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A Clean Sweep: Applying the 5S Method in the Warehouse

By David Bowers

Image courtesy of TA Services.

In 2019, Netflix introduced Western audiences to Japanese organizing consultant Marie Kondo and her KonMari Method™ for tidying the home. Kondo became an instant sensation for this method that focuses on eliminating any items that don’t “spark joy” to create less clutter and more ideal living spaces to improve your quality of life.

But KonMari isn’t the first organization method to hail from Japan. The Toyota Production System (TPS)—originally developed by the Toyota Motor Company following World War II—has been adopted by countless companies the world over as a proven model for eliminating waste from the manufacturing process to increase productivity. Now commonly known as “lean manufacturing,” the TPS rests on several foundational pillars, including the workplace organization method of 5S.

In this article, we will look at the application of 5S—not on the plant floor, but in the warehouse—and how it drives improvements in warehouse efficiency and workplace safety.

What does 5S mean and how does it work?

Similar to KonMari, the goal of 5S is a clean and organized workplace, free of clutter that can negatively impact operational effectiveness. For instance, if you have a messy and disorganized setup or layout, you can end up wasting time looking for items that you need, taking extraneous steps, or inadvertently create unsafe conditions. Within the warehouse, these types of issues can hinder material flow and lead to difficulties with making on-time deliveries.

5S instead supports efficient and effective workflows—and derives its name—from five tactical steps anchored toward cleanliness and organization.

  1. Sort (seiri)

The first step concentrates on sorting and grouping items based on how often they’re used in the warehouse. These can be products, machines, tools or workstation equipment. There should be one group for high-use items that need to be accessible at all times, such as handheld scanners and fast-moving products. Another group should be items that are not used frequently, if at all, which can be disposed or sold off to reduce clutter, such as broken equipment or old inventory. Some items may be hard to classify and can be placed in a holding area. If they haven’t been touched in a month’s time, that means they can also be disposed or sold.

  1. Set in order (seiton)

Once you’ve identified what items are essential to your operations, you can then figure out where and how to optimally store or place them within the warehouse for quick access. In this step, the goal is to reduce the time or number of steps required for processes. For example, fast-moving products or ones in high demand based on forecasts should be arranged and stored in a place where they can be quickly retrieved for fulfillment and outbound shipping.

Likewise, frequently used equipment or tools should be kept in and returned to convenient locations within the facility or workstation. You want to have a place for everything and everything in its place. A best practice is to label the home for each item and even outline it using paint or tape. After all, a tool taken from a well-identified location is more likely to be returned to the right place.

  1. Shine (seiso)

Many companies make the mistake of thinking that since customers rarely if ever enter the warehouse, there’s no need to maintain appearances. But a clean warehouse is an operationally effective warehouse. As part of 5S, it’s important to conduct regular cleaning—preferably daily—paying careful attention to dirt, dust, debris or garbage on the floor, on surfaces, around workstations, in aisleways and on machines. “Shine” can be considered a preventative step, as you can keep garbage from getting in people’s way or liquid on the floor from causing someone to fall. You can even take this time to see if machines or equipment require maintenance before an issue arises mid-process.

  1. Standardize (seiketsu)

After completing the first three steps, your warehouse should look quite pristine and well-organized—everything the 5S method promises. But anyone who has cleaned a desk or home knows that it’s easy to get busy, let messes accumulate again and revert back to the way things were before. This is why standardization is one of the most critical 5S steps. By creating regular tasks, schedules and prescribed steps for warehouse staff, sorting, setting in order and shining become standard operating procedures—rather than one-time exercises. A picture displaying how an area should look can be posted nearby to offer both guidance for anyone unfamiliar with the area and for auditing performance. Over time, 5S becomes ingrained into your culture and the daily routine of everyone in the warehouse.

  1. Sustain (shitsuke)

The final step—sustain—is all about creating that culture, where everyone is well-versed and fully invested in the 5S method to maintain cleanliness and order. This is typically the most difficult step but there are several ways to inspire such a culture, such as assigning individual or teams responsibility for maintaining certain areas to improve accountability. Regular audits can also help to reinforce best practices. But it’s also important to remain nimble and open-minded as well. Your staff may have ideas for better ways of organizing things. Encouraging them to voice these ideas can help keep them engaged, make them feel like their voices matter and lead to further workflow improvements. Even creating competitions between teams or areas for the highest audit score can boost performance and morale. Everyone will want to display the 5S trophy in their area for all to see!

5S sparks more than joy

Some industry circles add a sixth step: safety. This would involve storing items at a more ergonomic height to avoid constant bending and lifting or putting markers in place for forklift areas, among other considerations. And indeed, 5S naturally leads to improved safety, as mentioned by eliminating clutter or mess on the floor that can obstruct walkways and present tripping hazards. It also reduces the risk of misplaced or improperly stored items falling from a height onto employees. But warehouses should also prioritize creating completely separate safety programs so that worker health and safety gets the attention it deserves.

Ultimately, when you follow the 5S method, you streamline your warehouse to the essentials, put everything in its right place, and make it quick and easy to get the job done. When standardized and sustained, 5S sparks more than joy. It drives a culture focused on continuous improvement, efficiency and the successful execution of warehouse operations.

David Bowers is Vice President, Warehouse Operations, TA Services

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