Lateral thinking: From Backwoods to 5S

By R.S. Karunaratne | Published: 2:00 AM Sep 20 2021
Focus Lateral thinking: From Backwoods to 5S

By R.S. Karunaratne 

Most of us are neat people. We are nitpicking individuals who keep accurate records of our income and expenditure. We maintain our homes as some kind of showpieces. There is a parapet wall right round the small plot of land where the house is located. The gate is always locked in order to keep thieves and beggars away. We open the gate only when the postman or the milkman rings his bell. We keep our living rooms neat and tidy because we want to impress visitors that we are neat people. When I spent my early childhood in the backwoods, I saw everybody living in small houses. 

There were no parapet walls or fences which are supposed to make good neighbours. The doors and windows of our houses remained open throughout the day. Sometimes we found rat snakes and water monitors under our beds. There were no supermarkets or big shops with attractive showcases. We bought everything from the village boutique owned by a bare-bodied man with a walrus moustache. 

I used to play with my neighbour’s children. He was a man who treasured everything he had. He probably did not know that there were neat people living in the city. His house looked like a workshop with all types of tools thrown about everywhere. Unlike his city counterparts, he did not do all sorts of shifts like putting things back where they belonged. But when he wanted a screwdriver, he knew where it could be found. He had a separate room to accommodate broken chairs, plates, brushes and hammers. 

You can easily find pieces of wire, nails, old knives and spoons in his house. But he did not know when he was going to have a good use for a broken wooden nail keg. Town folks will surely dismiss him as a dumb fellow. Broken plates In the city you probably throw away broken plates and glass pitchers that cannot be repaired. But he keeps all those old plates because he was waiting for someone to produce glue that will mend china and glass. He had three children but never bothered to save money. In fact, he never earned big money because he was a poor cultivator. One day somebody asked him what he would do for his children in the event of his death. 

He said he had no wealth except the things he had collected over the years. When he died, his children never quarreled over his estate. When I left that environment for higher studies in the city, I had to do what the Romans do. I learned the art of throwing away all broken chairs, plates and moth-eaten books. I was taught the 5S process or simply ‘5S’ which is a structured programme to implement workplace organisation, cleanliness, standardisation, and time management. Now I know that 5S improves safety, work efficiency, production and establishes a sense of ownership. ‘5S’ stands for Seiri, Seiton, Seiso, Seiketsu and Shitsuke. In English they stand for Sort (Tidiness), Set (Orderliness), Shine (Cleanliness), Standardize and Sustain (Discipline). According to some people, the English equivalents have lost the essence of the original Japanese words. However, we have to be satisfied with them. 

Tidiness Today Seiri (Tidiness) has become part of our life. We no longer keep unwanted items in offices or home. Unlike village people we do not feel sorry for having to throw away unwanted, usually broken, items. The idea is to ensure that everything left in the workplace is related to work. So, there is no point in keeping a broken down computer on your table. 

What is more, even the number of necessary items in the workplace must be kept to its absolute minimum. Seiton or Ordrliness is all about efficiency. When you put things in the right place, it can be accessed or retrieved without much effort. When you find things in their rightful places, you can work efficiently. 

You can apply this rule even to your home. In the kitchen there is a place for the coconut scraper. Similarly, we keep knives and spoons in their rightful places. Seiso or Cleanliness implies that everyone is a janitor. When you keep things clean, it gives you a sense of pride. Nobody wants to work in a dirty workplace or live in a filthy room. Anyway, do not expect the janitor to clean everything. You can clean your table and other items you use. In some organisations, every area in the workplace is assigned to a particular person or a group. That means no area should be left without cleaning. Standardisation Seiketsu or Standardisation is more or less connected to cleanliness. 

It emphasises that workplace and the worker should be kept clean. You cannot expect a worker wearing dirty clothes to work in a clean environment. Personal tidiness is part of standardisation. Shitsuke or Discipline is all about maintaining orderliness and training of employees. For instance, workers should not be allowed to smoke or chew betel in office premises. Such bad habits should be eliminated. When discipline is maintained there is no need for the management to remind workers how to behave in the workplace. Many leading organisations have already adopted 5S successfully. 

When you visit private hospitals, supermarkets, private banks, and leading companies, you are always impressed. This is another way to attract new customers. Unfortunately, most government institutions have not adopted 5S. One day I visited a well-known govern department in Colombo. The receptionist asked me to take a seat and wait for my turn. When I wanted to sit, I found that all the chairs were broken! 5S can be applied to schools and factories as well. 

Some of the government schools in villages are housed in dilapidated buildings with no sanitary facilities. You cannot blame the principal or the teachers because the authorities have not looked into their needs. Finally, 5S can be adopted at home. We have to train children to put things in the proper place and clean the house and the premises. It is not a difficult task to perform. First keep your home in order then you can step into a better workplace. 

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By R.S. Karunaratne | Published: 2:00 AM Sep 20 2021

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