Process Improvement Partners


Tips and Tools for a More Effective Workplace

How to Organize Your Work Space With 5S

In the world of Lean Manufacturing, 5S is used to organize workplaces to make them safer and more productive. Although many great manufacturing organizations and others have been credited with inventing or popularizing 5S, I’m pretty sure my mom invented it.

When I was young, I wasn’t very organized. My mother told me, “pick up your clothes,” “put your toys away,” “make your bed,” and most importantly, “there’s a place for everything and everything in its place.” Not only did she tell me to do these things, she showed me how to do them, nagged me about them, and checked my work quite often. I couldn’t get away with anything!

Although I really didn’t heed my mother’s advice as a child, as I grew older, I came to realize how powerful these statements were. When I entered the working world, I started applying 5S to many different situations and was amazed at the immediate positive impact that I was able to make. I also saw how deeply it moved those that were able to participate in 5S efforts. They became disciples of the effort and wouldn’t allow others to erode any of the benefits of the change.

As simple and powerful as 5S is, there are many who don’t understand what it is and how it should work and use it to just “clean things up.” I would like to share my understanding and approach to 5S and try to clear up some of the confusion. 

The first thing to understand is the purpose of using 5S. I believe 5S should be used to improve the safety and productivity of an area or work space. Once agreement and alignment around this purpose has been established, the team will make choices that will benefit the users of the area.

The first S, Sort, tells us to remove anything that is not immediately needed or useful in the area. Duplication, clutter, and non-working things are to be removed, discarded, donated, or sold. Three hammers turn into one, broken things are repaired or replaced. Things that were saved, “just in case,” are no longer allowed in the area. It’s not unusual to take away more than 70% of the tools, materials, documents, and other things that were just getting in the way.  Productivity is improved by reducing the time and effort required to find what’s needed.  Safety is improved, as you no longer have to move clutter out of the way to get to what is needed.

Set in Order, the second S, says to create visible, easy to find locations for all remaining materials, tools, and equipment in the area. Define proper inventory levels, place things within reach, make it impossible to lose anything or put it away improperly. As Mom said, “A place for everything and everything in its place.” Trip and bump hazards are eliminated in this step, greatly improving safety. Productivity continues to improve as it becomes difficult for anyone to be non-compliant to the system requirements.

The next S, Shine, tells us to clean and inspect everything that remains in the area, to ensure that it is in optimal condition. We are trying to prevent problems before they happen by identifying any issues, cracks, leaks, or poor performance that may occur with our tools, equipment, documents, and other things that help us do our work. Some think that Shine means “clean things up.” I believe Shine is much more powerful than that, as this effort can reduce risk of failure, greatly improving productivity. Safety is enhanced because we can rely on everything to work properly when called upon, creating no surprises. 

The fourth S, Standardize, tells us to create expectations and audits to involve everyone in keeping things as they should be. No longer is it the responsibility of just one person, but the greater community. When I work in an area, I may not realize that things are shifting to their prior condition, things are starting to return to the area that were previously removed, or people aren’t putting things away properly. With a series of audits and auditors, there is a better chance to catch issues quickly and hold each other accountable to follow the rules of the area. In context of my childhood, I thought my room was OK every day, but Mom didn’t always see it that way, and often pointed out the error of my thinking. The safety and productivity gains are maintained through the commitment of the community and its auditors.

The fifth and final S, Sustain, challenges us to continually improve the performance of the area. By scoring the performance of the area and tracking it for everyone to see, we can identify further improvements that would enhance the safety and productivity of the area.  Once an area has seen the benefit of implementing 5S, it is not unusual for people to see other things in the area that could become part of the overall 5S system.

I think we can all agree that being organized is beneficial. I think we also can agree that we should listen to our mothers more often. Because I don’t like my vegetables, I can’t guarantee that I will do everything that mom tells me, but I will definitely do my best to listen more.