5S for Data Center Operational Discipline: Simple in Concept, Rigorous in Effect

In Rackspace data centers, attention to “the little things” enables best in class operations.

5S is a Japanese workplace organization methodology based on five seemingly simple tasks:

  • Seiri: sort
  • Seiton: straighten or set
  • Seiso: shine
  • Seiketsu: standardize
  • Shitsuke: sustain

Inside Rackspace data centers, we leverage the 5S principles extensively. That’s because data center operations are the backbone of the fanatical, results-obsessed support Rackspace provides our customers. Our highly trained engineers monitor our systems around the clock, constantly overseeing the security and uptime of our infrastructure. To create a highly resilient environment for business-critical apps and data, we’ve built in multiple layers of redundancy.

Operationally, that means adherence to Lean Manufacturing principles. In an earlier blog post and video, I described how Lean Manufacturing guides all Rackspace data center operations; in this post I’m taking a closer look at one critical element, 5S.

[Check out this video to see how we use Lean Six Sigma for physical data center migrations]

The concept is so simple most companies turn their noses up at this practice and resort to more complicated solutions. Honestly, I’ve been guilty of it as well. Years ago, I was tasked with turning around a struggling manufacturing facility and I skipped right over 5S in order to focus on more “meaty” changes.

This proved to be a BIG mistake. Six months after implementing a number of improvement projects, the results hadn’t followed. The changes hadn’t been sustained. I found the processes had reverted back to their original state as soon as the focus had moved to the next improvement effort. Why? There was no operational discipline to sustain the changes.

I immediately halted my aggressive improvement plan to simply focus on 5S. The results were astonishing. Through the focus of 5S, cost savings poured in from a reduction in rework, transportation, damage, etc. Productivity increased and quality improved. I found it fascinating.

Flexing the muscles of operational discipline

The greatest result was the development of operational discipline muscles. A key component of 5S is simply returning items to where they belong. If someone uses a ladder, the ladder must be returned to its original holding spot. That simple requirement begins to enable organizations to develop the operational discipline required to sustain changes and improvements.

I don’t think you’re supposed to have a favorite S, but I do. My favorite is Seiso (Shine). In the manufacturing world, shine means re-painting equipment or scrubbing everything clean. When an area is organized and clean (shine), anomalies begin to stand out. Oil leaking from a faulty bearing, a drip on the floor, metallic shavings from misaligned or unlubricated parts.

The same is true in the data center industry. Shine can come in the form of cabinet cabling, power washing generators and a spotless floor in the chiller plant. This causes anomalies to stand out: a sloppy or kinked cable, A/B power cords plugged into the same power supply, a faulty generator gasket, oil or other leaks. Within a split second, the anomaly can be identified and quickly resolved before more serious consequences occur.

Here’s a quick view of how the Five Ss are leveraged within Rackspace data centers:

  • Sort – all unnecessary items have been removed
  • Straighten – power cords, cables, IT components are placed in designated locations with clear labeling to eliminate searching for parts
  • Shine – IT cabling is meticulous, making cable tracing simple
  • Standardize – global standards are created, followed, and reviewed regularly
  • Sustain – systematic audits are performed to ensure standards are maintained

At every Rackspace data center we ensure ladders, crash carts, spare parts and components all have a specific location that is marked and labeled. Floors are spotless, equipment is cleaned, items are labeled and inventory is meticulously managed.

Best in class results have followed. Process and policy adherence is very high. Uptime is beyond five 9s, and inventory cycle counts, which is a way of ensuring all inventory transactions have been recorded properly, are at world-class levels.

As the leader in managed hosting and trusted partner in IT transformation, it’s our attention to the little things that enables us to deliver big results for our customers. Our world-class, interconnected data centers are strategically located in the world’s most influential technical and financial markets to provide you with global reach, scale, and organizational agility wherever you are and whenever you need it. Learn more today. 

Jim Hawkins is the vice president of global data center operations and engineering at Rackspace, where he oversees the company’s worldwide network of data centers and other critical infrastructure and operations. Jim joined Rackspace in 2008, initially serving as director of operational excellence. Since then, he has held several positions, including director of U.S. data centers and senior director of global data center operations. Jim has brought a number of strengths to these roles, including a specialized knowledge of Lean Six Sigma methodology and operational discipline. While serving in each of his roles at Rackspace, he incorporated his knowledge of these principles into the design and daily operation of Rackspace’s critical infrastructure and teams transforming their performance. As Jim approaches his 10th year at Rackspace, he continues to make a significant impact on the performance of the company. Recently, he enhanced the operational rigor of Rackspace network operations through fleet management principles. When he’s not busy working towards his professional goals, he enjoys daily exercise, working on his landscaping projects, spending time with his wife and coaching his three sons on the soccer field. Before he joined Rackspace, Jim was a plant manager and North American fiberglass fabrics manager at Owens Corning, where he turned a struggling $40 million division into a very profitable business by leveraging his knowledge of Lean Six Sigma methodology. He earned his BS in marketing at Westminster College, graduating Summa Cum Laude, and received his MBA, with high honors, at Purdue University.

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