OpEx 101: What's All the Fuss About with 5S?


Let's start with this ...

Upon implementing 5S, we MUST aspire to achieve a fundamental concept of Lean; reduce and eliminate waste.

"Oh... ok. Sure, that's right."

That's what they all say.

Based on five Japanese words, Seiri, Seiton, Seiso, Seiketsu, and Shitsuke; 5S is a work-arrangement methodology that provides a pathway to achieving the best workplace layout possible. We've translated the Japanese terms into five convenient English words - Sort, Set in Order, Shine, Standardize, and Sustain. 5S improves the flow of work and reduces waste in our factories and offices.


What Does 5S Give Us?

I've walked the Gemba many times, in lots of different types of businesses, and asked the following question to leaders, managers, and rank and file employees; "Are you committed to Lean?"
Too often, the answer is, "Yes, we're doing 5S."

Next question; "Are you doing 5S, or are you committed to Lean?"
This is usually met with, "Huh?"

Here's a question; one needing to be asked for a long time. "Why 5S? I mean really? Why do you need 5S?"

Of all the tools in the Lean toolkit, 5S is the most abused. Often, companies start 5S under the misconception around achieving an above-average 5S audit score as the target of a Lean program. Audits of workplace organization are means to the end goal--process efficiency and effectiveness.

5S could be the most wasteful activity you undertake if the follow-through and commitment to reduce waste is not present. The negative effects of a cursory 5S program, implemented to merely satisfy some strategic objective to start Lean, bring on detrimental consequences. These false efforts become small bureaucracies and fail to deliver results.

Think about the concept beaten into the collective business management consciousness; "5S is the foundation for all improvement." While this statement is truthful, believing 5S is the only starting point, isn't. Business leaders often want to take a stab at Lean before they fully commit. Thus, we foster standalone 5S programs. These detached systems showcase work areas with colorful tape outlines and labels for everything. Some overzealous systems feature heavy bolted-to-the-floor machines with color-coded perimeter floor labels with the bold-lettered word, "MACHINE." Fine. But, is the cycle time of your process reduced? Have lead times for this sequence of work improved?

If 5S is not enabling the process to deliver reductions in waste, improved safety, or lessening lead times, why are you doing it?

Another error people make during ill-conceived 5S implementations is where in the business they should employ the activity. Why employ 5S in an office where efficiency of work goes unmeasured? There may be many Lean practitioners reading this, thinking up answers to the question. "Well," they will undoubtedly want to say, "it's a good practice for everyone to do 5S."

Isn't that the problem, though? Are we doing 5S, or are we trying to be more efficient?


When Should 5S Be Used?

In the best situations, a formal program is not necessary. An organization might be down the path of Lean implementation to the point where they've inherently managed to accomplish effective orderliness and efficient process management without 5S. The perfectly organized process is one where the work practices:

  • Are advanced to a perfect state - the Gemba is never disorganized.
  • Layouts are designed with economies of safe human motion and efficient product movement.
  • Cleaning is an integral element of the production process.
  • Never need to assess the standard work or flow of information, people, materials, and products.
In other words, your Gemba is exactly as you need it to be for maximum effectiveness and efficiency.

Unless your process meets the criteria laid out here, you need 5S.

Go look around the area where the value for your customers is being created. Take note of the process factors and how they interact? Can you see things in the work area that do not belong? Does the flow make sense, or are things confusing? Does the work area progressively become cluttered over time?

Where a process is disorderly, or when factors are unclear, or not labeled appropriately, or when product and work-in-process is lying around in an unorganized manner, 5S will help. In most cases, a business starting its Lean journey, will benefit from 5S.


Where in the business Should 5S Be Employed?

We use 5S to eliminate waste where we are creating value. Therefore, the only logical place to employ 5S is at the Gemba. Period. Purged from the value stream first, before implementing 5S elsewhere in the business. In fact, we should start 5S only in those processes where we measure efficiency and effectivity. This simplifies our 5S program.


The 5S Process

Preparation for 5S - bound the work area and select the team.


  • We must employ 5S at the place where the work occurs - it is best to assign 5S activities to the people who do the in this area. 
  • Scope the work area. Not too large, and not too small. Proper sizing of the work area is important. Define the start and end points of the process. Scope the process so there are fewer numbers of steps. Divide complex systems into sub-processes. Keep the area of interest minimized, sized to the team's ability to clean, and organize in a short time.
  • Document specifically the area of interest.

Step 1 - SORT the work area.

  • What items are in the workplace? Machines, tools, hand tools, material, paper, ancillary equipment... let's consider everything in the area.
  • Keep this part of 5S as simple as possible. Remove the stuff not needed to do the work for this process.
  • Some things are used often, other items only occasionally; when we get to SET, we can discuss how to organize all the things, but rule of thumb when sorting should be to focus on regular work; not the occasional work - sorting out the rarely used items will free up valuable space. Find a place to store the occasional items for later use.

The goal of SORT is to eliminate all unnecessary items from the work area.


Step 2 - SET the work area IN ORDER.

  • Arrange all the necessary items for efficient use - in a waste-free sequence or order.
  • Think about the layout; do the work steps progress from left to, right? Set up the flow to accommodate the minimum amount of space between steps, the direction of flow, and place necessary tools in the correct order of use.
  • Mark and label everything so it is easy to find, accessible, as well as easy to put back.

The goal of SET IN ORDER is to minimize the motion of people, and minimize the transport of information, material, and product.


Step 3 - SHINE the work area.

  • Clean the work area. This include machines, tools, and equipment.
  • Set up daily housekeeping rules and follow them.
  • May require cleaning after each production run, after each shift, or only when used. The repeated cleaning rules becomes an element of SUSTAIN

    The goal of SHINE is to deep clean the machines and equipment. Create a repeatable process to maintain the cleanliness.

Step 4 - STANDARDIZE the work area.

  • Keep the work area consistent. The use of outlines and labels is a form of documenting the work area. This acts as an agreement on the rules about what is proper and acceptable for the area.
  • Apply the standardization to the layout of work, location of tools, equipment, materials, and supplies.
  • Maintain operational readiness through an action plan for the work area. Create a visual board depicting the action plan.

The goal of STANDARDIZE is to establish the protocols needed to maintain 5S.


Step 5 - SUSTAIN the work area.

  • In a perfect, waste free world, we would not need 5S - SUSTAIN is about keeping the program obvious and important. Implement a 'committed to 5S' system.
  • Adopt housekeeping as a mindset shift institutionalizing workplace organization and why it is important.
  • Conduct regular repeating audits to remind the team about the commitment to 5S. Make this a part of the Leader's Standard Work.

The Goal of SUSTAIN is to Establish system of habits.

Before 5S, disorganization and chaos, reigned. After 5S, work occurs in an organized and safe way. Compare the end results to the "before" condition to show the progress made. With this focus on the waste reduction, we see 5S is a means to an end. Don't strive for a standalone program. Let your 5S initiative be the starting point but not the end of your Lean journey. Take the next step in the journey and learn How to Advance Operational Excellence in Your Business


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About the author

Scott Schwarz

Scott Schwarz is currently a Senior Director Global Operational Excellence at a leading plastics manufacturer. He is also a Six Sigma Black Belt and a dedicated operations and quality expert with 35 years experience progressively challenging assignments.