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Mind over matter: ‘Five S’ revisited


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Better housekeeping, higher orderliness, enhance productivity are some of the ways the benefits of a popular approach called ‘five S’ have been described. It is no stranger for the Sri Lankan workplace. I think it has much depth and breadth than that. Today’s column is an attempt to go one step ahead in calling it ‘Five S for the mind’. Five S in a nutshell “Five S” originated in Japan, and stands for five Japanese words that start with the letter ‘S’: Seiri, Seiton, Seiso, Seiketsu, and Shitsuke. An equivalent set of five ‘S’ words in English have likewise been adopted by many, to preserve the “Five S” acronym in English usage. These are: Sort, Set, Shine, Standardise, and Sustain. Five S offers a systematic approach of keeping things in order. It is a visual technique of ensuring proper housekeeping as well. As Hiroyuki Hirano (1995) states in “Five Pillars of the Visual Workplace”, five S forms the bedrock for productivity. Further, Takashi Osada, (1995) highlights in” The FiveS’s: Five keys to a Total Quality Environment”, it offers a pathway for quality and productivity improvements. Understanding the mind As the first stanza of the revered text Dhammapada states, “mano pubbaagma dhamma, mano setta manomaya”. This essentially means that the mind is the forerunner for all things. Whilst its supremacy has always been undisputedly accepted, ‘what is mind?’ has been a perennial question. Philosophers strived to describe it while psychologists struggled to define it. As one relatively simpler definition says, mind is the human consciousness that originates in the brain and is manifested especially in thought, perception, emotion, will, memory, and imagination. Psychologists such as Sigmund Freud and William James have developed influential theories about the nature of the human mind. In the late 20th and early 21st centuries the field of cognitive science emerged and developed many varied approaches to the description of mind and its related phenomena. "The sad state I have observed in some of the Sri Lankan workplaces is that five S has become an award-winning exercise overly focusing on the workplace, forgetting the deeper aspect of the mind. I would argue that five S should begin with mind and then be applied to the matter" In Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theory of personality, the conscious mind consists of everything inside of our awareness. This is the aspect of our mental processing that we can think and talk about in a rational way. The conscious mind includes such things as the sensations, perceptions, memories, feeling and fantasies inside of our current awareness. Why and how Why does the mind need ‘Five S’? This has been a question in my mind for a while. Removing clutter from the workplace is fine but more clutter remains in the mind, in the forms of negative emotions, inaccurate perceptions and false opinions. Even though Five S has been successfully implemented in many Sri Lankan workplaces, the depth it contains in making the participants disciplined has not been adequately captured. Let’s discuss each S in detail. Seiri (Sort) This is the starting point. Typical workplace activities include going through all tools, materials, and so forth in the plant and work area. Keeping only essential items and eliminate what is not required, prioritising things per requirements and keeping them in easily-accessible places, are other key actions. Everything else is stored or discarded. It refers to the act of throwing away all unwanted, unnecessary, and unrelated materials in the workplace. People involved in Seiri must not feel sorry about having to throw away things. The idea is to ensure that everything left in the workplace is related to work. Even the number of necessary items in the workplace must be kept to its absolute minimum. Because of Seiri, simplification of tasks, effective use of space, and careful purchase of items follow. The way I think, the deep relevance of Seiri to the mind is purposefulness. In order to ensure clarity over clutter with “right seeing” (Samma Dhitti), one needs to identify positive thoughts, constructive emotions and unbiased perceptions with a clear purpose in mind. This is much more difficult than sorting things in a workplace. Seiton (Set) This typically means arranging workplace, equipment, parts, and instructions in such a way that the work flows free of waste through the value added tasks with a division of labour necessary to meet demand. It follows the practice of “everything has a proper place”. It is all about efficiency. When applied correctly with flow established this step eliminates the majority of the non-value-added time and allows the rest of the zero defect philosophy to be enabled. In essence, until there is an orderly flow, you cannot avoid flaws in tackling problems and the notion of zero defects is not possible at all. As I observe, the deep relevance of Seiton to the mind is prioritising. It requires focusing on value creation. Connecting thoughts in a logical manner with proper analysis is the need. It in fact help oneself to focus on tasks linked to targets in the context of overall purpose. What is connected to the purpose has to be a priority. The rest have to be “set aside” to be done only when time permits. Seiso (Shine) This involves cleaning the workspace and all equipment and keeping them organised. In a typical factory, at the end of each shift, clean the work area and be sure everything is restored to its place. This step ensures that the workstation is ready for the next user and that order is sustained. In fact, Seiso invites us to become our own janitors. As Japanese advocate, cleaning must be done by everyone in the organisation, from the directors to drivers. Everyone should see the ‘workplace’ through the eyes of a visitor – always thinking if it is clean enough to make a good impression. The way I see, the deep relevance of Seiso to the mind is purity. This is where the spiritual dimension looms large. Pure thoughts devoid of malice, jealously and other negativities is what is required. A shining mind is a spiritual mind empathising with others compassionately. Seiketsu (Sustain) This is all about uniformity and consistency. In a typical workplace, uniform procedures need to be ensured throughout an operation to promote interchangeability. Seiketsu can also be viewed as “conformance to consistent clean-up”. It consists of defining the standards by which people must measure and maintain ‘cleanliness’. Seiketsu encompasses both people and environmental cleanliness. Personal tidiness can be a good starting point. I think the deep relevance of Seiketsu to the mind is perseverance. So many start-ups might end up half way through without proper completion. A mind that is geared towards perseverance will ensure continuity of a recommended habit, preferred value or a best practice. One needs determination and dedication in order to sustain noteworthy initiatives. Shitsuke (Standardise) This refers to ensuring the disciplined adherence to the previous four Ss. It assists in preventing a possible backsliding to where thing were prior to the implementation of five S. The key word here is discipline. It denotes practicing five S as a way of life. As Japanese say, the emphasis of Shitsuke is elimination of bad habits and constant practice of good ones. Once true Shitsuke is achieved, people would keep things naturally, without reminders and warnings. The way I see, the deep relevance of Shitsuke to the mind is pro-activeness. With a proactive mind, purposeful, prioritised, pure actions can be continued with perseverance. In essence, it sums up the overall application of five S to the mind. From Five S to Five Ps As we saw clearly so far, five S for the workplace can be applicable in a deep way as five S for the mind. In such an approach, it can even be called five Ps. They are purposefulness, prioritising, purity, perseverance and pro-activeness. Sri Lankan managers can embrace the above five Ps and then engage in five Ss so that mind and matter can be both organised in a better way. The sad state I have observed in some of the Sri Lankan workplaces is that five S has become an award-winning exercise overly focusing on the workplace, forgetting the deeper aspect of the mind. I would argue that five S should begin with mind and then be applied to the matter. Let me revisit the first stanza of Dhammapada to conclude: Mind precedes all knowables, mind’s their chief, mind-made are they. If with a corrupted mind one should either speak or act dukkha follows caused by that, as does the wheel the ox’s hoof. (Dr. Ajantha Dharmasiri works at the Postgraduate Institute of Management. He can be reached on ajantha@pim.lk or www.ajanthadharmasiri.info.)

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