Confessions of a Quality Manager  

Being the adventures of four jet-setting quality consultants who like to talk shop even more than they like good food and drink.

This is fantasy consulting. For the real thing, go to Fell Services' Quality pages.

Horace was being patriotic and perhaps a little controversial, claiming that the Japanese 5S methodology actually originated in the good ol’ US of A and, more, it was his hero, Henry Ford, who was responsible for it all. Seeing our incredulous looks, he strode over to the bookshelf and brandished a small, inconspicuous brown book which showed very little evidence of use, flicked through and stood in the approved John Wayne position to read it out. “This camp” (Horace stopped to explain that he was referring to a mining camp, which would normally be the dirtiest, muddiest place in creation) “looks like a suburban colony – everything is painted and kept painted a light color, so the least bit of dirt will show. We do not paint to cover up dirt – we paint white or light grey in order that cleanliness may be the order of things and not the exception”.

As if that wasn’t enough, and he thought he hadn’t won this particular argument game set and match, he then pulled out some handwritten notes from the back which he told us were a direct quote from F W Taylor’s “Shop Management”. “The loss now going on throughout the country from failure to adopt and maintain standards for all small details is simply enormous”.

“So”, murmured Julio, who was in a mischievous mood (when is he not?) “it wasn’t your Ruddy after all who started it all off”. That was rather an irrelevant way to refer to Rudyard Kipling, but Julio hadn’t finished. He uncoiled himself from the cushions, half-rose into the formal position for recitation and before we knew where we were, he was half way through the poem:

“The ‘eathen in ‘is blindness bows down to wood and stone,
‘E don’t obey no orders unless they is ‘is own
‘E keeps ‘is side-arms awful, ‘e leaves them all about,
An’ then comes up the regiment an’ pokes the ‘eathen out”.

Julio paused for a swallow of raspberry juice while we just gazed at him, open-mouthed (it’s amazing what Julio knows – he claims he learned all this during detentions at his high school in Brentford, but he’s a little obscure about what he did to merit the detentions in the first place).

“Getting’ clear o’ dirtiness, getting’ done with mess,
Gettin’ shot of doin’ things, rather-more-or-less;
Not so fond of abby-nay, kul nor hazar-ho
Learns to keep ‘is rifle an’ isself just so”.

I felt like Oscar Wilde contemplating America and England, two countries separated by a common language. Horace isn’t the only one who can quote Ford, or Taylor for that matter. When Ford was describing the Detroit, Toledo and Ironton Railroad (though I don’t know exactly why he should want to), he noted that it was necessary to “insist on absolute cleanliness everywhere in order that a man may learn to respect his tools, his surroundings and himself”. Or, if you turn to Taylor, which I do as little as possible, because the man’s writing style is really turgid, you will read that “notices came out at proper intervals throughout the year for inspection of each element of the system…”. To me, this represents a fundamental difference between how 5S operates in Japan and how it is interpreted in the West. There’s always a danger in translation – you only need to look at the banal and awful English versions of the 5S words. “Systematic Arrangement” or “Standardising” – they’re not the words to encourage people, it’s no wonder that the 5S words are often refined into the acronym CANDO with familiar, simple words line Cleaning, Arrangement, Neatness, Discipline, Ongoing Improvement. Sometimes another S is added, for safety.

My point is that 5S, as I understand it, is a method permitted by managers, but owned by empowered workers, which is probably why most people suggest that it originated as part of the Toyota Production System. Yet Taylor, Ford and Kipling all show that the methodology, to them, is enforced from top management and the workers have little say in it. Sailors – and even more so submariners – even mothers who have been reluctantly taken on holiday to spend the time in old-fashioned caravans (hell on earth for them, as they have to do the usual housekeeping tasks in cramped and unfamiliar surroundings while everyone else “after all, we are on holiday” goes off and enjoys themselves) will be familiar with the principle of having to keep their work areas clean and well arranged – but they can’t claim to be pioneers in 5S, merely survivors in a hierarchical system.

Fred Norton, writing in a recent “Quality Progress”, specifically gave the origins of 5S as the Nisho Pump Factory in the 1970s. He even gives a reference for it: part of the International Sematech teaching programme from 2000. Apparently the workers said, simultaneously, “Let’s create our own workplace in our own hands”, though in Japanese, of course, and never looked back. This reference makes my quality antennae spring to attention. It’s not substantiated. Fred Norton is a chemist and an examiner for the Quality Texas Foundation Performance Excellence program, so surely he can be trusted – and his article is published, too, in a quality magazine … it’s just that no one else I’ve come across confirms this. I’d like to believe him, I’d also like to contact him (he’s a bit on the elusive side), Come to think of it, I wouldn’t mind finding out a bit about this pump factory – that doesn’t appear prominently in the 5S literature either.

The problem here, which isn’t so much a problem for people having to implement the techniques, just for people who are trying to map all the continuous improvement initiatives and put them into some sort of matrix, is that modern quality initiatives exist in a type of mythology of hearsay where facts are an alien, and possibly rapidly approaching extinct, species.

Before I go any further, I guess I should really define what I mean by 5S. I’m assuming that it’s a familiar concept, despite my aim of never making any assumptions, apart from being able to take another breath after I’ve finished with the current one. Anyway, it's a continuous improvement process and it's called 5S because it refers to 5 Japanese words which (surprise, surprise) all begin with S. That's where Seiri, Seiton, Seiso, Seiketsu and Shitsuke come in (and try saying the last with a Scottish accent!). Finding English equivalents is difficult, as I noted a bit further back, because the 5S are very thoroughly embedded in Japanese culture with the sorts of attitudes that having a clean workplace is part-way to having a clean and organised mind and that there should be a place for everything and everything in its place.

Seiri is all about cleaning things out: separating the things which are necessary for work from the things which are not. It's not really necessary to have ten red biros, for example, even if that is the badge of a dedicated quality engineer - keep one red pen, put the others in a holding area and, who knows, perhaps a red pen-less quality engineer may be grateful to have one of his own.

Seiton is about neatness. Samuel Ho, who has made a career of writing prolifically about 5S, describes it as "30 second retrieval of documents". I don't lead that sad a life, but it is useful for everyone in the group to have an idea of where things are, because it's always the time when someone's in a meeting, or having a smoke, that there's a crisis and a particular file is needed right now, no delay permissible.

Seiso is less popular. It's about cleaning. People who've been to Japan find that everyone in the organisation is willing - to some extent - to do cleaning, because the physical act of cleaning is parallel to the mental act of cleaning the mind, if only because thoughts can be whirling around in the back burner while people are doing the mentally-unintensive work of getting the place in order. Hirano calls this S "Shine", the aim being to turn the workplace into somewhere clean and bright where everyone will enjoy working. He compares it to bathing: claiming that it "removes stress and strain, removes sweat and dirt, and prepares the body and mind for the next day" (he accompanies this text with a cartoon of a Japanese engineer in the bath, the water strategically covering any sensitive areas). Seiso is a daily task and can improve health and safety implications, as anyone who's slipped on a puddle of oil can confirm.

The last two Ss, seiketsu and shitsuke, exist to stop the whole system slipping back into chaos. Seiketsu translates as standardise - a way of making sure that the company maintains its 5S philosophy (it may involve preparing process maps and updating standard procedures). Visual management comes into its own here, which brings me, at last, to shitsuke. The word, according to Samuel Ho, comes from the tacking or guiding stitches which are doing before a garment is sewn properly. If that is acceptable, then it means that it's an underlying tool to make life smoother and if life's smoother, it's more pleasant, easier (hopefully) and work is more fun.

So that's a whistle stop tour of 5S. It’s a concept as simple to understand as the game of go, and as subtle. I don’t think that divorcing it from its Japanese roots, as Horace was trying to do, will work. Red-tagging, for example, is one technique often used at the start, with seiri. The idea is that the workforce is armed with a set of red stickers and they are put on all bits of equipment which are not needed or which do not add value. Now, to me, the sight of a machine festooned with circular red stickers is a danger sign, because it’s embedded in my self-consciousness that seeing red means becoming alert very quickly, because something bad may happen soon. You stop at the red light, or the meter goes into the red when it exceeds safety limits, your money, or lack of money, goes into the red … but a Japanese student once told me that to Japanese, red is the colour of dirt. I think the Japanese word is identical to, or similar to the word for dirt. And so, to a Japanese worker, the sight of this same machine will either invoke feelings of revulsion, in that it is obviously a major source of dirtiness in his immaculately clean workplace, or, he may be reminded of the sight of red maple leaves floating on the surface of a pond, and, frankly, I don’t see how that’s relevant to 5S, but that’s the difficulties of translating culture for you.

It doesn't explain why, if you want to go a bit deeper into 5S than what the words actually are, there's a knee-jerk reaction where people say it originated with the Toyota Production System. The more I think about it, the more it seems possible, though I don't know too much about the system. I've heard that it all started in the 1930s, when Kiichiro Toyoda started wondering what would happen if a manufacturer set the goal for zero defects and that his son Eiji and Taiichi Ohno developed this philosophy into The System whereby in the aim for perfection the employees used less of everything compared to mass production, yet managed to produce more and the Toyota associates were defined as being problem-solving specialists who add value to Our cars and Our trucks. So, if Ohno and Toyoda get the credit for devising Kaizen, Kanban and Just In Time and if they are trying to eliminate muda, I mean waste, from the workplace, then it's only reasonable to assume that they picked up 5S in the meantime, as one tiny element in the lean production process. I know what I mean by muda, but Fujiro Cho, former president of Toyota Motor Manufacturing, USA, puts it better than I ever could: "anything other than the minimum amount of equipment, materials, parts, space and workers' time, which is absolutely essential to add value to the product".

My own private opinion - for which there is no basis in the literature that I can find ... yet - is that the methodology originated with Shingo's work. You can't deny that he was a continuous improvement guru - one of his (many) mottos was "Those who are not dissatisfied wll never make any progress". To support my theory, I'd quote how, when he was working for Mitisubishi Heavy Industries in Nagasaki, he was responsible for reducing the time for hull assemblies of 65,000 ton supertankers from four months to two months. I'd not put all that down to 5S, which just emphasises the inter-dependency of these continuous improvement initiatives. Besides, Shingo doesn't get anything like the credit he deserves. I'd like to see him getting a bit of praise, for once.

Thanks are due to William A. Levinson and Marc Smith who provided some thought-provoking raw material for this article.

  posted by Dovya R @ 9:21 PM : discuss

Sunday, November 03, 2002  
Powered By Blogger TM