Friday, 30 March 2007

My 5S Journey

In May, 2003, at the peak of the SARS (Severe acute respiratory syndrome) crisis in Singapore, I came across an interesting article in the Straits Times where our then deputy prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong exhorted Singaporeans to learn from the Japanese; especially their sense of civic consciousness and responsibility. The article mentioned something which I have have have been working with for the past 20 years – the Japanese technique of Good Housekeeping and Workplace Organisation known as 5S. (Actually, for some unknown reason, they mentioned only 4 and dropped the last one, Shitsuke, which was actually the one most relevant to the article. But never mind.)

"When it comes to cleanliness, the Japanese are hard to beat. Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong referred to them in his May Day Speech, saying that "we should do like the Japanese". Japanese workplaces are notoriously neat and tidy. The Japanese are said to live by the credo of the 4Ss ......" (Straits Times, May 11, 2003)

Having been fortunate enough to be involved in the 5S Movement in Singapore since it started in 1986, I feel I can play a small part in turning the PM's goals into reality. Through this blog, I would like to share my knowledge and thoughts about this subject of 5S; and of course, at the same time, I hope to promote my services to potential clients. As some of you may be aware, I run my own consulting business, Hoshin Consulting which provides training and consultancy in 5S and other productivity-related areas.

What is 5S?

5S is the acronym for 5 Japanese words; Seiri, Seiton, Seiso, Seiketsu and Shitsuke.

  • Seiri (整理) means Clearing.
  • Seiton (整顿) means Organising.
  • Seiso (清扫) means Cleaning.
  • Seiketsu (清洁) means Maintaining, and
  • Shitsuke (no Chinese equivalent word) means Discipline.

My First Encounter With 5S

My first encounter with 5S was in 1985 when I was sent by the National Productivity Board to Japan for three-and-a-half months of training. During this time, I visited many outstanding Japanese companies and noticed that they all strongly emphasized keeping the company and its equipment clean and in tip-top condition by this technique or system known as 5S. In 1989, I was fortunate to be sent again to Japan for a 1-month training stint in Total Quality Control, where I got to visit more companies which have won the prestigious Deming Prize.

This 1984 article in the Straits Times about the first batch of trainees to Japan for the Productivity Development Project Fellowship (PDP) training caught my attention. After seeing this article, I promptly applied for a job at NPB as a trainer in the IOE (Industrial and Operations Engineering) Department. And then in September 1985, I joined the 3rd batch of trainees for PDP fellowship training in Japan. The training last three-and-a-half months from 8 Sep to 20 Dec.

The photo below was taken in 1985 at a plant called Aisin Seiki in Nishio, a company that manufactures brake pumps for Toyota Motors. I am standing, 3rd from the right. We were attached to Aisin Seiki for 2 weeks. Would you believe that we are at a rock garden right in the middle of the factory. The factory was so clean that it was a 'shock' for us Singaporeans.

When I returned to Singapore, my colleagues and I worked closely with the Japanese experts attached to NPB and we aggressively promoted 5S in Singapore; especially to the small and medium sized companies. We conducted lots of training and consultancy projects and produced training videos, as well as organized various promotional activities. We even provided training to other consultants not only from Singapore, but also the other Asean countries through what was known as the Japan-Asean Regional Training Programme. For my part in this effort, I was awarded what was called the Triple-A Award in October 1988.

After I left the NPB in 1992, I continued to provide 5S training and consultancy to companies in Singapore and the region up to today. Although, on the whole, I believe I have lost out in terms of monetary remuneration, when compared to my colleagues who remained in the NPB, (myself to be blamed for not being a very good entrepreneur), I think I gained a lot especially from the exposure to companies in other countries. My work took me to many different parts if Malaysia, like Pasir Gudang, Shah Alam, Kerteh (in Trengganu), Port Dickson, Melaka, Bangi, Kuantan, Kuching and Bintulu. I even had 2 memorable assignments in the beautiful country of Seychelles as well as more recent ones in Indonesia and Myanmar. As a self-employed consultant, my working hours are much for flexible and I could spend more time with my family and church; and indulge in my favourite pastime – blogging.

Through this blog, I hope to share and learn more about 5S which is widely applicable even in the home and public places. Of course, I hope to receive lots of contributions from my readers, including other consultants. Also, I do not intend to limit the topic to only 5S but to other subjects related to productivity and quality.

Finally, I take this opportunity to express my gratitude to my Japanese teachers who have taught me so much; especially Mr Hajime Suzuki, Mr Kazuo Tsuchiya and Mr Motomu Baba.

A shot of Mr Suzuki (left) in the early days of our 5S journey.

You probably know what they say about consultants. They borrow your watch, tell you the time and walk away with it. So I must also thank those people who have lent me their watches, during these past 20 years. I hope I can return some of them through this blog; and at the same time borrow a few more.