Over the past few years, Sri Lanka has seen a tremendous increase in the application of the Japanese workplace organization method, the 5S system, particularly in the corporate sector and emerging businesses in the North and East. The number of applicants for the Taiki Akimoto 5S awards, organized by the Japan Sri Lanka Technical & [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

5S in SL: Passing fad or firm philosophy?


Over the past few years, Sri Lanka has seen a tremendous increase in the application of the Japanese workplace organization method, the 5S system, particularly in the corporate sector and emerging businesses in the North and East. The number of applicants for the Taiki Akimoto 5S awards, organized by the Japan Sri Lanka Technical & Cultural Association (JASTECA), has increased six-fold since 2008.

This factor led me to research the application of 5S in Sri Lanka’s manufacturing and service sectors. The qualitative research, which was carried out over a six-month period, focused on Sri Lankan perceptions of 5S as well as its implementation and sustenance in seven organizations that had won the Taiki Akimoto 5S awards during the past decade. Several of these companies had also won the Kaizen Awards organized by JASTECA.

5S is a Japanese acronym for Seiri (sort), Seiton (set in order), Seiso (clean), Seiketsu (standardize) and Shitsuke (sustain/ self discipline). The 5S system originated in Japan after the Second World War and by the 1970s, Toyota was a hallmark organization that made use of the 5S concept to enable Just In Time (JIT) and to develop a production system known today as the Toyota Production System (TPS). Essentially, 5S is the bedrock for lean management.

While Mr. Chandana Amaratunga, a member of the 5S Committee of JASTECA, as well as most of the research respondents stressed that 5S is practised by many companies with a genuine interest in reaping its benefits, there were some respondents who were more cynical and noted that 5S is merely used as a marketing gimmick to present their company in a more favorable light. Clearly, it was this genuine intention and the attention to detail, that distinguished the award winners from the non-award winners.

Although 5S was more broadly applied in the manufacturing sector than in the service sector, the use of 5S in the two schools studied were truly impressive. The importance of introducing concepts such as 5S to students must also be recognized as this will inculcate in them a crucial work ethic that they will carry with them for the rest of their lives.

The findings of the study showed that 72% of employees perceive 5S to be a tool for organizing their workplaces. This is similar to how firms in the U.K. and the U.S. perceive this concept, unlike in Japan where it is seen as a way of life (Kobayashi et al, 2008). However, 15% of employees belonging to the top tier of management did perceive 5S as a way of life or a philosophy.

The importance of leadership for implementing and sustaining 5S was crucial. Mr. Sisira Ranathunga, General Manager of Elastomeric Engineering and Mr. Mahinda Saranapala, CEO of Kelani Cables and well known 5S consultant in Sri Lanka, demonstrate that leadership is not merely about guiding your subordinates, but also being able to inspire and empower them. In one of the two schools studied, the application of 5S collapsed after the Principal’s demise, despite the school having been an award winner at one point. The pressure from the management to compete for the 5S award had driven 5S in this school. When this pressure ceased, the subordinates lacked the self discipline to sustain it. Fortunately, the current Principal has not only revived 5S, but has also implemented Total Quality Education (TQE).

The commitment of employees for sustaining 5S was equally important. Employees in one of the service sector companies, previously fully state owned, found it difficult to break out of the typical bureaucratic controls, inherent to the state sector, in order to adapt to the flexibility of 5S. Most complained that they found it difficult to maintain 5S with their day to day work load. 5S does not require any extra effort if the concept has properly sunk into the operations of a company. For this to happen the commitment of all employees is vital.

An interesting discovery was the absence of a Trade Union culture in these companies after 5S implementation. Although one company still had a strong Trade Union in the organization, this union had not resisted 5S unlike some American companies which faced stiff resistance from TUs when implementing 5S (Hutchins, 2006). However, there were other instances where employees resisted 5S. In three of the organizations studied, employees showed their displeasure about not receiving pay increments by not complying with 5S standards and procedures.

I noted a marked difference in culture and values in all the award-winning companies I visited. 5S had created a pleasant physical environment, even in the manufacturing companies, which one often thinks of as industrial-like and polluting. Some of the companies had utilized visual management very effectively. This is a very important aspect of 5S, given that human beings absorb 83% of information through their eyes, when compared to the other senses.

Many respondents were of the opinion that 5S would be more easily sustained in their organizations if the general public and especially those at the helm of the country, would embrace the concept with more interest and sincerity. However, what is within the control of companies is the way they, as well as organizations like JASTECA, choose to promote the 5S to their employees.
It is recommended that the last two Ss (Seiketsu and Shitsuke) are promoted more rigorously and that employees should be shown the linkage between 5S and company success/profits. Managers and supervisors of these companies very frequently audit the premises and provide photographic evidence of situations where 5S is not complied with, displaying them on notice boards in common areas within the company premises. Companies should avoid overdependence on external consultants and try to be more innovative in finding solutions and mechanisms for better sustenance.

While some may view 5S to be just another fad in Sri Lanka, those companies which have succeeded in embracing it as a philosophy have benefited in numerous ways, financially and non-financially. I think Mr. Ranathunga summed it up well when he noted,”5S is a discipline of systems, a discipline of people…and if there is any success in a family or school or country, it is mainly due to this discipline, which 5S is all about.”

-April Heenatigalle

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