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What is the real question?

Jim Miller, an American born yet brought up in Japan and who worked for Toyota discussed this issue in a blog many years ago. His views jelled with my own experience over time. I have heard numerous discussions and opinions on this issue. Most of these made no sense from a rational Lean Thinking point of view. I remember my sensei Hiroshima Shibayama once saying, “starting with 5S may be a waste (Muda) in itself unless 5S addresses a fundamental problem in the company”.

Hiroshima-san did not clarify his answer any further. In the early days, we from ex-Firestone and new to Bridgestone were far too often embarrassed by the simplicity of his answers. We still had to grasp how to learn through humility and overcome our understanding of his broken English. Regrettably, many golden opportunities were lost in this way. To this, however, I was privileged to hear him later make this comment again to a different audience. This time I did muster the confidence to ask.

Years later when I read Jim Miller’s blog it brought it all back again. Jim gave a different explanation, but essentially also very similar.

According to Jim, both 5S or Value Stream Mapping could easily be the right or wrong point to start. If e.g., you are still doing a blueprint for the Lean rollout plan the latter might be a better start.  It would allow you to see the wastes first before starting to discard the unnecessary in 5S prematurely.  Some patience here can avoid discarding parts that are later discovered as essential. Doing 5S after VSM could mean that you are now empowered with the knowledge of what actually needs to be discarded in 5S. It is thus far more strategic with a wider impact on the overall. It’s more important to see the wider implications than just the localized 5S areas that could experience some benefit.

If however, a specific workplace could realise significant improvement simply through workplace organization then starting with 5S would make sense. Again, much will also depend on it being a process or discreet product operation, etc. Real Lean thinking he said would however first focus on the people and how they will interpret proceedings.  Will they learn from it to continue exploring Lean? Will they perhaps become disillusioned? E.g. by discarding wrongly perceived “not needed” only to put them back again when the folly is discovered later.  Or will they learn about seeing Muda and how to remove that? The correct answer to the question at hand is determined by what Hiroshima-san called “the strategic and learning impact of the first activity on the people.” This should be our first consideration and most important question!


Therefore, in conclusion, it really depends on the organisation, its people, their learning, and future motivation. The reality can only be found in the Gemba and understanding the strategic impact it would have on the people going forward.

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