When Jean-Pierre Goulet visits clients for the first time, he can often tell at a glance if they have opportunities to improve their productivity.
Goulet, a BDC Business Consultant and engineer, finds the evidence in a disorganized and untidy workplace.
“When I see supplies, equipment and papers that are not put away properly and an unclean work environment where scrap or old inventory is lying around, it’s almost always a sign of deeper productivity issues,” Goulet says. “Telling a new client to clean up work areas is not easy. But often it is one of the first things that needs to be done.”
To do efficient, high-quality work you need to be in a clean, safe environment, with easily accessible tools, Goulet says. This enables workers to concentrate on the task at hand rather than getting sidetracked on organizational issues, whether it be in a factory, office or a store.
One of Goulet’s favourite tools to help clients create lean, functional work environments is the renowned Japanese management philosophy known as 5S. As the name implies, 5S consists of five practices; Sort, Straighten, Shine, Standardize and Sustain. (The Japanese equivalents are Seiri, Seiton, Seiso, Seiketsu and Shitsuke).
According to Goulet, companies that don’t properly classify their materials and tools suffer enormous productivity losses. Goulet advises companies to sort the things they use daily, monthly and yearly, and to keep handy only what is immediately needed. The rest should be labeled and relocated.
Objects should be stored in a functional way even if this means investing in new organizers, shelving or cabinets. Visual aids such as labels, or painted outlines, should also be used to show staff where particular items should be placed.
A clean work environment is an effective one. Dirt, waste and scrap should be systematically eliminated, using daily, weekly, monthly and annual cleaning schedules.
Teams should get together periodically to establish rules and define work standards ranging from the type and description of materials and tools used, to how information is communicated among group members.
Once key 5S elements have been introduced, an internal audit system should be implemented to ensure that work processes function properly and are continued. Inspections should be conducted regularly and feedback regarding suggested process improvements should be passed along to the appropriate parties.
One major challenge that companies face is that not all messes are visible; particularly those related to information and communications technology systems. In today’s highly automated workflows, an office can easily have a surface “spic and span” look, yet mask major system disorder. If staff members can’t find their data files, computer tools aren’t managed and kept up to date and online functionality is sub-standard, then productivity will suffer.
Client reaction to Goulet’s 5S suggestions is almost unanimously positive. However he admits that he sometimes gets initial scepticism from highly successful companies. “Many managers assume that just because their factories are clean and their productivity numbers are good that they can rest easy,” says Goulet. “However some of the biggest gains we have helped achieve were in already-profitable clients, who managed to boost productivity even further.”