5S or 6S: What's the safe choice?

Some companies reinterpret a well-known lean tool to focus on safety

The FABRICATOR April 2011
April 1, 2011
By: Dan Davis

Everyone wants a safe work environment, but some companies feel that the safety needs to be a separate category of 5S, making it 6S. Others argue that the safety is clearly covered in the 5S methodology. Both may be right.

Lean work area

Figure 1: A work area in which nonessential elements have been removed and tools are placed where they can be easily reached has been set in order, as the 5S methodology prescribes. Photos courtesy of LAI International.

5S or 6S? In this case, more may not necessarily be better. For those not exposed to the 5S lean manufacturing tool, it stands for sort, straighten, shine, standardize, and sustain. All of those goals, once the work force actively buys into the concept, lead to a better-organized work environment where everyone takes ownership of their workplace and activities (see Figure 1).

Some U.S. manufacturers have taken 5S one step further and added another "S" for safety. They make the point that safety always should be front and center of any improvement on the shop floor. Lean manufacturing aficionados feel that if 5S is done properly, safety takes care of itself.

Many metal fabricators probably don't care, but some lean advocates have definite opinions. Consider this sampling from a forum at the Lean Six Sigma Academy Web site (www.lssacademy.com):

  • "Why fix something that works? We call it 5S and don't plan to change it. While safety is paramount, I believe adding safety as a sixth S is artificial and confusing. It's not another step in the process, which leads to confusion and might even obfuscate the purpose of the process and reduce the importance of the other steps. Sometimes, less is more."
  • "Although safety is a part of our DNA, we have a sixth S for safety. When using cross-functional auditors between offices and plants, we've seen it just acts as another cultural reinforcement towards safe practices."
  • "I understand and support the concept of 6S. Just as you are making a concerted effort to clean up and

    organize, taking a new perspective on safety is an excellent idea. However noble, the 'root cause' of 5S is not to 'clean and organize'; it is to create an environment where deviation and error are conspicuously evident. To that end, safety does not contribute; it supersedes."

  • "Safety should always be the No. 1 priority. Jamming it into 5S to make it 6S makes safety seem like a 'program,' which it should not be. It should be embedded in every decision and the everyday life of an organization.

Ron Pereira, managing partner for online training company Gemba Academy, called the debate a "hot topic" for those in the lean manufacturing arena. Supporters on both sides of the argument have valid points.

"My philosophy is if it gets an organization thinking about safety and putting more focus on safety, that can be nothing but good. But if it's done as a kind of the 'flavor of the month,' then maybe it's not so good," Pereira said.

"At its core, if you have done it properly, safety is going to be part of all of the S's. If you are truly doing 5S—if you are living and breathing it—then safety, productivity, and all of the benefits that come from it are going to result."

5S and Safety

To understand how 5S takes safety into account, it's necessary to know how 5S works (see "What Exactly is 5S? sidebar).

First, 5S is not a program; it's a commitment to an orderly work environment. In that sense, it's not about simply tidying up a work area, but rather about standardizing work processes and environments to lead to consistent and predictable outcomes. Second, 5S doesn't have a fixed timeline; it's practiced every day and affects all aspects of the manufacturing effort.

5S originated in Japan, and that's probably where you find the strictest practitioners of the methodology. Pereira shared the tale of a visit he made to a Japanese factory. He and the other guests were asked to put slippers on their feet instead of shoes because company management was afraid the guests would smudge the tape on the shop floor that marked off the workcell areas. If the tape were smudged, workers would have to clean the tape to remove the marks. He added that all employees, including the president, came to the office 30 minutes early every day—unpaid—to participate in these lean activities.

Strict adherents to the 5S methodology don't see the need to incorporate safety as another S. If the job is being done according to the standardized approach, the risk of an accident occurring is minimal. After all, would anyone really incorporate unsafe practices into an agreed-upon standard? Also, if an increased chance of an accident is associated with one of the steps in a standardized work practice, a note would be included for the employee to be careful at that particular point.

"At the current moment, you need employees to do steps one through 10. So we train folks and get them working, so everyone is doing things consistently. That's when accidents don't happen," Pereira said.

"When accidents happen is when you have a maverick. He goes off on his own, and instead of getting the pallet jack over to use it, he tries to lift it [without the pallet jack]. He deviates from the standard work."

Emerson Network Power's Liebert business division in Columbus, Ohio, produces heating and cooling systems for companies that need to maintain precise temperatures for reliable IT equipment performance in their data centers. It regularly practices 5S as part of its continuous effort to improve productivity and eliminate waste.

At the same time safety is a vital part of its shop floor operations. Just as Emerson employs a dedicated lean engineer, whose focus is on lean projects and 5S, the company also has a dedicated safety engineer, whose job is to identify unsafe practices before they result in lost-time injuries.

"We don't formally call it 6S, but we have an active safety program that includes 'safe behavior observation'," said Jack Somerville, Emerson's manufacturing engineering manager.

These two focus areas often overlap, Somerville added. For instance, when Emerson's manufacturing team decided it needed carts to ferry around kits from the punching area to the assembly area because having operators waiting on lift trucks to deliver material was considered a waste, a more streamlined flow of parts and a safer working environment were the results. The carts allowed welders to pull their kits from a staging area when ready without having to wait on a lift truck, and also minimized the number of lift truck runs needed in a day. Somerville said the move to the carts helped to reduce the number of lift truck moves from 800 to 300 per shift, eliminating 500 chances of a lift truck running into a person or dropping material in an unsafe manner.

6S Definitely Covers Safety

Other companies stress safety so much that they want it to be a separate category. For companies that have had 5S in place, adding that extra S may not be a big deal.

"Back when we started on lean in this facility about five or six years ago, it was 5S," said Laurie Schneider, a continuous improvement engineer for LAI Midwest division of LAI International Inc., a manufacturer of precision components for the aerospace, defense, and power generation industries. "When I came onboard a few years ago, we discussed re-evaluating programs that were in place and the opportunity to add that sixth S there.

"In a culture with 5S, safety is implied," Schneider added. "But safety is such a priority, anytime you can stress it again is another opportunity to keep it in the forefront."

LAI Midwest stays on top of the safety effort with check lists and audits. The check lists are the tools used to standardize the work processes. Within the check lists are the steps to ensure practices are safe. The audit, completed in each work area every day and on every shift, is the tool used to sustain the 5S momentum.

The sixth S emerges when the audits are reviewed. Notes about safety concerns are made on the audit sheets, which Schneider reviews. She can initiate any necessary process change or requisition of new tools to help create a safer environment. Of course, any huge safety issue can be communicated to company leaders at any moment of the workday.

"We are doing this on an every-shift basis, and then we continually improve the check lists as the area metamorphosizes," Schneider said.

Her verb choice might sound grandiose, but it accurately reflects the change that occurs when employees buy into the 6S methodology and actively want to participate in it when they see concrete results. The other benefit is that the facility has an excellent safety rating—with only one lost-time injury in the last three years.

"It's a really powerful tool. You can do it wrong because the foundation of it is respect for people. If you do it in a way that doesn't respect people, you can fail," Schneider said. "But if you do it in the spirit that's intended, the benefits are unstoppable."

Schneider added that the transition from 5S to 6S didn't require a lot of physical changes. Some visual reminders around the facility had to be updated to highlight safety, and some check lists altered, which is a normal occurrence anyway given the nature of continuous improvement.

5S and 6S: How to Make it Stick

No matter how many S's a company commits to, it still must instill a culture that allows the methodology to thrive. These tips can help accomplish that:

  • Company leadership must provide visible support, not just lip service. Employees can tell the difference between a corporate vision and just another activity thrown down from the front office. If they aren't sold on the idea, the employees won't participate in a meaningful way. Schneider said daily e-mail updates from LAI's executive management team often include information on the corporate philosophy and initiatives. "People see the focus on LAI's company culture, goals, and objectives. They see safety, lean, and continuous improvement are an important focus for the success and well-being of the company and its employees."
  • Educate everyone. "Don't just run through a slideshow," Pereira said. "You've got to engage them in kaizen events. You've got to involve these workers and let them make the changes. You might have a lead champion or a continuous improvement leader of the factory, but if that person is driving the initiative, it won't sustain itself."
  • Be repetitious. A company can't have one event and expect a culture to develop. The kaizen events—focused exercises to improve a specific process—pull the workers in, and continually holding these events reminds employees of the elimination of waste taking place. "If you have had everyone involved and those people have been involved in about 20 kaizen events over the course of a year, man, you are going to have some powerful results," Pereira said.

Emerson Network Power, 1050 Dearborn Drive, Columbus, OH 43085, 614-888-0246, www.liebert.com

Gemba Academy LLC, 13000 Beverly Park Road, Suite B, Mukilteo, WA 98275, 866-599-1398, www.gembaacademy.com

LAI Midwest, a Div. of LAI International Inc., 7645 Baker St. N.E., Minneapolis, MN 55432, 763-780-0060, www.laico.com

What Exactly Is 5S?

When translated from Japanese, seiri, seiton, seiso, seiketsu and shitsuke result in five more S words: sort, straighten, shine, standardize, and sustain. They may sound a little ambiguous, but explanations help to describe how they differ.

Sort. If it doesn't need to be there, it needs to go. Unnecessary objects make it harder to find necessary objects.

Straighten. It's also known as "set in order." All necessary objects need to be where they are supposed to be. This leads to the use of shadowboxes for storing tools, for instance. You can see if a tool is there just by looking at the box. Also, the tools must be organized so that they are easily accessible, with frequently used objects closer to you than other items.

Shine. If you keep the area clean, you always can find what you need. Cleanup should be a daily activity for everyone, not just occasional.

Standardize. This is probably the step that most North American manufacturers can identify with. Everyone understands the need for standard operating procedures. However, 5S takes it a step further by suggesting that not only should every worker be able to do his or her job delivering the same results, but that every worker with similar job functions should work in environments that are the same. Everything is the same to eliminate unpredictability in work processes.

Sustain. This applies to maintaining the 5S culture as well as looking for better ways to do things. As a result, the first four S's have to be adjusted to accommodate improved work processes. Audits and reviews are helpful tools in this endeavor.

When done right, this type of lean manufacturing practice truly empowers a work force, according to Laurie Schneider, a continuous improvement engineer for LAI Midwest in Minneapolis.

"People know that what they do makes a difference. More than just the quality of the part, but in the business as a whole," she said. "They can suggest things that speed up, make it easier, improve the quality, and improve the delivery. It's just the whole package."

Dan Davis

Dan Davis

FMA Communications Inc.
2135 Point Blvd
Elgin, IL 60123
Phone: 815-227-8281

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The FABRICATOR is North America's leading magazine for the metal forming and fabricating industry. The magazine delivers the news, technical articles, and case histories that enable fabricators to do their jobs more efficiently. The FABRICATOR has served the industry since 1971.

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