Workplace Conditions & 5S…up on The 606

By now you know that I’m always on the lookout for lessons in business improvement that reveal themselves in our regular “non-business” lives.  This weeks’ “aha” moment happened on one of my morning walks with my faithful 4-legged companion Bobby up on the 606 (or as the City of Chicago would like me to officially call it—The Bloomingdale Trail.)

The 606 is one of a number of urban renewal projects in Chicago similar to what’s happening in many urban centers all around the U.S.  Originally a ground level freight rail line, the 606 was elevated above street level in the early 1900’s and was operational until the mid-1990’s. Once the rail line shut down things quickly fell into disrepair, and the tracks above the street were covered in weeds, trees, trash and worse. It became a pretty unsavory and unsafe eyesore for the neighborhoods of Logan Square, Humboldt Park, Wicker Park & Bucktown.

These areas were all starting to evolve and change as people showed greater interest in re-settling back into the city. Chicago took the bold step in the mid-2000’s to re-claim the 606 for the residents rather than leave it as was or bulldoze it down and replace it with the original street (Bloomingdale Ave.). If you’re interested, a more detailed history is available at

The result is a fantastic, 2.7 mile recreational trail for walking, biking, running, etc., with beautiful plants and trees, street overlooks, multiple entrance and exit opportunities, drinking fountains, and some pieces of street art.  Unlike Manhattans’ HighLine there is no commercialization–meaning no vendors, no food stalls, no advertisements, etc. This is purely for pedestrian recreational and commuting use. It’s always well-manicured and clean, packed with an extremely diverse crowd: male & female, young & old alike; and the full gamut of Chicago’s racial and ethnic residents which means this is not like many other urban gentrification stories. The entire area seems to have embraced the 606!

OK—so where’s the business lesson you ask?  You may have an underperforming asset in your portfolio. It may be a single location, an entire business unit, or a section of your manufacturing facility. Chances are it doesn’t look quite like your best performing assets. Just a little more cluttered. Maybe just a bit darker and dirtier. The machinery might be a bit worn and there’s excess inventory and parts laying all around. The safety statistics are trending in the wrong direction. And most importantly the people who work there just don’t seem quite as energetic and engaged as the teams at your better plants. It’s like the weed infested overgrown, dark and dangerous old train tracks running through Chicago!

The great thing is you have the power and the resources to start making improvements in your work environment—today! You and your team really don’t need much in the way of 5S training (there’s plenty of free 5S info out there and honestly most of this is simply common sense and your leadership willpower!). With your smart leadership you also won’t need to tap heavily into your precious repair & maintenance budget.  Take all of the excess machine parts, metal scraps, wood, corrugated boxes, etc., that haven’t been used in years (all identified and segregated in your initial Sort phase) and sell it off to your local scrap dealer. You may only get a few hundred dollars, but that’s enough to get you a few buckets of paint and a couple of extra brooms and mops—you get the idea!

This is an opportunity to engage the whole team in working together towards a common goal. Jump in and get dirty along-side your team—it’ll be fun, and you’ll forge a stronger relationship with your most precious resource—your people! And just like with Chicago’s 606, the improved conditions feed on themselves. Once the plant is uncluttered, clean, organized, bright, etc., and you have put in place some processes to monitor and keep it that way, you and your team will have a much easier time “seeing” opportunities for continued improvement. Unsafe conditions will be easier to spot and correct. Excess parts and inventory will become more obvious—they will “stick out” as not really fitting with the new environment. Since there will be less clutter—paths to improve workflow and material flow will become more obvious. And with the improved sightlines you and your management team will have better visibility across the plant—again allowing you to “see” the full operation as you walk the floor.

This initiative alone won’t improve your bottom line. But it builds a foundation, sets a tone, and shows your employees that you are invested in giving them a safe, clean, and organized workplace—a space where they can succeed and improve. Just like the city of Chicago—you can take a poor and underperforming asset and give it new life.

Invest in your people and invest in the conditions of the spaces where they work. You get happier, more relaxed, safe, and engaged employees, who drive your business forward every day.  Don’t just say it—lead by doing it.

This article was originally published on August 20th, 2018 on LinkedIn.

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