A STROLL around the VivoCity outlet of Chinese restaurant chain Pu Tien will soon show that the managers want to take the guesswork out of the business.
Labels in Chinese and visual aids have been placed on almost everything, from the ingredients in the kitchen to the green chilli container sitting by the utensils.
There is a clear strategy behind the seemingly finicky process - intricate visual labels for food items and equipment allow space to be managed efficiently while taking guesswork out of the equation.
This is all part of 5S, a structured programme introduced by the Restaurant Association of Singapore (RAS).
The 5S term refers to sort (structure), systemise (system), shine (sanitise), standardise and self-discipline.
It is aimed at organising work spaces in an efficient manner while achieving standardised cleanliness.
Improving workplace efficiency and streamlining processes in turn increase productivity, according to the RAS, which has introduced the system to restaurant chains all over Singapore.
Pu Tien founder and chief executive Fong Chi Chung tells The Straits Times in Mandarin: "In the past, my kitchen was stuffed with stock, and it made me feel happy because it felt like I was doing a lot of business.
"After implementing 5S in the central kitchen, it felt like everything had disappeared. But it was for the better. Before 5S, everything was based on experience and memorising what stock you had. After 5S, it was systematic. I'd be sure whether I had three days', one week's or one month's worth of stock left."
Everything was accounted for, he notes, which improved freshness levels, cash flow and training hours.
It now takes just one minute for a staff member in an outlet to find an item compared with five to eight minutes before 5S was rolled out.
Food costs for the eight-outlet chain have fallen by 3 per cent to 5 per cent. It now takes two weeks, down from a month, to train new employees.
RAS president Andrew Tjioe says: "5S is a concept or philosophy which can be applied not only in restaurants but also our daily lives. In the case of a restaurant, it's more about visual management. When you are systematic and structured, you will be able to find what you need in seconds. This is important in a daily operation, otherwise you won't be productive."
The first S - sort - teaches a company how to streamline resources. It focuses on the idea of a centralised storage concept with materials or ingredients packed in a certain structure.
Systemise refers to having good allocation and designation of areas so equipment and stock can be retrieved quickly and easily without having to rely on memory.
Mr Tijoe notes: "Things such as the date of production and location of item are clear, and you know when the product will expire. This also reduces the possibility of food poisoning."
To shine or sanitise means various work stations within the organisation are assigned to a specific person for cleaning, sorting and checking.
Standardising workflow processes means companies should use visual cues, which increase productivity.
All these processes help manage space in the workplace, which in turn will help businesses save on their rent, says Mr Tijoe.
"With space management, you don't need so many of the same ingredients in big amounts. "If you manage your space well, you can operate within a small area and use it in a more efficient way."
But implementing four of the S processes is not enough. The fifth - self-discipline - is key to continued success.
This ability to stick to the programme through thick and thin was one of the factors that helped Pu Tien win the RAS Best 5S Excellence Award last year.
Mr Tjioe says: "Pu Tien is the best when it comes to implementation of 5S. It's everywhere, from the kitchen to where they store the cups and cutlery.
"It's very neat, and you can immediately tell when a restaurant has implemented the 5S system. "More restaurants are adopting this system, and it has to be from top-down. The boss has to be really determined to change."
RAS vice-president Han Jin Juan, who also chairs the 5S Council, says the idea to bring 5S to Singapore was born out of a trip to Hong Kong about five or six years ago.
"It started off with a visit to a function hosted in Hong Kong and we were impressed with the presentation given by 5S professional Iris Tam," he adds.
"Hence, we proceeded to attend the 5S consultancy course as we felt that this was a constructive opportunity for business enhancement and decided to bring the concept to Singapore in 2008."
The first consultancy class was held in March 2008 with four pioneering companies - the Jumbo Group of Restaurants, Tung Lok Group, Bakerzin Holdings and Palm Beach Seafood Restaurant.
Pu Tien's Mr Fong was amazed the first time he learnt of 5S at a session with other industry bosses in 2009.
"After seeing 5S in action I was shocked. It got me to realise that restaurants can be so neat and clean, and I wanted to encourage other companies to take part in it," he notes.
He spent about $10,000 on each outlet to implement 5S, which began in early 2010.
Now 14 food and beverage companies are using 5S in their establishments.
Briefings for 5S are usually conducted by RAS three times a year in addition to study and mission trips.
Mr Han says: "The mission trips are open for industry participation, while the study trips are for the 5S trainers, in which they have to go through the 5S Auditor Certification Course to become one."
Companies which embarked on 5S will be audited every six months, for the first three years, and awarded 5S certification as a mark of their commitment.
After three years, they will be audited annually.
The RAS has plans for one mission trip and one study trip a year.
Mr Fong adds: "I believe 5S has completely changed the way someone works. For that person to move to a place without 5S, they would be unable to work well.
"It is also impossible for our company to do without this 5S system. Now our restaurants run like clockwork."