What is 5S in Lean?

What is 5S in Lean?

The 5S is a Lean technique developed by Hiroyuki Hirano. It stands for:

  • Seiri - sort
  • Seiton - straighten
  • Seiso - shine
  • Sieketsu - standardize
  • Shitsuke - sustain.

Focusing on the specific aspects of a process 5S is used to transform a wasteful workplace into an organized, efficient, value-generating, and safe environment. The technique is often considered the key tool in a Lean environment, ensuring that waste is reduced.

5S is part of the Toyota Production System, aka Lean, although TPS itself used 4S, having combined Seiton and Seiso. 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 constantly improve the standards, and progress along the Lean journey in a methodical way.

Note, that although the five s-words in Japanese seem slightly different from their English counterparts, it’s only due to translation technicalities - some phrases have been substituted to keep the words starting with s in English too.

5S in Lean

Much like the Lean and Kanban umbrella terms, the 5S is not a tool that can 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. This will help to 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, through which you remove all unnecessary items from your work station. 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.

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, it’s useful and recommended that a leader or manager oversees the Seiri phase. They will be able to objectively help staff members with the implementation of 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. But for people, who work mostly in their heads and on their PCs, the area you want to look at here is your process. Does it have a clear outline? Are there steps that could be dropped, 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.

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!

Step 2: Seiton – Straighten

This phase deals with locating everything in an appropriate place. Seizo 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, that is to be used 50 % of the time is a waste and not in line with Seiton.

Seiton also brings an opportunity to make instructions visual. 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. A well done Seiton phase would mean that workers can get an item and return it to its operation all without leaving their workstations. Also, team members, who had never worked in an area, should easily be able to find what they need, removing the need for long orientation sessions. Lines drawn on the floor, showing where items are to be placed, 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, and make sure the things you work on can be easily shared with your colleagues and your boss. Rather than having to report on what was done, just let them take a look at the built-in automated metrics.

Step 3: Seiso – Shine

Seiso describes the daily activity of cleaning and keeping a work area as neat as possible. A team member should make sure the floors are clean and the machinery is free of grime. As an operator cleans their equipment, they will also notice whether the machinery is still working, which helps with maintenance.

An important point here is that the equipment operator is the best person to keep it clean and in order, the act of cleaning it should therefore 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 got out of. Maintain your process board and file storage in neat form, removing unnecessary tasks, and archiving done work regularly. Be sure to always tell what your focus should be today, this week, and what got accomplished in recent days.

Step 4: Seiketsu – Standardize

The Standardize phase is used to maintain all that was achieved in the first three phases. In Lean and Six Sigma both, there is a practice of standardization, to prevent variation from causing defects and errors. Standardization in 5S shows how constant 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 that it’s often the non-standard tasks that create the mess. Your boss tells you that they need an urgent report ASAP, so you drop everything and run to find the required information, you deliver the report 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 simply known, that a budget report is required every 6 months so that you would have gathered the necessary data on time. Or, the Seiketsu phase would make you use a true 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. 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 being done on the factory floor. Area checklists, as well as 3-minute blitz cleaning exercises, and company reward incentives, can all be incorporated to further the discipline. Team assessments should be performed 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
Seiri 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 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”.
Seiso Areas are dirty, documents are on the office floor, all is out of order. All employees have a documented way of cleaning and maintaining their stations. This comes from top leadership down.
Sieketsu No standardization of procedures. Each person has a unique way of doing and storing things. Process documentation is easily available, and even that is being refined and improved.
Shitsuke Workplace checks occur when clients come and 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. This 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, though individual empowerment to make changes for the better.