Disciples versus Discipline – Meeting the Challenge of 6S Workplace Organisation

Eddie O'NeillOf the foundational tools and approaches associated with Lean implementation, 6S workplace organisation is probably the most widely known and, arguably, the most commonly misapplied. Oftentimes companies attempt to implement 6S on their own and their efforts deteriorate into imposed processes. Housekeeping becomes the objective with exclusive emphasis on audits to maintain standards. As LBSPartners’ Training Manager, Eddie O’Neill explains: this is not the purpose of 6S.


The true intent of workplace organisation is to:

  • Build a solid base for all continuous improvement activity.
  • Enable visual management.
  • Place work-teams in control of their own areas and establishing pride in those workplaces.
  • Help focus on causes and elimination of waste.
  • Establish standards of storage, housekeeping and visual communication.
  • Engage the workforce.

With a proper approach, a full understanding of the process and real engagement of the workforce, the opportunities are enormous.

What’s the key to bringing about success? It’s how we sow the seeds of true engagement. Regularly we observe the following reasons why 6S efforts primarily fall short:

  1. People do not understand the real purpose or the benefits of workplace organisation.
  2. The process is imposed by management without real appreciation of what’s required to sustain it.
  3. It is almost exclusively and very narrowly focused on housekeeping.
  4. It tends to be sustained by imposing discipline through audits by people external to the work area.

Getting back to the true purpose

Management cannot impose 6S, nor can auditors alone sustain it – the only people who will make workplace organisation successful is the workforce itself. Think disciple, as opposed to discipline. These words are closely linked etymologically, but have very different emphases.

Disciples follow something because they deeply believe in it. A sort of self-discipline as opposed to imposed discipline. To be successful, businesses really need to create disciples by engaging people properly and fully at the outset and explaining the true purpose, benefits and opportunities associated with 6S. You won’t create disciples by talking about housekeeping; you need to sell them the full vision of workplace organisation and what it can mean for them.

Try focusing on these 3 things to achieve success:

  1. Place an emphasis on leadership awareness. If the leaders do not really understand – live and breathe 6S – their teams can’t be expected to embrace it either.
  2. Through an investment of time in education, training and inclusion focus on creating disciples in the workplace. Focus on problem solving and process improvement; let teams take ownership of their work areas and of the 6S process.
  3. Self-discipline audits should be employed, conducted by the teams themselves. Self-audits can be even more demanding of standards than typical external audits. These audits should focus on process and continuous improvement as opposed to tidiness and housekeeping. Independent audits should also be employed periodically, but the intent of these is to support the teams – e.g. to validate their improvements.

By investing time in these areas, teams have a real chance of sustaining success by driving the culture of continuous improvement which is what Lean is really all about.

If you’re starting, or restarting, a workplace organisation programme, my advice is to be honest with yourself. Be certain you have created disciples before you set out. Don’t start until you’ve achieved this step, otherwise it’s likely that you will struggle, fight against the tide, waste resources trying to prop up the system, and most certainly never realise the true potential of 6S.

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