When our new CEO asked us to lead a company-wide initiative to clean up our physical space, honored and challenged, we jumped at the opportunity. Before we knew it, we were being briefed on 5S methodology, a continuous improvement tool to improve resource usage and organization, and how he would like to see it put into action at the credit union.

The goal was relatively simple: apply the 5S Method and use the five steps (Sort, Set, Shine, Standardize and Sustain) at our individual and shared work space to be more efficient with our time and money. An added bonus was the morale boost as everyone worked together to achieve a common goal. Eventually, this could be applied to other solutions within the credit union – in fact, we are now going through a digital 5S initiative, cleaning up and organizing our digital space on our server and individual computers.

Cabrillo Credit Union storage space
At left, Cabrillo CU's storage space at its branch in the federal building in San Diego before the CU's massive clean-up effort. At right is the same space after the effort.

It was a whirlwind affair, and we didn’t really know what to expect. Many of us had been with Cabrillo Credit Union for five, 10, even 20-plus years — that’s a lot of paper, logo changes, swag, awards, paperclips and binders. Oh, the binders. Not to mention five branches, all with different aesthetics, storage capacities and leadership styles of their own.

We had lost sight of our image and brand and needed to regain respect for the credit union’s physical property. Why clutter our spaces with old, outdated information or tie up funds in an excess supply of paper and coffee when it could serve as higher dividends to a member’s account?

This was the first and most challenging step. It consisted of scanning the area, setting a goal for improving the space, estimating the time and resources needed to accomplish that goal, and drafting a detailed action plan (including hours per week to be dedicated, who is in charge of which areas and more).

When we set out our plan, there was an impetuous rush to clean personal spaces rather than simply sorting these spaces in anticipation of the next steps.

Emotions ran deep during the first purge — some believed this effort presaged a merger or downsizing and layoffs. Much of our job during this step was reassuring fellow staff, and putting a stop to rumors and misconceptions.

As we watched the chaos unfold, we recognized the vast differences in interpretation of what we thought was a simple plan, something we weren’t prepared for. To help with this, we recommend spending more time emphasizing the steps and their importance for sustainability.

Set (in order)
Since organizing is something we’re all pretty familiar with, the Set phase was relatively easy for staff motivation and was an easy hurdle to overcome. We provided a number of organizational tools during this phase: labelers, additional shred bins and trash cans, and a room for items that could be donated. Sometimes it was a matter of resurrecting existing tools, such as the three filing cabinets that locked but were missing keys, and three safes to which we no longer had the combinations. We were able to get the keys and combinations from the manufacturers so we could use this equipment again.

For this phase, the message was easy to get across and people were receptive – it really helped boost confidence.

It was during this step that we determined whether items in a given space were necessities, extras or disposable. To make that determination, employees were told to ask themselves when was the last time they used a given item, does it serve more than one person, does it have value to the organization and is it “on brand.”

Shine was about cleaning up and removing unneeded items. Similar to the Sort step, we were faced with another emotional rollercoaster.

One man’s trash is not always another man’s treasure. It was hard to “throw money away,” but most of our overly abundant office supplies were not in a condition that we could donate. We looked for opportunities to recycle, but our ecological footprint was becoming evident.

This step stirred emotion on a less personal level. We were all starting to realize how our actions led to the abundant of accumulated waste and ultimately how it impacted the credit union’s health. Although we had identified donation pickups to come on-site, we would recommend that you have pickups scheduled in advance and be prepared for the items they won’t take.

Now that we had the clutter cleared, it was time to establish maintainable standards that would same time when looking for things, create an efficient work space, and allow us to only order the supplies that were truly necessary. Without this principle in place, we could easily revert back to the same place quickly.

Surprisingly, we had to review this step multiple times with various departments, particularly in relation to shared spaces like the kitchen. Although the tidied spaces looked amazing, maintaining standards was a struggle for a few departments. Key to this stage is establishing and documenting standards for maintaining the newly cleaned space.

We found ourselves struggling to stand back and encourage rather than physically “helping.” What worked was using successful examples from others to motivate those who were lacking.

The ultimate goal: keeping it clean once you get it clean. How do we ensure we don’t revert to pre-5S? We have acknowledged it’s realistic to slip and gradually lose motivation, so follow-up and accountability are imperative. That means creating a periodic audit of all areas and establishing reasonable consequences for when things do slip — we’re also looking to implement an incentive, especially for our first bi-annual check.

Our takeaway: the journey was rough, but the 5S method works, and can help save time and money, and boost morale. For example, as part of the initiative, we reviewed the way we were ordering supplies. Ordering bulk provided a price break, but it often meant we couldn’t get through supplies before their expiration. In expired coffee alone, we threw away 15 boxes — about $900 worth of coffee.

We also reviewed our trash and recycling pick-up and determined we could reduce the frequency, saving $481 per month — about half of our previous bill.

Looking back, it’s remarkable what our team was able to accomplish in such a short amount of time. From Sort to Sustain it took two months for 64 employees, five branches and a corporate office to transition into maintaining.

Most unexpected was the emotion behind the process. In the beginning, it was fear, anxiety, loathing, some excitement and a little love. In the end, it was mostly love and everyone was proud of their accomplishments and excited to show off their new spaces.

Overall, this was a great experience of a shared challenge that we were able to solve together.

Natasha Ataiiyan is Cabrillo CU’s project coordinator. Heather Mathis is Cabrillo CU’s card services manager.