Michael Frimpong’s thoughts … Managing productivity after COVID -19 – using Kaizen/5s tools


 The old adage that “Health is wealth” and ‘a sound mind in a sound body’ are both very instructive and invaluable statements in the discussion and pursuit of Worker Productivity.

There is no gainsaying that the looming Pandemic in the nature of Coronavirus (COVID-19) and its attendant consequence are felt far and wide and industries have not been spared the ravages. This real threat has occasioned the measure of reduction of some staff numbers in some companies in order to keep afloat.

The menace impacts negatively on Productivity and job safety especially in developing economies where more than 70% of the workforce is in self-employment or works in Micro and small enterprises. SMEs are the first to suffer devastating consequences of the economic downturn.

Restarting the economy with target tools and interventions to support SMEs and job creation will be key once the immediate health crisis is over. Thus, organizations are expected to exercise some level of resilience and to explore other innovative ways to maintain the status quo and to improve. The application of the kaizen principles through the 5s is undoubtedly a major part of the solution if not the panacea.

The Productivity narrative

Suffice me to run through the general narrative of Productivity. Productivity is an overall measure of the ability to produce a good or service. More specifically, productivity is the measure of how specified resource such as labor, materials, energy etc. are managed to accomplish timely objectives as stated in terms of quantity and quality.

There are many different ways of measuring productivity. For example, in a factory, productivity might be measured based on the number of hours it takes to produce a good, while in the service sector, productivity might be measured based on the revenue generated by an employee divided by his/her salary.

Every management initiative strives to ensure optimal utilization of resources; one way to do this is to increase the productivity – to seek ways and means to increase output.

Productivity= output


Productivity is not just about doing things more efficiently by ‘doing things right’.  It is also about achieving maximum effectiveness by ‘doing the right things. Productivity then needs to be managed to sustain the gains hitherto made and also to continuously improve on methods and processes of achieving set desirables.

 Value addition and minimizing waste

In the midst of the lean staffing practices brought about by the pandemic, organizations should look to creating value for their customers and to eliminate all forms of waste inherent in their processes. Thus, ensure that only the processes and activities that are necessary to convert raw materials into finished products create value for the customer. Non value added activities however do not change the state of the product. As Taiichi Ohno aptly stated ‘any activity the customer is not prepared to pay for’.   We can then improve on the following non value adding activities and more e.g. waiting for parts, obtaining multiple approvals, searching for tools, revising and reworking, inspection etc.

Improving is at the heart of the productivity drive. There are two strands of improvement considerations, namely improving by addition (such as adding machines, technology, people, tools), and improving by waste elimination (such as non-value-added activities). The former is limited by the fact that it requires capital expenditure and thus cannot be done by everyone, every day and everywhere. The latter however is a welcome consideration as it requires ingenuity and thus can be done by everyone, every day and everywhere.

The mantra therefore is ‘don’t accept waste from the previous process, don’t make waste, and don’t pass the waste on to your next process’. Therefore create and sustain a quality environment.

Ensuring a Quality Environment (5s tools)

Work Organizations can thrive efficiently and effectively after this unfortunate era by providing and ensuring a sustained Quality Environment.  Quality Environment (QE) is a necessity towards achieving quality health vis-à-vis worker productivity. It means cleaner and systematic arrangement of tools, equipment, machines and others at the workplace (Gemba). This can thus be exemplified through the popular Japanese technique called the 5s.

Permit me to elucidate on the 5s techniques which are imperative to ensuring a quality environment for improved productivity even after the crisis.

In many enterprises, shop floors and offices are full of unnecessary items, dust, scattered tools and files and with cluttered aisles and corners. Time is usually lost while searching for things, moving items, asking for instructions, on accidents and untimely repairs. In these enterprises, poor housekeeping and work organization is the root cause of problems such as a high volume of rejects and spoilage, delays in delivery, machine breakdowns, low labor productivity, accidents, losses, a high level of inventory, etc.

5S is a useful and powerful methodology to better organize, clean, develop, and maintain a productive work environment. It has become the basic approach to productivity and quality improvement in all types of businesses. It is called 5S because it originated in Japan where the five “housekeeping” words each begin with the letter “se” (or “shi”).

During the first ‘S’ or Sort, all unneeded and unnecessary items are removed from the Gemba. This frees up floor space and helps create a ‘clutter-free’ and safer working environment.

Sort is difficult because this requires value judgement to classify things by groups, value or purpose. It is also hard to throw away things. As a result, things accumulate over the years. Teams look around the workplace to identify items which are not needed and not necessary to complete work. Criteria to distinguish what is necessary from unnecessary are frequency of usage, value, shelf life, quantity requirements, quality, ease of replacement, sentimental value etc.:

Things you have not used for one year may be thrown away

Things you have used just once or twice for the last six months can be kept in a separate place.

Things you have used once or twice within the last three months, keep them within an accessible place

Things you use often, keep them within the workplace.

Things you use every day, keep them within easy reach.

An effective method to remove items is to mark them with a red tag and move them to a special area. The holding area should be clearly visible and clearly marked to ensure visual control of items. Responsibility for the holding area should be assigned to someone at the beginning of sorting activity. The red tag informs the responsible person on where an item comes from and what to do with it in case it is not clear.

Once sorting is complete, we straighten or arrange, only the items absolutely needed remain at the pace of work- Gemba. These items must then be arranged in such a manner as to eliminate searching. All items must have a designated location (highlighted by labels or signage) and must be placed only in their designated location – i.e. “a place for everything and everything in their place’. A good rule of thumb is that any item one is looking for must be found within 30 seconds.

Shine or Cleaning is the essence of 5S. Workplaces, machines, areas surrounding the machine, and walkways must be cleaned regularly and kept tidy and spotless.

Cleaning is however, not just cleaning to keep the workplace clean. Cleaning should be seen as a form of inspection to eliminate causes of problems and sources of wastes. Trash and dirt in machines cause abrasion, blockages, leaks, movement defects, electrical defects, loss of precision and often lead to breakdown and defective products. Cleaning reveals abrasions, damaged loose parts, deformities, leaks, temperature, vibrations, abnormal sound and smell, rust and scratches, discoloration, skipping, and others.

Standardize is about maintaining the status achieved by the first 3S. As the name implies, standards must be developed for sorting, systematic arrangement and scrubbing. Without these standards, the workplace will deteriorate slowly back to its original mess. Thus, three ways to standardize could be: delegate responsibilities as regards the 3s, integrate 3s maintenance duties into regular work activities and check on how well the 3s conditions are being maintained.

Self-discipline is essential to ensure that people always follow the standards under all circumstances. (i.e. no shortcuts). Having standards would be of no use if people lack the self-discipline to follow the standards.

It takes time and discipline before you can expect people to do things without being told or ordered. Hence, promotional activities are needed to sustain the commitment and enthusiasm of everybody. Some of these activities are inter-department competitions, owner-manager audits, periodic audits and most importantly valuing the contributions of everyone to the 5S process. This will help instill the 5S habit in everyone.

Safety dimension

Worker safety in all of these remain pivotal. To demand work efficiency from a worker is to provide a safe atmosphere that will enable workers to thrive.

Article 24(1) of the 1992 Constitution of Ghana provides inter alia: – “Every person has the right to work under satisfactory safe and healthy conditions”. The worker’s right to a safe and healthy working condition is constitutionally guaranteed and is not negotiable

The enormous burden of poor working condition is a stunning statistic that must be checked. Accidents occasioning injury to workers occur on a daily basis. The International Labour Organisation (ILO), the United Nations (UN) organ dealing with labour matters worldwide, estimates that over 2.3 million work-related accidents or diseases occur annually worldwide. This corresponds to over 6000 deaths every single day.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), also a UN body dealing with health matters, 1.5% of the global burden in terms of disability-adjusted life years result from only a selected occupational risk.

Though health is generally defined as a “State of complete physical, mental and social well-being,

not merely the absence of disease or infirmity” WHO (1947), quality health on the other hand bothers on wellness – a deliberate and constant effort to stay healthy and achieve the highest potential for wellbeing, living a lifestyle that optimizes all aspects of health. A healthy worker is undoubtedly an incentive to assimilating all the necessary instruction for work, interpret complex work commands to ensure the delivery of such task as to fulfil the customer expectations.

Therefore, ensuring quality health of the worker is the ‘sine qua non’ to attaining worker productivity. Thus, a quality environment is required.

Undoubtedly, the worker health and safety is a Human Resource function in that it is the utmost responsibility of Human Resources Unit to assign work, make provisions for conducive environment, monitor and evaluate such deliverable etc. and to ensure the worker remains safe whilst at work.

Fundamental to the provision of such Human Resource function is the exercise of ergonomics- meaning the science of work and a person’s relationship to that work. It puts people first, taking account of their capabilities and limitations. Ergonomics aims to make sure that tasks, equipment, information and the environment fit each worker. This, thus ensures uncompromised work delivery and ultimately productivity.

In order to behave ergonomically, some factors are worthy of note. Notable among them is the nature of the job or task to be done. Thus, the demand on the worker, the workload, work pacing, shift work and fatigue should be considered when decisions are made to assign a piece of work to a worker. Another area that explains working ergonomically is also the information used; how it’s presented, accessed and changed. Let us also not remain oblivious of the physical environment- thus temperature, humidity, lighting, noise pollution and vibration as well as the equipment used- it’s design in terms of size, shape, controls, displays and how appropriate it is for the task. By assessing people’s abilities and limitations, jobs, equipment and working environment, interactions, it is possible to design safe, effective and productive work systems

Scenario will suffice:

Palletizing boxes

Task description: 

pick up cartoon: a worker picks up a carton from a 27-inch conveyor system.

A 44-year-old warehouse man for this repeated action, sustained a low back injury which induced a permanent disability with work restrictions of no repetitive bending.

Ergonomic solution:

A manual pallet unitizer was placed under the pallet.

This device automatically adjusts and keeps the pallet height at the optimum level for the worker.

This device also rotates 360 degrees which reduces walking and reaching.

The employee could perform the job responsibilities without worsening his low back condition

The responsibility for health and safety in the work environment cut across all facets of the organization ie employers, supervisors, workers, prime contractors and owners.

Employers’ responsibility generally relates to hazard control and worker health and safety. In carrying out these duties, management can demonstrate their commitment to health and safety in the workplace.


There is no denying that to effectively deal with the aftermath of the present pandemic occasioned by loss of jobs and security is to turn to holistic Productivity Management. Productivity Management is the key to organizational survival and it is a journey of continuous improvement involving employees at all levels.

I wish to associate with the adage that ‘wisdom is brought out when faced with a hardship’ and Kaizen application through the 5s tools is the new wisdom to provide solutions post COVID -19 industrial hardship.

Productive Day!

 The writer is a Management Consultant- MDPI)

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