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The 5S method of warehouse management explained

21 Mar, 2023 | Business Tips

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As ecommerce has grown, warehouses have taken center stage. No longer the stark, characterless spaces to store goods they used to be, they’ve become the focal point of the industry, hives in which the core activity of order fulfillment takes place. What’s more, the ease and ready access of online shopping around the world has opened up the marketplace, making ecommerce a unified global industry. The supply chain has become global; the marketplace has become global. This expansion is putting pressure on warehouse managers to make better use of their spaces and to make them more efficient. They are finding the 5S method very helpful.

Originally developed in Japan, the 5S method is a series of five strategies that have their origins in the lean system, an approach to efficiency in manufacturing and warehousing that’s based on cutting everything back to the bare essentials.

We’re going to explore each of the five Ss, so you can see how they can help you get your warehouse management functioning at its optimum level.

The S’s of the 5S method

1. Sort

Think of this as a spring cleaning. It means sorting through everything, getting rid of anything that’s not essential, and putting what’s left in a workable order.

  • Declutter: Look through everything from stock to equipment and tools to supplies and throw out anything that’s outdated or no longer useful. Same goes for anything that’s been damaged. Some find red tagging helpful at this stage of the reorganization. Basically as everything in the warehouse is being evaluated, a red tag is placed on anything that seems to be unnecessary. These red-tagged items can then easily be picked out, evaluated, and tossed, if that’s what’s decided.
  • Examine your equipment: All equipment used in the warehouse from forklift trucks to service carts should be in peak working order. Have an expert inspect every piece of machinery frequently, do regular maintenance, and get repairs done as soon as they’re needed.
  • Clear walkways: The aisles between stored inventory should be clear of any debris, wide enough to accommodate machinery, and easy for employees to navigate. Keep storage areas separate from packing and shipping.
  • Strategically organize inventory: This is about thinking through where each type of item should be placed and is called warehouse slotting. When done right, the end result is a space that has those items more in demand in an area that’s easier to access and quicker to get to, while those less in demand are placed farther into the warehouse. Working out best placement also means putting large, heavy items on bottom shelving and delicate ones in less-trafficked areas. It’s a way of organizing to ensure that pickers get their work done as speedily – and safely – as possible.


2. Set in order

Here, we’re talking about laying out and organizing the entire space, not just the inventory. Each area should be clearly defined and marked; signage should be large, clear and simple everyone working inside can easily find their way around.

  • Warehouse guidelines: Work out and establish general instructions for the way things should operate in the warehouse, then set them out in a booklet and distribute it to everyone. Illustrating these guidelines with easy-to-understand imagery is helpful. These instructions should include everything from how to work around machinery and personal safety to how everyone should conduct themselves in the warehouse – there should be a rule stating that noone should run in the facility ever, for instance. Exact spots where everything should be put away can also be included.
  • Shadow Boards: A simple, straightforward way of organizing small tools, a shadow board is essentially an upright panel on a wall that holds tools in place. The outline of each implement is drawn on the panel, letting anyone who uses anything know exactly where it should be returned to. Shadow boards also serve as a quick visual alert, letting it be known when something hasn’t been replaced.
  • Warehouse signs: These are intended to direct workers around the warehouse space. They could be simple signage identifying areas, or lights that could be used to give a warning when it might be dangerous to enter a certain area.
  • Aisle and floor markers: You can’t be subtle in this. Warehouses are often gigantic spaces with storage bins stacked very high on top of each other. For warehouse workers to navigate their way around easily, each aisle and bin has to be labeled boldly with large lettering. When a picker is directed to go to a particular bin to collect an item, the number on that bin should be “in their faces” so there’s no chance of them making a mistake. Large, bold floor markings are also advisable.
  • Label inventory: Usually taking the form of a QR code that can be scanned, labeling here not only confirms that the right item has been picked up, it also ensures that any pertinent details like safety measures and storage instructions are adhered to. That’s because all that information is stored in the QR code as well.
  • Store equipment safely: This runs from having a separate out-of-the-way place to store empty pallets to having a dedicated parking area for large machinery like forklifts.


3. Shine

Shine stands for clean. When the warehouse is spotless, it signals a good work ethic and points the way to a well-run facility.

  • Set up a cleaning routine: This program could be carried out at the beginning of a shift or at the end of one and could include everything from mopping floors and removing any garbage to discarding broken pallets and setting aside tools and equipment that need maintenance.
  • Stock basic janitorial supplies: Spills, leaks, and breakages are commonplace in a warehouse, so cleanup should be made as easy as possible. General cleaning supplies like brooms, pans, absorbent paper, and general cleaning products should be placed throughout the space so they can be accessed without difficulty, and these locations should be boldly marked as such.
  • Maintain machinery: Have all equipment inspected and serviced regularly, and act quickly if any malfunction is reported.
  • Deep clean occasionally: No matter how clean you keep the warehouse space, it’s going to need a thorough going over periodically. Choose a slow time to do this. These cleaning times are also an opportunity to carry out any reorganization, like moving inventory around to reflect changing market trends, updating signage, and replacing signage that may have faded or become indistinct.


4. Standardize

After “sorting” everything, “setting it in order,” and getting it to “shine,” the next step is making sure everyone who works at the facility is aware of your procedures and knows how to follow them. In other words, standardizing is making sure everyone is on the same page.

  • Produce training manuals: These manuals should lay out the procedures needed to achieve the objectives listed in the first three S’s. They should contain details about how the warehouse is laid out and how to maintain that and have instructions on the routines needed to keep everything running smoothly. This involves everything from how to get rid of a broken item to cleaning schedules to steps to take when a piece of machinery fails. Shooting videos to show these procedures and schedules and screening them periodically is also a good idea.
  • Create visual representations: Here we’re talking about getting out posters, notices, and any other kind of visual to highlight and reinforce the instructions and procedures laid out in the training manuals. This could be anything from safety guidelines and reminders to cleaning schedules.


5. Sustain

This final step in the 5S method is basically saying: Now that you’ve achieved all this good work by setting up and practicing the S steps that came before, keep up the good work.

  • Constantly evolve: Review the processes and procedures you’ve established regularly, and have a team dedicated to doing this.
  • Conduct regular reviews: Have your leadership team do regular audits and reviews. It’s a good idea to have this team get feedback from employees, since they’re the ones working on the ground. They could well come up with helpful ways to improve the systems. Ask your warehouse workers about their struggles and warehouse inefficiencies.
  • Invest in tech: Invest in the right tools and software, like a warehouse management system (WMS), to help streamline warehouse operations and work more efficiently.

Great reasons to use the 5S method in your warehouse

  1. Improved efficiency,
  2. Reduced waste,
  3. Increased safety,
  4. Better maintenance for equipment and tools,
  5. Fewer downtimes, and
  6. Healthier work situation for employees.


Final thoughts

Warehouse management is a complex and highly challenging business nowadays. Introducing lean techniques and the 5S method can be a big help when it comes to streamlining operations. Cin7 Core’s warehouse management system (WMS) can also be a boon.

To learn more about modern warehousing techniques and how they can be advantageous for you, talk to one of our Cin7 Core experts today.

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