How to Use 5S on Construction Sites

Every company want to improve their customers service, the number of customers they have and the profitability of their operations.  There are different ways to attain that goal but, having a mindset of continuous improvement ingrained in the company culture has been proven successfully across a broad range of industry.  One doesn’t need to look any further than the enduring success of the Toyota Motor Corporation, which was the pioneer in Lean Manufacturing, to see the benefits of this approach.   

Granted, a construction site is a very different environment than a factory producing huge quantities of automobiles.  Each project is a unique product and most of the work take place inside that product. Still, there is lots of learnings from the manufacturing industry that can be applied to the construction industry.  

That’s why, key concepts of Lean Manufacturing are now being applied to construction.  There are lots of different aspects of Lean, most importantly, teaching ground level workers how to solve production problems themselves and giving them the tools to do it but, for the purpose of this article, we will focus on one key Lean tool, 5S.

5S is the abbreviation for the first letter of the five steps process, Sort, Set in order, Shine, Standardize and Sustain.  It is a well know and very visible aspect of Lean because the output is physical. You can see an immediate transformation of the workplace once the 5S implementation take place, which is, a stark comparison to all the other aspects of Lean, focused on process improvements.

For construction companies, 5S can be implemented in a shop, service truck, sea can or even jobsite toolboxes.  Basically, any area where the tools for production are stored and used frequently can benefit from this approach.  In the next paragraphs I will guide your through the 5 steps and how to apply them to jobsites.  

Sort

Sort is going through the inventory in the location you’re doing 5S to remove and discard all unnecessary items.  It’s important at this step that you know what work has to be done with theses tools and only keep the one necessary for that work.  For example, if you want to do 5S in a toolbox dedicated to drywall installation, all you want to keep in this toolbox is the tools for drywall.  The odd things that you only use once a month should be removed. The goal here is to remove excess stuff to make it easier to find what you actually need.  If you’re unsure whether you use something or not, just red tag that item and store it in a common location with the current date on. If it stays there for more than one month than, you don’t need it.  Once all the excess tools and materials have been removed, you can move on to the next step.

Set in order

This is the step where you organize everything.  There are many ways to do this but, the goal is to have a designated home for every single tool or piece of equipment you’re keeping.  You want to make everything visible and easy to find. You create shadow boards, vertical wall surface with tools holders, you identify every tool location with a unique address.  You paint theses shadow boards in bright colors and use different colors for different disciplines or trades. If you have a big storage location, like a sea can, you can use floor tape to create parking spots for bigger tools.  Also, you can push the exercise even farther and create locations for your materials and pieces of equipment in outside laydown. One thing to keep in mind while doing this exercise is that the most used tools need to be the more accessible.  It doesn’t have to be perfect the first time, the spirit of lean is continuous improvement so, you can always change or upgrade things later on once you’ve worked with the system for some time.

Shine

While you got everything out, you might as well clean everything.  That mean, wiping clean all tools, vacuum cleaning all shelves, toolboxes and scraping concrete or drywall mud off the floor.  Any tool that need regular maintenance should be checked at this step, oil changed in generators and air compressors for example.  This step shouldn’t replace a regular maintenance schedule but, it’s a good time to reset everything. Anything that’s not painted or that the paint is badly worn off should also get a fresh coat.  It will make everything look much cleaner and it will be easier to sustain it in the future.

Standardize

This step is very important in the way that it will decrease the learning curve when you’re switching crews or onboarding new team members.  Basically, you want to keep the Set in order step consistent across all your organization. For example, you’re an electrical contractor and you have many services trucks.  You decided that your most used tool is a Green Lee pipe bender and you located it on the left side when you enter the truck, well, it will be much easier for everyone if it is located in the same spot, in all the trucks.  Another example, you’ve made a shadow board for safety equipment and you painted it yellow, just keep that same yellow color for all the other ones you’ll be making. That way, your workers will be much more productive and won’t lose time looking for the tools they need.

Sustain

This step can make or break the benefits of your Lean 5S project and can prove to be one of the most difficult to accomplish, if not taken seriously.  You can build all the shadow boards you want but, if the workers don’t bring back the tools on them, they’ll be useless. You need to create a routine to take a few minutes at the end of the day to bring back all the tools to their original locations, that way, they’ll know where to find them in the morning, when they’re ready to start.  To accomplish this, there is several tools you can use. The first one is to involve them in the whole process from the start, if they help to implement it, they’ll be much more likely to use it. Second, you need to monitor if it’s being done, a supervisor can do a walkthrough at the end of the day to verify if everything is back in its place.  Third, formal audits, just like you do a safety walk, you do a 5S walk, maybe at the same time and you give score to the different business units or trades. Fourth, incentive program, it’s always much more interesting to do something if there is a reward at the end.  

Hopefully, this brief guide will help you in the implementation of 5S in your construction company.  Remember, Lean is all about continuous improvements and nobody get it perfect at the first iteration.

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