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“Active” and “inactive” bananas or how NOT to do 5S

‘Lean’ is of course the way some Western academics have chosen to describe the Toyota Production System, acknowledged as the most efficient method of car production known to man. This should not be underestimated – Toyota is a money making machine, worth at least 5 times more than Ford and GM combined, and has not made a loss, or shut down a factory, for over 40 years. Any business or organisation would do well to look at Toyota’s success and to try to emulate it.

The problem goes back to the old urban tale of Westerners going to Japan; the Japanese showing them everything and the Westerners then asking why they are so open. The answer comes back that seeing the external features of the system doesn’t mean they will understand it, and even if they did, the rate of change at Japanese companies is so great that by the time the West has got to where they are now, they would again be streets ahead.

Lean has been around for about 15 years, and has now entered the consciousness of managers in healthcare, financial services and public administration. The problem is that many consultants are still at the stage of copying external features, rather than understanding the reasons for Toyota’s success.

There are many different explanations of Toyota’s success, all of which carry some truth – innovation in products and processes, employee involvement, focusing on total system optimisation rather than the efficiency of individual operations, process control, seeing the business as a customer/supplier network, eliminating waste in processes, standardisation, continuous improvement, promoting learning. It all depends on the perspective of the viewer.

In the current context, the two original principles of the Toyota Production System, first articulated in the 1920’s are key – only do what the customer wants when they want it, and separate people from machines. This second is the very antithesis of what the benefits office staff complain of – it is making sure people are treated as intelligent problem solvers, not part of a machine (how Toyota originally did this was by inventing devices for machines to self-inspect, so that people did not have to sit watching them).

So where do the ‘black tape’ and ‘inactive bananas’ come from? Having a specific quantity of specific items in specific places is part of the 5S Workplace Organisation process – un-needed items are cleared away, and needed items are stored in specific quantities in designated places for easy retrieval – the goal is to be able to locate any needed item in 30 seconds or less. In manufacturing this mainly applies to parts and tools needed to produce a product.

In the context of a benefits office, what is being processed is information, so the focus should be on the easy retrieval of information to answer customer enquiries efficiently (do what the customer wants when they want it). The positioning of staplers or bananas is on the far boundaries of relevance for this goal. One 5S project at a distribution company focused on organising the shared drive on the computer system to make it easier for people to find files and hence relevant information.

So, even if the consultants did actually understand 5S, it seems not to have been communicated to the workforce. This brings us the next problem – the mode of consultancy intervention. Going back to Toyota, one of the consultants credited with inspiring much of the system was Shigeo Shingo. What Shingo actually did was teach Toyota engineers how to improve processes, based on fundamental principles. Shingo did not solve their problems or create their system, Toyota employees did. The role of the facilitator is to communicate what the organisation is trying to achieve and why, outline suggested approaches to achieving that and then enable employees to work out their own solutions.

5S applies to public areas where more than one person needs to retrieve information or parts etc. If something is for my own private use in my own private area 5S does not apply. Visiting a Japanese office we were shown impressive desk filing systems, 20 second retrieval of information and un-cluttered desks. When asked if we could look in the third desk drawer, the only one which was not shown to us, the reply was no – that is the person’s private drawer – it is not part of 5S – they can put what they want in there. Even in what are seen as regimented Japanese companies there is respect for the individual.

I often have a banana or apple on my desk, but usually only the fruit I intend to eat that day. They don’t have a marked location, although I usually put them in the same place, but they have no impact on my efficiency whatsoever.

About the Author: Malcolm founded Productivity Europe in 1989 to develop support and facilitation services in World Class Manufacturing techniques. He learnt from Japanese masters such as Shigeo Shingo and the Total Productivity group at the Japan Management Association, and has edited three books on World Class Manufacturing techniques and practices. Apart from World Class Manufacturing his major interest is Systems Thinking and he holds a Diploma in Systems Practice from the Open University and has contributed to the US Systems Thinker magazine.

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