When I was a young lass in college, I took an internship at a German engineering company called Althammer GmbH. Sie machen Rohre und Behälter aus Edelstahl — that's piping and pressure vessels to us English-speaking types. Largely serving pulp and paper industries, the business (althammer.de) is family owned; as company lore tells it, for some time, the founder's widow made quarterly shutdowns mandatory, to allow for regular deep-cleaning and general tidying of the facility. The idea was that orderly surroundings make for a happier, more productive work force.

Over the last two decades, similar approaches have been formalized and expanded with lean systems for coordinating and streamlining work — including Kanban, Kaizen, 3P, Six Sigma, cellular manufacturing, and total productive maintenance (TPM). However, the foundation for all of these is 5S — fancy management speak for keeping things tidy.

In short, 5S — Sort (Seiri), Set in Order (Seiton), Shine (Seiso), Standardize (Seiketsu), and Sustain (Shitsuke) — is a system to boost productivity by maintaining a clean, orderly workplace and consistent operations. 5S also helps workers improve their own working conditions and reduce waste, downtime, in-process inventory, and the square footage needed for existing operations. In fact, 5S is typically the very first method implemented when an organization goes lean.

I wonder if 5S-type approaches could be put to use on our nation's abandoned factories, to facilitate their reuse. Hear me out: In every major metropolitan area, vacant and discarded factories stand forlorn. No coordinated documentation of these buildings exists, but in one 2003 study, researchers Ann O'M. Bowman and Michael A. Pagano estimate that more than 18% of urban structures are unused — thousands nationwide, and a number that has only grown in recent years. What's worse, more than 20,000 idle facilities of 15,000 ft2 or more exist.

Application of 5S to these facilities would amount to something like the Kelling-Coles “no broken windows” approach so famously leveraged by New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who believed in the link between neglected buildings and crime. Most importantly, physically maintaining properties readies the spaces for repurposing, and facilitates their serviceability to startups establishing new businesses.

But that's not all: Another essential task for repurposing old structures is the tidying of the property's tax and title records. Increasingly, this task is falling to the public authorities known as landbanks, which collect, manage, and then release foreclosed property to new owners. In fact, as we'll explore next month, communities across the country are testing fresh initiatives to remove mortgage liens and clear the title and taxes through tax foreclosure — and clear the path for new commercial and industrial development.


Read the second installment of this series here.