5S Overview
5S is a simple, intuitive, powerful method that can be applied to any workplace or industry from equipment manufacturing to legal services. While 5S creates orderly workplaces it’s far more than simple cleaning or housekeeping. 5S drives continuous improvement in workplaces by systematically exposing waste, making abnormalities visible, and prompting change for the better.

Identifying abnormalities is one of the main functions of 5S. Consider a messy workplace for example. If our workplace is normally a mess, we wouldn’t know when something is out of place or wrong. By contrast, if our work environment is typically clean and well organized, then there’s a greater possibility that we’ll notice when something is out of place or not right. Simply by recognizing problems earlier, we’re more likely to them and do so more efficiently.

The 5S Origins
Ultimately, 5S is a lean diagnostic approach. Developed in Japan as a quality management methodology, 5S refers to five Japanese words beginning with the letter “S”.
  1. Seiri – Sort
  2. Seiton – Straighten
  3. Seisou – Sweep or Shine
  4. Seiketsu – Standardize
  5. Shitsuke – Self-discipline/Sustain

Of note, while often considered Japanese in origin, the roots of 5S may not be Japanese at all, but American. This would make a lot of sense since the Japanese studied much of Henry Ford’s work following the war. Ford’s “Can Do” program is strikingly similar to 5S.

  • C – Cleaning up
  • A – Arranging
  • N – Neatness
  • D – Discipline
  • O – Ongoing improvement

Origin aside, the key here isn’t to get hung up on mild semantic differences between the two frameworks, but to take note of their similarities and understand their power.

Why is 5S important?
First and foremost, 5S is so important because of the impact it has on safety. Ultimately, an organized and safe workplace is what we should all be maintaining. At its core that’s what 5S is all about.
5S also helps us identify and eliminate waste. Surprisingly, workers have found that they are more productive in decluttered and organized workspaces. This applies to anyone in any profession who works for hours in the same space and just wants things to be in its place when they need them.

The 5S principle is also known to be very beneficial due to it being very low cost and very high impact. You don’t need to invest a significant amount of money to implement 5S. In fact, you could actually even make a few bucks if you end up selling some of the things that you no longer use or need.

Carrying out 5S in the right way gets everyone in the organization involved. It doesn’t apply to just one person in particular as it has no boundaries. 5S is a good opportunity to get people to collaborate and interact with each other. The end result would be a much stronger workforce and company.

Another reason 5S is so vital is because adherence to standards is key to Kaizen and continuous improvement. So, if you can’t do 5S, you can’t do lean. In fact, 5S is a key building block for various tools and lean concepts such as one-piece flow, total productive maintenance (TPM), and the single minute exchange of dies (SMED) technique. Thus, the reason why some proclaim that ‘without 5S you can forget about the rest’.

The 10 Commandments of Lean

  • Step 1: Sort Out
    Often referred to as just “sort”, unfortunately, this step is frequently misunderstood to mean arranging. Adding “out” to the end helps remind us what the real purpose of the step is which is to “sort out” or rid ourselves of the things we no longer need or use. Obviously, this poses a huge problem for many of us because we are often so attached to the things that we have. However, the key concept that must be understood is that holding on to unnecessary items such as old inventory only contributes to (physical and mental) clutter and disorganization. So, don’t hold on and just let go.
  • Step 2: Straighten
    After ridding yourself of unnecessary clutter, next you need to straighten, or organize what’s left so that that everything that remains has a designated place and is maintained in that place. Organizing drawers, and workbenches with shelves computer folders, and work benches so will span will help you determine if something is missing. This will give you the chance to look for the item or replace it if needed.
  • Step 3: Sweep
    This is also sometimes called shine. Many people often misunderstand sweep or shine to simply refer to the act of cleaning or tidying up. However, there’s much more to this principle. It’s much better to think of sweep as “cleaning to inspect” or searching for mess that needs to be cleaned for good. That is, you find yourself cleaning up the same mess frequently, you should seek to uncover the source of the mess or disorder and eliminate it. By doing so you not only save yourself from cleaning the mess in the future but may even improve efficiencies elsewhere.
  • Step 4: Standardize
    The purpose of this step is to define standards so that they systematically call attention to abnormalities when they occur. Checklists and audits are powerful tools in this effort. Keep things simple though so people will find it easy to comply. A good thing to remember is to leave things better than you found it. Think of ways to standardize your company and how this would fit in.
  • Step 5: Self-Discipline (or Sustain)

    Ultimately, none of our efforts up to this point will matter if we don’t sustain them. That requires self-discipline or doing without being told. The key to this step is to proactively apply positive tension or accountability. If you want to sustain your 5S improvements, it must be clear to everyone what the standards for behavior are moving forward and everyone must hold themselves to those standards. Positive tension empowers people in your organization to call attention to abnormalities, without hesitation. No tension will blind you from seeing the underlying issues and it may be too late when you realize the damage that has been done.

    Undeniably, there are many benefits when you follow 5S improvements. 5S is a powerful and timeless tool for driving continuous improvement in any organization or sphere of life. 5S is also just as powerful in personal development.