In this series about adjusting or just tweaking your 5S so that it works—or works a little better — I promised to share things that have helped me help my client companies get more mileage and better results from their 5S initiatives. I promised to share what I call: 5S on Steroids.

This week, we take on the 5S-Audit. That will continue for a few more issues after we get back from our summer holiday in August.

In the field of operational excellence today, there is a great deal of discussion about this: “It’s about people, not tools.” Tools in this case refer to improvement methods, such as: the fishbone diagram, pareto charts, A3, check sheets, flow charts, balanced scorecard, and the like. After decades of promoting tool-based change, the gurus now say, “It’s all about people” as though people should be able to achieve operational excellence—and hold onto it—through the use of their imagination, ingenuity, and diligence. I cannot wholeheartedly agree.

While it is true that “people” are a resource and a glory—so is structure, my broad catch-all term for improvement tools. People without tools are forced to make progress—or at least try—without mechanisms and formats that capture core thinking principles. Instead they are left to rely on tribal knowledge and tribal activity—habit and the unwritten rules about what’s good and what’s not. The absence of tools makes us less capable of achieving precise, predictable, and designed value-added outcomes.

Similarly, tools without people—and without life-giving people-appeal—are sterile, vacant, and rarely used. If you do get people to use unappealing tools, you will need to make a big push and keep a close watch. It will not come naturally and it won’t be easy. Like most 5S-Audits. They simply have no life of their own. As a result, few of us want to use them, let alone own them.

The short of it is: We need a blending of both people and tools—and tools and people. Nothing new in that. And the balance point between the two represents mastery.

So let’s talk about the so-called 5S-Audit—a mechanism many companies use as their major means to stimulate employee creativity and trigger continuous improvement. If your company is deploying the 5S-Audit format to your satisfaction, read no further—not because you would not benefit from the discussion—but because chances are high you will be annoyed by it.

There are three fundamental problems with the 5S-Audit, as a construct—a tool.

  1. It is an audit.
  2. Most companies implementing 5S do so incompletely and so auditing the result is questionable.
  3. Companies that do implement 5S completely, do not have an auditable event.
  4. It is an audit. An audit, by definition, is an official examination that assesses the adequacy of certain processes and outcomes against a pre-set rules profile. In other words, an audit is a compliance tool. It is madness to think we can cultivate creative thinking through the static, go/no-go (yes/no) 5S-Audit Look at the questions on the manufacturing audit below: Are there any un-needed items in the area? Are machine clean, free from clutter, and properly maintained? Are safe work practices in place and followed? I have no problem checking on such things—but checking is not the same as improving.
  5. Most companies implementing 5S do so incompletely—and so auditing the result is questionable. Harkening back to the discussion across several recent issues of this eNewsletter, when 5S arrived on our shores from Japan, it was only partially appreciated. We Americans deployed the parts we understood—neatness, cleanliness and order: S1/Sort, S2/Shine, S3/Set in Order. But we overlooked what we did not understand—the visual aspect. As a result, most 5S-Audits assess compliance against the first three—and stop there. It may be a world-class audit but it does not produce world-class results.
  6. Companies that do implement 5S completely, do not have an auditable event. This brings us round full circle. Japanese 5S is a compliance construct—and a light weight one at that. When we pour our energy into rethinking it into a premier employee engagement tool, we will simply fail—not for want of effort or hope, but because we have squeezed a world of possible solutions into a very small box: the audit mechanism. As you will read in our next issue (August), a few slight tweaks in the format and the 5S-Audit can be re-born into a vibrant and eminently useful improvement tool. Let the workplace speak!
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