Applying Lean Six Sigma to Improve HR Effectiveness

July 3, 2017

If you have been a reader of this column for the past three months, you now have some foundational understanding of Lean Six Sigma (LSS). Though there is very little published in the public domain about applying LSS specifically in HR, I have had the privilege to learn many of the ways that HR can impact the LSS function both internally and externally of HR. In most organizations I have worked with, the HR function has had a critical role as a participant and even a leader in applying aspects of LSS. Let’s look at a simple role that HR can play internally in successful LSS deployment.

Applying the LSS Technique of 5S in HR – Workplace Organization and Cleanliness

If you are saying "5-what?" that’s OK. I am not surprised. Someone who is familiar with Lean Manufacturing will instantly recognize it. The 5S technique was developed and perfected by Hiroyuki Hirano, who describes the Toyota methods of 5S in his book, 5 Pillars of the Visual Work Place. One of his statements that rings true is this: "World-class facilities develop beginning with the 5S’s, and facilities that fail, fall apart beginning with the 5S’s."

There are many Americanized versions translating the original Japanese terms for the 5S steps - my favorite is shown below:

  • S1 - Sort
  • S2 - Set in order (Straighten)
  • S3 - Shine (and Inspect, or Sweep)
  • S4 - Standardize (and Schedule)
  • S5 - Sustain (Make it a Habit, Audits)

I will send a lengthy white paper on applying 5S in an office setting to anyone who requests one by e-mailing me at For now, I will give you a very short explanation below.

S1 - Sorting involves first evaluating the work area and removing things not needed to do the day-to-day work. Things only used once in a while also should be removed from organization nearby. The idea of sorting is to first get us down to what is really needed to do daily work in our personal work space, and in common use areas.

S2 - Set in order means making a place for everything and having everything in its place.

S3 - Shine as a step revolves around making the workspace visually perfect. This involves marking and labeling so that it is perfectly obvious where things go and how much is supposed to be there. This can be very contentious in an office setting - but necessary.

S4 - Standardize is about making a system to keep things ship-shape. This includes detailed instructions and schedules on how to keep the workspace organized and cleaned routinely. Schedules detail what is to be cleaned/maintained, the frequency and the assignments to do it. This often incorporates sign-offs for accountability.

S5 – Sustain involves making 5S a regular habit in the organization. Making things a habit requires audits and tracking of performance during deployment and on an on-going basis - usually on some kind of visual score card. I recommend a one-to-five point scale that works from a level of one - no visible evidence of 5S, scaling up to a five, which would represent perfection for your organization. I advocate that it is very hard to hit a five - just as it is to achieve a zero defects target for everything an organization does.

Sustaining 5S is by far the most difficult part of 5S. Why? Regular audits take discipline and a commitment of time to conduct them. After the first blush of success over a few months, most organizations lack the commitment to continue auditing for the 12 to 18 months it takes to make 5S stick. It is easy to rationalize letting audits slip, and the next thing you know, it is history.

Here is another important quote about 5S:

"The 5S system is designed to create a visual workplace - that is, a work environment that is self-explaining, self-ordering and self-improving. In a visual workplace, the out-of-standard situation is immediately obvious and employees can easily correct it. Managing thus, on the basis of exceptions, makes excellence possible." Pascal Dennis – Lean Production Simplified, 2002. Mr. Dennis was a Toyota of Canada employee, and Toyota is the benchmark when it comes to 5S and visual workplaces.

A little case study in an HR department

The HR department for a 600-employee insurance and retirement benefits fund volunteered to be the guinea pig for 5S implementation. We took a tour and one of the photos I took is shown above. Here is my question for you: What’s wrong with this picture?

This happens to be a turn-style rack of all HR-related forms for employees - claims forms, vacation requests, etc. After just a few minutes of evaluation, we agreed that the lack of visual organization made everyone waste a lot of time looking for things - to the tune of about 600 hours a year in impact. After organizing and labeling this appropriately, the team estimated a 75% reduction in wasted time. How many of these time-wasters do you have around your organization?


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