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Workplace organization: How it can impact your business

6-minute read

A few years ago, I took an early bird day tour of Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay, which included a tour of the Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary. The tour ended in the kitchen area, where a well-organized utensil shadow board ensured the kitchen tools were where they needed to be. The inmates were required to use 5S to earn privileges beyond shelter, food, clothes and medical attention. This ultimately created a sense of pride and the self-discipline remained with them as they re-entered free society.

More recently, I witnessed an obstetrician/gynecologist delivering a baby and all the tools the team needed were within arm’s reach. (For the record I was glad the team didn’t have to leave the operating room for any tools!)

I go grocery shopping once a week and boy am I glad that the aisles are numbered, and that the items are identified—rather than randomly piled on the floor or hidden somewhere in a cabinet.

What do these three examples have in common? They are all illustrations of workplace organization or 5S.

What is workplace organization or 5S?

Workplace organization, or 5S, was developed in Japan in the 1970s as a systemic organizational approach. It is not housekeeping, nor is it “spring cleaning.” Rather, it’s a system that uses visual cues and visual management to organize the workplace to help reduce some forms of waste and make problems visible sooner.

The five “S’s” stand for:

  • Sort—Sort items used daily, monthly and yearly, and keep on hand only what is immediately needed. The rest should be labelled and relocated.
  • Straighten/Set-in order—Objects should be stored functionally, with visual aids such as labels to help staff put things away in the right place.
  • Shine—Ensure a clean work environment by removing dirt, waste and scrap and implementing regular cleaning schedules.
  • Standardize—Teams should establish rules and work standards on common operational issues, such as the type of materials and tools to use and how information is shared in the group.
  • Sustain—An internal audit system should be used to ensure work processes are maintained, including regular inspections and solicitation of feedback on how to improve the process.

You can read more about 5S in this article: "The 5S method: Why a cleaner workplace leads to higher productivity"

Workplace organization is the foundation many organizations use to launch their operational efficiency journey. It not only applies to the physical space (documents, machines, materials, etc.), but also to the digital space (information, data, records, documents). It can be used in both manufacturing and service organizations. And yes, I included service organizations and digital spaces. (Think files and folders on your desktop or shared drive!)

Workplace organization and your business

Most small and medium businesses, regardless of whether they have heard of “5S” or not, recognize a well-organized workplace and know how to make it happen. What often happens is that they only implement the first 3 S’s and conclude that the method does not work over the long run.

In November 2016, BDC hosted a live national webinar where we asked attendees what their most pressing efficiency challenge was. 11% of the entrepreneurs in attendance identified workplace organization as their most pressing efficiency challenge.

This is an unfortunate result because organizing workspaces through 5S is one of the most basic efficiency exercises you can undertake. 5S can boost morale, reduce mistakes and help employees find tools and documents more quickly. The result will be a safer and better-organized work environment.

Why should I implement workplace organization?

Most large businesses work with suppliers. Qualifying a new supplier often involves a site visit by one or more members of the purchasing team. Now let me ask you: What will strike the purchasing team members when they visit your business? You got it – lack of workplace organization.

In a prior role, I asked my purchasing team to start looking closely at the general cleanliness of a supplier when deciding if we should do business with them. For us, a disorganized workplace was often a sign of deeper issues. As you grow and expand your business, chances are you will run into customers that look for or ask for workplace organization before you become an “approved supplier!” This is especially true for manufacturers.

There are many other benefits to implementing 5S methodology in your business. For example, one of BDC’s client in the Greater Toronto Area gained 10% in floor space and saw marked improvements in teamwork and employee engagement after 5S implementation.

Another client’s management team implemented 5S and was surprised by how employees “just picked it up and ran with it.” Yet another entrepreneur said that a clean and organized workplace left a better impression when customers visit.

5S is also about opportunity cost—when your staff is constantly looking for tools, data or information, they are not engaging in value added activities. The impact of this constant searching and looking becomes significant over a period of time. I call this the “pennies of operational efficiency.”

An additional benefit of a properly implemented workplace organization system is safety; so much so that some organizations have renamed 5S to “6S”—where the 6th “S” stands for safety.

What can you do to ensure a successful 5S implementation?

  1. Recognize that you and your management team have a role to play in sustaining the initiative.
  2. Train yourself and your employees on the tool—education precedes improvement!
  3. Start small—pick a small area of your operation (digital or physical) to go through all the 5S properly
  4. Allow your employees time to learn and implement 5S.
  5. Create tangible and intangible rewards and recognitions for implementations.

What about your business? Are you having problems dealing with clutter and workplace disorganization? Do you have any experience with 5S? Join the conversation and let us know what you think.

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