Make 5S labels and signs on demand

Lean principles are easier to implement when people know what goes where.

By Martin Carter, Graphic Products

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In brief:

  • The 5S philosophy is a key element of a lean initiative and signage is an excellent enabler of the 5S process. Many industrial hygienists have added a sixth “S” for safety.
  • Identify a 5S champion on staff and establish training classes to educate the workforce about the 5S process and the lean manufacturing idea.
  • Institute the 5S principles in a small area at first, publish the results, and expand the coverage after each small success.

Sort, set in order, shine, standardize, sustain, and safety are the basics of 5S/6S lean manufacturing thinking in the industrial world. But how many plants actually live by that guideline? Where does one start? Why do they start? Who reaps the business rewards? Getting straight answers from industry veterans is inspirational in this one-step-at-a-time process.

One quick lesson? Often, key 6S messages can be boiled down to what fits on a label. Think “Floor Mop Here,” “Tank #1,” and “Do Not Store Trash in This Area.”

Getting started with 5S/6S

“Begin with the end in mind,” says Joe Schermerhorn, regional industrial engineer at retail food chain, Kroger (, in Portland, Tennessee. “When developing a plan for streamlining processes, know the goals and work backward to understand the specific steps needed to attain those goals.”

Consider the warehouse. It’s crowded with inventory stacked high on pallets, forklift trucks and people coming and going. When warehouses are poorly run and disorganized, profitability suffers. And that’s a problem.

It’s hard to think clearly and put energy into a job when you’re surrounded by a mess. We put off what we can’t see.

So, get people on board through proper training. “Getting everyone on the same page is the first step,” explains Amy Johnson, a buyer for Key Electronics (, a manufacturing services provider in Jeffersonville, Indiana. “We have an eight-week training program and are working toward getting every employee trained on 5S and lean manufacturing.”

Select one person to be a 5S champion, advises Schermerhorn. “The champion breaks the facility down into zones and assigns an owner to each zone,” he explains. “After that, each zone owner begins the 5S process. The champion scores each zone periodically with scores posted in a central location so everyone can see the results and best practices.”

The major mistake when starting 5S is declaring it an improvement tool, says Manish Kapoor, manager, industrial performance, Unilever India in Chandigarh, India. 5S is about building the base for improvement and making basics right.

Clean up and get rid of waste

It’s hard to think clearly and put energy into a job when you’re surrounded by a mess. We put off what we can’t see. Successful and flourishing companies are clean and organized. Ask yourself these questions.

  • Would you eat in a restaurant that was greasy?
  • Are there areas in the plant that you’d rather your customers not see?

Sell, scrap or recycle unwanted equipment, suggests Bob Hoffman, quality assurance director at Amitron (, a PCB manufacturer in Elk Grove Village, Illinois, to recover unused and inefficient floor space for your facility.

Drill Doctor ( dealt with waste efficiently and sustainably. The drill bit sharpening tool manufacturer headquartered in Ashland, Oregon, donated its outdated inventory — tools that overwhelmed an already crowded warehouse — to high school shop classes.

Now, the warehouse is better organized, and Drill Doctor’s generous gifts continue to help kids develop lifetime job skills in woodworking and metalworking.

Figure 1. Safety is the sixth S in 6S lean manufacturing.
Figure 1. Safety is the sixth S in 6S lean manufacturing.

Use visual communication

“We use labels of all shapes and sizes to designate areas for storage, high traffic areas, safety warnings, and overall warehouse definitions,” says Clay Fuller, manager, supply chain systems, at Komatsu America ( in Ripley, Tennessee (Figure 1). “We have multiple communication areas that show warehouse performance, 5S, and safety standards. The boards are easily accessible and provide quick updates for warehouse employees and management.”

Visual communications verify that tools are readily available or in use, says Kroger’s Schermerhorn. “They also help standardize the workplace, which has many benefits for inspections, auditing, and everyday use,” he explains.

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