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The 5S method – the lean philosophy in action

Lean production and particularly 5S are a combination of concept and technology. And there can be no better example of this than when our Work Bench System was rolled out at Multi-Contact. The end result was that process times were improved by around 70 percent.

Swiss firm Multi-Contact is a global leader in the production of electric plug connectors and contact systems. Its plant in Weil am Rhein specialises in smaller volumes and customer-specific solutions and produces more than 9,000 products on both a semi-automated and manual basis. To optimise its manufacturing processes, the branch opted for three U-shaped lines based on lean principles. Lean Production was put into practice, primarily by organising the workplace according to the 5S concept.

Using 5S to tactically boost efficiency

The 5S method is playing a crucial role in the changes being introduced at Multi-Contact. It incorporates five principles for optimising working practices, all of which begin with an “S” in Japanese. They may seem pretty obvious at first glance but, as is so often the case, the devil is in the detail – and in this case the “devil” is waste (“Muda”). 5S comprises the following core concepts:

Seiri: Sorting out everything you don’t immediately need

Seiton: Arranging and labelling working materials based on ergonomic principles

Seiso: Thoroughly cleaning the workplace

Seiketsu: Keeping the workplace clean and tidy at all times to prevent disorder

All these points, but particularly the first few, combine to deliver an impressive overall improvement. Indeed, once it had implemented Seiri and sorted out its facilities, Multi-Contact had freed up a great deal of space. Numerous cabinets were removed and replaced with elements that are easier to access. In the past, personnel sat at benches that were up to four metres wide, but today material is conveyed to them from the side and front. The problems associated with having limited freedom of movement have also been consigned to the past, now that Seiton ensures personnel can lay their hands directly on the materials they need. The 5S method has helped the company put in place a smooth and seamless workflow.

Employee involvement and value-stream mapping

Another important factor was the decision to arrange the working cells in a U shape. Personnel work through all the various stations one after the other to manufacture the product in one go. What’s more, the management team at Multi-Contact wanted the production system to make more allowances for different sequences and the different shapes and sizes of operators. Fortunately, comfort and efficiency go hand-in-hand with lean production. However, it was crucial to involve the workforce, and so each and every member of the workforce used a sample bench to establish what their lean work bench should look like.

Another factor in optimising production processes was implementing value-stream mapping. All the various stages in production and in the flow of information were subjected to detailed analysis, with employees playing an important part in this process, too. As a result, the project team was able to establish exactly where value was being created and where Muda – in other words, waste – was being generated. Given the wide range of activities implemented, the 70 percent improvement in process time is no miracle, but rather the result of very focussed efforts.