Manufacturing AUTOMATION

When it comes to sustaining 5S, audits are the ultimate measuring stick

June 10, 2009
By Don Kivell

By Don Kivell

I suppose that Sustain is the fifth S for a reason. Not only is it the most difficult level to achieve, it is by far the most difficult level to “sustain.” While much has been written on this subject, I have found that the best way to sustain the gains accomplished through 5S is through the audit system.

Simply put, done well, audits are the ultimate measuring stick.

Done poorly, they are next to useless and your employees will quickly notice.


A Winnipeg client of ours that manufactures folding cartons (such as cereal boxes) for the food and beverage industry does thorough audits to sustain its lean programs. Audits are performed by the plant’s 5S coordinator in conjunction with the plant manager. Occasionally the general manager might replace the plant manager, but one rule doesn’t change: the audit team is always made up of two people. Why? Because they will tend to challenge each other, and what one might miss the other should catch.

Not only are their audits thorough, they’re done often. Whereas other companies may randomly select one area of a plant every month or two and audit it, this company’s audit happens every month without fail, takes two days, and each and every one of the pieces of equipment in the plant, as well as its accompanying work cells, is audited.

You might think the job of preparing an audit is difficult but it doesn’t have to be. In fact, keeping it simple will make your program easier to implement and sustain. Audits are fairly generic and there’s no shortage of examples. You just have to do a bit of research and pick the best one for you. The auditors note deficiencies and review their audits and any suggestions for improvement with the area supervisor. Safety is also part of the audit. Goals are set for each area and the audit itself is used as the improvement “roadmaps” as it is very succinct in its category descriptions.

The responsibility for getting employees to act on the recommendation list ultimately falls to each plant area supervisor, but the motivation of the employees should be built-in. For 5S to work at any company, employees must have pride in their work and in their work environment.

The toughest thing about sustaining 5S is developing and maintaining a supportive culture. That’s because it involves getting everyone onside. Those who are not engaged and enthused will, consciously or not, hamper the lean sustainment effort.

Our client first achieved cellular manufacturing, one of the lean principles, moving several machines around the plant to create a U-shape for better flow. With well-defined boundaries, each crew became responsible for its own cell, creating mini plants within the plant. Within each work cell, the employees were made responsible for completing the whole product shipping to the customer, and this created a team environment with accountability built in. Visibility and flexibility also increased, as teams could make some of their own decisions and act on them.

This kind of thing really engages employees. At this facility, many lean efforts are uniform across the plant, but not all. Often the decision is left to the cell crew. One group might have a Plexiglas tool board, while another might have a wooden one. All the cleaning lists – of what to clean and when – are created by the individual teams.

The company found that telling people to do something and how to do it wasn’t nearly as effective as providing clear goals and then offering them a chance to come up with their own ideas and solutions. This will often create an inter-crew competition, but it’s a healthy competition, and it’s all in the name of sustaining 5S gains.

So find an audit model, make it work for your company and remember: audits keep people aware of things they should address. Getting your people involved in their portion of the process brings that spark you need to get people fired up about the whole effort. Suddenly they’re buying into the culture of 5S/Lean – and you need everyone to buy into that culture to have true lean success.

Don Kivell is president of Hamilton, Ont.-based Lean Manufacturing Solutions Inc. He can be reached at

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