Toyota contract when he kicked a loose nut on the floor out of the way of the touring Toyota exec. Seemed ridiculous – what’s the big deal? And who would even NOTICE a loose nut on the floor with all the other junk there? Years later a loose nut on the floor would give ME fits – who’s about to lose a wheel? What’s about to fall apart? When the workplace is truly “5S”, problems are easy for anyone to see.

    • Jon Miller

      September 20, 2021 - 12:45 pm

      Great comments. Thanks Andrew

  2. Markus Rhiel

    October 13, 2021 - 9:13 am

    Thx for sharing your 3 thoughts, Andrew.

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