What is 5S in Lean?

What is 5S in Lean?

The 5S is a Lean process disciplining technique developed by Hiroyuki Hirano. 5S is made of:

  • Seiri - sort
  • Seiton - straighten
  • Seiso - shine
  • Seiketsu - standardize
  • Shitsuke - sustain

5S focuses on specific aspects of a process, transforming a wasteful workplace into an organized, efficient, value-generating, and safe environment. The technique is one of the fundamental tools in a Lean environment, ensuring waste reduction.

The technique is part of the Toyota Production System, aka Lean, although TPS itself used 4S, omitting the last step, as it had already been implemented through their workers’ specific culture. Using the method across all organizational levels helps team members to understand, appreciate, and enact their impact on the process and business results.

How to use the 5S technique?

Using 5S in repeating cycles helps teams to continuously increase their standards.

Although the five s-words in Japanese seem slightly different from their English counterparts, it’s only due to translation technicalities. Some phrases were substituted to keep the words starting with s in English too.

5S in Lean

Much like Lean and Kanban, the 5S is not a tool available to be practiced well without understanding its philosophy. And the thinking behind 5S, just like in Lean, is that keeping things in order is required for survival, especially in chaotic environments.

Before you kick off your 5S journey, the good idea is to start with mapping your value stream. The reason we recommend this is you first need to know what activities add value to your process. It will guide you in deciding what equipment, services, and inventory items are/aren’t required to keep the process running and improving.

Step 1: Seiri – Sort

It’s the step in which you remove all unnecessary items from your workstation. It can be conducted at any location: in a stock room, on the production floor, or at your desk - it will bring improvements regardless of location. Armed with your value stream, start to take note of all items located in the area. The Japanese word Seiri means to organize. An organized area will help you quickly determine what is needed to perform your work and what isn’t.

In particular, you can achieve a better overview and reduce waste by getting rid of unneeded equipment. For example, it is wasteful to have three identical screwdrivers scattered around the workplace, only to ensure that at least one is at hand when needed. Having a designated space to store one is the way to go.

A note here is that the people charged with getting an area sorted are often the same people who got it into disarray in the first place. Therefore, we recommend that a leader or manager oversees the Seiri phase. They can objectively help staff members implement tags to sort the items located in their area.

Application to knowledge work: By all means, do start with your actual office/desk area - physical items that clutter your workspace, or even your visual space, will be either distracting or slowing you down. However, people who work mostly in their heads and on their PCs should focus on their process, rather than an area. Does it have a clear outline? Are there any steps that you could drop, i.e., your boss signing off on each of your planned tasks, preparing reports that no one ever reads, etc.? Remove all bureaucratic or organizational blockers from the process, and - for all work items - try to stick to a once established sequence of stages.

Clear your PC desktop of clutter – remove unneeded files and order those that are left. Decide which software solutions are best to help you with that, and do your utmost to limit their number to 2-3 apps. Maintaining more than this will be a burden in and of itself, and before you know it, that will be slowing you down. Make things easier for yourself – work smarter, not harder!

Step 2: Seiton – Straighten

This phase deals with locating everything in an appropriate place. Seiso and Seiton are probably the two most challenging phases to get right. Lean practitioners, as well as the founder of 5S, recommend that you consider several factors when choosing a place for each item:

  • Frequency of use
  • Item’s size and weight
  • Team member’s left- or right-handedness
  • Item’s safety

Remember that unnecessary motion is considered a waste in Lean, so, for instance, having to go and collect a hammer on the other side of the factory floor, while using it 50 % of the time, is a waste and not in line with Seiton.

Seiton also brings an opportunity to make instructions visual, instead of writing them into work instructions, which are potentially never read – hence are a waste. The correct labeling of where items are to be found and stored is critical here. Some Lean companies have stencils drawn out so that workers know where to put their tools away. Those get placed as clearly visible and easily accessible as possible. Good Seiton means that the employee can now take the required equipment from such a “parking lot” without having to search for it, and after use can put it back without having to leave their workplace.

Also, team members, who had never worked in an area, should easily find what they need, removing the need for long orientation sessions. Another advantage is that it’s immediately apparent when a tool is missing, and employees can check their workstations visually before signing off for the day. Lines drawn on the floor showing where to put items, where people are to walk or stand are fantastic for increasing flow, minimizing costs, and promoting safety.

Application to knowledge work: Here is where we’re circling back to the point of keeping all elements of your work in the smallest number of places - apps. Having to retrieve documentation from one software, process it in another, and send it to another one may not seem like a problem in theory. But to our minds, the fact that things are not all in one place artificially inflates the size of the job. Connect all your work in one, easy to navigate application to streamline the process, eliminate sources of error, and make sure what you work on can be shared with your colleagues and boss. Rather than having to report on what got done, just let them take a look at the built-in automated metrics.

And your desktop? Consider drawing lines on the screen background image to designate zones for various levels of importance, i.e., urgent, filing, monitoring - in which you’ll store documents and folders.

Step 3: Seiso – Shine

Seiso describes the daily activity of cleaning and keeping a work area as neat as possible. For example, a workshop employee should make sure the floors are clean (minimizing the risk of slipping) and the machinery is free of grime (minimizing the risk of accidents, wear and tear). When cleaning the equipment, the operator can also determine whether the machines are defective and can carry out minor maintenance.

An important point here is that the equipment operator is the best person to keep it clean and in order. Therefore, the act of cleaning it should not be done by a cleanup crew - that would be a waste. Companies, in which leaders are not living the 5S by example in their environments, are merely paying lip service to the concept. Leaders’ involvement and leading of the 5S initiative prevents workers from feeling patronized and spreads the 5S-led improvements across all layers of the organization.

Application to knowledge work: It’s rarely the case for an existing process to not be possible to improve further. After you’ve uncluttered and ordered your workflow, pay attention to whether your old habits or lack of focus are not rebuilding the mess you cleared away. Maintain your process board and file storage in neat form, removing unnecessary tasks, and archiving done work regularly. The board should be telling you exactly what your focus should be today, this week, and what was accomplished in recent days.

Step 4: Seiketsu – Standardize

The Standardize phase maintains all that the first three phases helped you achieve. Figuratively speaking, you’ve rolled the boulder up the mountain and now need to put a wedge underneath it so that it doesn’t roll down again. In Lean and Six Sigma both, there is a practice of standardization aimed at maintaining what is achieved and preventing variation from causing defects and errors. Standardization in 5S shows how the continuous application of a set of rules will keep an area in a clean and orderly state.

If you look at your workstation, you may find the non-standard tasks that create the mess. E.g., your boss tells you that they need an urgent report, so you drop everything and run to find the required information, you deliver it at the end of the day leaving your desk is a mess and all your other - planned - tasks in tatters. You may even think to yourself, “I am not going to pack this stuff away, just in case they need it again”.

Now, if you had a standardized way of working on everything in the first place, then even unplanned tasks would be possible to manage. You may have just known that a budget report is due every six months, and you would have gathered the necessary data on time. Or, the Seiketsu phase would make you use a one-off exercise to craft a better action plan for the future.

Application to knowledge work: Although it’s not always going to be easy to standardize a knowledge-work process, there is a lot you can plan. For example, you can standardize the naming of your files and the structure of project directories. You may also set different process scenarios for the various types of work you do - a different item template for research, writing, coding, maintenance, analysis projects, etc. Many applications typically used in these use cases, such as Kanban boards, will let you create repeating tasks or automate specific actions so that a lot of the workflow happens automatically for you. All this adds up to keeping up with a once-set standard.

Step 5: Shitsuke - Sustain

The final phase is to keep up the practice. In the book “The 5 Pillars of Visual Workspace”, Hirano expresses how 5S requires a pillar of discipline. Lean managers should use techniques such as Gemba walks to observe and review what’s happening on the factory floor. They can incorporate area checklists, 3-minute blitz cleaning exercises, and company reward incentives to further the discipline. They should perform team assessments with points given for how well they do in all the 5S areas. You can use the table below to see how your company is doing.

5S Undisciplined company Disciplined company
Items are mixed, making it impossible for a 3rd party to differentiate between what’s needed and what’s not. Employees are aware of different items and their places and are constantly looking at ways to improve.
Seiton straighten There is no permanent place for any of the items. They are located in different places on different days. Visual queues are in place. Items are easy to find and easy to return. Employees can do their work “blindfolded”.
Areas are dirty, with documents all over the place. Everything is out of order. All employees have a documented way of cleaning and maintaining their stations. It applies to everyone - from top leadership down.
Seiketsu standardize No standardization of procedures. Each person has a unique way of working and storing things. Process documentation is readily available, and constantly being refined and improved.
Shitsuke sustain Workplace checks occur when clients come to visit, or when the boss feels like it. Regular maintenance and inspections are part of the company’s way of working.

Application to knowledge work: Ensuring that you review your process every once in a while will help you spot any steps that can now be dropped or changed. But it’s much easier and more efficient to keep up with these changes daily. Provided that the size of your process team allows this, whenever you see an opportunity to make a change - do it. Alter the workflow, try new approaches, tweak and test alternative ways to process items. That is often the easiest way to maintain an evolving, healthy, and effective process for knowledge work.

The key benefits of using 5S to improve your process are:

  • A more clean and clear workflow through visual management
  • Less waste in time, effort, materials, more productivity, and increased quality
  • Standardized working and workflow methods
  • Higher team morale, through individual empowerment to make changes for the better.