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Five Days to a More Productive Factory Floor

Transforming a plant’s efficiency, output and worker satisfaction is simpler than a lot of managers realize, and the potential payoffs are huge

In the typical modular factory, poorly-organized workspaces cause huge amounts of wasted time and money

The author contends that most factories can get big improvements with a five-day organizational program

He finds that workers are enthusiastic about the effort when managers clearly explain how it will help them

The performance of every manufacturing process is influenced by the environment and working conditions under which that process is carried out. For instance, the main reason off-site construction is so much more efficient than traditional construction is that building all, or part, of a structure in a factory provides a vastly more favorable environment with generally better working conditions than building on-site.

Organizing the working environment is one of the highest-leverage types of work that a manufacturing operation can conduct and you can get a strong start on this effort with a simple five-day program. This program’s benefits far outweigh the effort required.

Before I explain the program and its steps, however, I need to outline the consequences of not organizing.

How Disorganization Costs You

Failing to organize the workspace will lead to a plethora of bad things. The main ones are as follows.

Waste. Working in a disorganized space makes for a lot of wasted time, including:

  • Motion Waste: Employees moving around unnecessarily

  • Transport/Conveyance Waste: Moving materials, tools, and other items around unnecessarily

  • Inventory Waste: Having more materials, tools and accessories on-hand than you need

  • Waiting Waste: Parts of a process being held up because of delays from disorganization

Stress. A disorganized space makes workers stressed and anxious, reducing their job satisfaction and effectiveness.

Extra thinking time. Workers have to constantly try to remember where things are and have to develop workarounds for missing tools and other items.

Higher cost. Items that cannot be located right away often need to be re-purchased. Once the original item has been found, the factory ends up with unneeded duplicates.

Longer transitions. These include longer set-up, switch-over, line-move and shut-down time. Transitions between work phases take longer in a disorganized factory.

Wear and tear. Tools don’t get cleaned and maintained as regularly as they should. This shortens their useful life and increases repair and replacement costs.

Safety hazards. A dirty, disorganized factory, where things aren’t put away after use, is less safe and less sanitary than it should be. It can also put you in violation of OSHA regulations.

The Five-Step Solution

The flip side of the above is that a good workspace organization scheme lays the foundation for improved speed, productivity, throughput, quality, safety and profits. In addition, workspace organization also makes additional improvements easier to implement.

The system for workspace organization I teach is based on Lean 5S methodology, which was developed in post-WWII Japan. It was created by Toyota, as part of the Toyota Production System. Since then, a variety of manufacturers –HP, Boeing, Harley-Davidson, Nike, Caterpillar and Ford, to name just a few – have adopted it with great success.

The five steps are as follows:

1. Sort

2. Straighten/Set in Order

3. Shine

4. Standardize

5. Sustain

While global brands are the most well-known adopters of Lean 5S, any company can follow these five steps to create and maintain a well-organized, efficient working environment. This will transform the way employees work and the results they produce.

Going through the five steps is not difficult—you can use them to organize a small-to-medium-sized workspace in as little as a week. Here’s how.

Day 1: Sort

Also known as purging, this first step entails removing extraneous items from the workspace. Begin by reviewing each and every item in the space. For each one ask yourself the following: “Is this item necessary in this space, for this job?”

It’s not uncommon for a tool to be used once then put on a shelf and forgotten. Such tools can accumulate over time and clutter up the workspace. The workstation might also have big bins or boxes of screws, nails, hinges, and other accessories that take up more space than they should.

Unneeded tools can be disposed of, sold, or relocated to workstations that do need them. For consumable items like fasteners, keep only as much within reach as you need for the day or week. Take the rest to a designated backstock area and set a restocking schedule for the workstation.

With less stuff to sort through, work will go faster and it will be easier for workers to find what they need.

The Sort step also includes addressing safety issues. Cover exposed power cords and other trip hazards. Address unprotected impact surfaces, which could range from posts to overhead catwalks and pipes that workers can bump into; move them, cover them with a cushioning surface, or require hardhats in that area.

Day 2: Straighten/Set in Order

The old adage “a place for everything, and everything in its place” encapsulates the goal of this step. Now that you’ve gotten rid of unnecessary stuff, it’s time to designate, or create, a permanent storage location, or home, for the remaining items.

Most managers and workers would be shocked at how much time they waste fetching stuff. This step eliminates a lot of that wasted time.

Create a bin for each type of fastener and label it. Designate a place for each tool. For small tools, consider a shadow board — a pegboard with the silhouette of each tool painted on it. The shadow board shows the worker where to put the tool and whether or not it has been returned to its proper place.

For large tools like power saws, a taped-off and labeled area on the workbench can be a good solution.

Place each item in its designated home. Put constantly-used items in arms reach of the worker. Things used once a day can be placed where they require only a few steps to reach.

Labels on bins should be highly readable, with bright lettering that contrasts with the surrounding surface. This makes it easier to identify missing items and speeds cleanup.

In addition, clearly mark everything safety-related —personal protective equipment (PPE), emergency shut-offs and fire-suppression equipment. Also mark safety-related areas such as emergency exits, forklift lanes, pedestrian walkways and hazardous/no-access areas.

Day 3: Shine

The third step in the process is where we clean and repair the workspace to maximize its usability. This step is often performed concurrently with Step 2, Straighten.

Give tools, workspaces (desks, benches, floors, etc.) and storage areas (shelves, drawers, and cabinets) a good cleaning. A clean tool will be safer and easier to use and a clean work area will make everyone more productive.

This step actually goes beyond basic cleaning. The goal is to inspect every item to determine if it needs maintenance. It’s a chance to repair and tune-up tools, machinery, jigs and other equipment.

Are shelves sagging or loose? Tighten the supports or add reinforcement so they can safely hold the needed weight. Are drawers sticking? Lube or adjust them. Does the chop saw handle feel loose? Direct the appropriate person to fix it.

Day 4: Standardize

The first three steps are about getting work areas in good shape; the last two are about keeping them that way. If you don’t have a system for maintaining the newly cleaned and organized workspace then it will fall back to where it was, undoing all your hard work.

This step is about creating a system of maintenance—that is, maintenance of the 5S workspace organization system. It should include daily and weekly schedules of duties designed to keep workstations clean, neat and functional. These schedules should clearly state who is responsible for what and when. For example: “The door hanger will spend the last 10 minutes of each day sweeping the door workstation and putting away all tools and fasteners.” That same language can be tweaked for other workstations.

5S maintenance schedules should also require workers to regularly inspect all tools and equipment and to address or report problems immediately. For instance, if the chop saw has a dull blade, the worker at that station may be responsible for changing it. If the saw’s motor is making a troubling noise, the worker will probably need to report it to the maintenance department.

Schedules can be placed in the workspace where people can initial to confirm they have completed the steps assigned to them.

Day 5 and Beyond: Sustain

The final step is an ongoing one where we follow the system we’ve created to maintain the organized workspace long term. It’s how you make the efficiency gains permanent.

This requires accountability measures and rewards. Follow the cleaning and organization schedule part of the KPIs for each workstation and conduct regular 5S audits to ensure ongoing compliance with the system. If audit scores are low at a particular station, the manager can review them during employee evaluations or schedule training for workers at that station.

Don’t automatically blame low scores on the workers as it’s possible that the requirements weren’t clearly explained. Even if workers are resistant, managers may not have done enough to help them understand how the system benefits them as well as the plant as a whole. Most workers want to do a good job and will embrace this effort when they understand that you’re helping them do so.

One of the most effective ways to get workers on board is to include them in designing the organizational system for their workspace. Nobody knows better than the workers in each station what tools and hardware need to be there and in what quantities, how often they use each item and what storage locations will put items within easy reach.

If you try to implement a 5S system without worker participation it will absolutely flop.

To be more effective at this, I recommend that all managers, from supervisors to the CEO, get some Lean training. In fact, CEOs and other top managers can set an example by implementing the 5S system in their office spaces and letting line workers know that they’re doing so.

Finally, don’t forget rewards. If a team gets above a certain score you could give everyone on it a gift card, or you could reward them with a barbecue on the last day of the month. A little appreciation goes a long way.

How Long Will This Take?

How much time is required to implement the 5S system? It totally depends on the size of the space being organized. In addition, each step will require a different amount of time.

A single workstation could take an hour or two for each of steps 1 to 3; a department could take all day for each of those steps. Step 4 should only require a few minutes for a workstation or a few hours for a department. Step 5 is the ongoing process of following the system and is designed to save time.

The point is that when done properly, 5S workspace organization will improve speed, throughput, quality, profitability and employee satisfaction. It will reduce costs, stress and safety incidents. It’s a powerful way to quickly and drastically improve your off-site construction company’s productivity.

By completing one step per day, this simple five-step process can be accomplished for a small- to medium-sized space in as little as one week, transforming the way your people work and the results they produce.

For companies who want to implement a more wide-ranging Lean program, I always recommend 5S as the first step. It’s a quick win that will show everyone the benefits of Lean and generate enthusiasm among workers. It will make every other improvement easier.

Daniel Small is a Denver, Colo.-based management consultant to the off-site building industry. He specializes in Lean Construction and Manufacturing and Six Sigma methodologies. Contact him at

Published in OFFSITE BUILDER Magazine on May 12, 2022

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