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The 5S Method of Improvement

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Costs pile up in the form of defects and waste. Consider these all-too-familiar situations:

• Output does not meet its potential due to crew-to-crew variations.

• Utilization suffers because product changeovers take too long.

• An important part cannot be found, so another is rushed in.

Companies attempt to improve through Lean, Six Sigma, or Total Productive Maintenance initiatives. However, studies since 1998 report that two-thirds of these initiatives fail to meet the expectations of company leaders. Learning about the methods isn’t the challenge, putting them into daily practice is, as evident in these situations:

• Process improvements often backslide.

• Continuous improvement is just a phrase.

• The methods of the initiative aren’t institutionalized.

The root of these failings is the inability to achieve culture change. An Aberdeen Group survey (2005) reinforced this conclusion when it found that significant culture change remains the top challenge in over 80% of the companies surveyed.

One Answer is 5S

Some companies beat the odds and foster strong, positive cultures. Danaher and Toyota are two of the better known examples.

The method of 5S is one way to engage people and contribute to culture change. 5S is a visually-oriented system of cleanliness, organization, and arrangement (Figure 1) designed to facilitate greater productivity, safety, and quality (Figure 2). It engages all employees and is a foundation for more self-discipline on the job for better work and better products.

5S is a foundation for more disciplined actions. If workers cannot even put a tool back in its designated location, will they follow standards for production? Its visual nature makes things that are out of place stick out like a sore thumb. And, when properly supported, it builds a culture of continuous improvement. The benefits of 5S are:

• Cleaner and safer work areas — when a work area is clean and organized tripping hazards and other dangers are eliminated.

• Less wasted time through more workplace organization — when tools and materials are accessible and orderly, workers need less time to “go get” and less time to search.

• Less space — when unneeded items are eliminated and the needed ones are organized, required floor space is dramatically reduced.

• Improved self-discipline — the 5S system, especially its visual nature, makes abnormal conditions noticeable and makes ignoring standards more difficult.

• Improved culture — when 5S is applied systematically, it fosters better teamwork and enthusiasm.

People like to work in a well-organized and clean environment. They feel better about themselves and better about their work, and they restore the self-discipline that is found in winning teams.

What are the 5S’s?

5S consists of:
• Sorting — separating the needed from the unneeded. Sorting activities aim to eliminate unneeded items from the work area and to perform an initial cleaning.

• Simplifying — a place for everything and everything in its place, clean and ready for use. Simplifying arranges the workplace to ensure safety and efficiency.

• Systematic Cleaning — cleaning for inspection. Systematic daily cleaning and inspection of work areas and equipment help you understand current conditions and determine if corrective action is required.

• Standardizing — developing common methods for consistency. Standardizing aims to make abnormal conditions noticeable and to document agreements to ensure consistency and sustainability.

• Sustaining — holding the gains and improving. Sustaining is aimed at maintaining the improvements from the other 5S activities and improving further.

Implementing 5S

Often, companies mistakenly view 5S as a housekeeping activity. Housekeeping is housekeeping, not 5S. 5S is a visual system and a system for engaging employees. 5S must be a team effort and the results must enable anyone to “tell at a glance” what is right and what is out of place. It also must make doing the work easier. Implementing 5S occurs in two phases: initial implementation and later refinement.

Since organizing is a key to 5S, eliminating unneeded items comes first. It is wasteful to find a home for something that is not needed.

Sorting — Sorting clears the deck for the remaining activities. It can often take weeks to accomplish in any given area or department. The steps of sorting are:

• Establish criteria for what is not needed. For example, if something hasn’t been used for a year, it may be a candidate for disposal.

• Identify the unneeded items and move to a holding area.

• Dispose of the not needed items, either by transferring to a department that needs them, selling them, or discarding them.

• Conduct an initial cleaning.

Once the initial sorting is completed, the natural sequence is to get the work area organized. Simplifying, systematic cleaning, and standardizing go hand-in hand. Simply simplifying – organizing the work – area will deteriorate if the standards are not set. The next paragraphs cover each “S” separately, but they work as a system, and must be performed at the same time, or nearly so.

Simplifying — Simplifying finds a home for everything. The home should be where the item will most efficiently be stored. Frequently-used items must be as close to where they are used as possible. The steps of simplifying are:

• Determine a location for each item based on frequency of use and proper safety zone (decreasing the likelihood of strain injuries, for example).

• Develop shadowboards and label items – a home for everything.

• Determine how to replenish supplies.

• Document layout, equipment, supplies, and agreements for returning items to their homes.

Systematic Cleaning — Systematic cleaning provides a way to inspect, by doing a clean sweep around a work area. This means visually as well as with a broom or rags. The idea is make the job of doing daily cleaning and inspections easier. The steps of systematic cleaning are:

• Identify points to check for performance.

• Determine acceptable performance.

• Mark equipment and controls with visual indicators (e.g., gauges show the correct range).

• Conduct daily cleaning and visual checks.

Standardizing — Standardizing assures that everyone knows what is expected. Since the workplace team establishes the standards, everyone should have had some involvement in establishing the 5S in their work area. Still, it is important to make these standards very clear. The steps in standardizing are:

• Establish a routine check sheet for each work area. The check sheet is like a pilot’s pre-flight check list. It shows what the team should check during self-audits.

• Establish a multi-level audit system where each level in the organization has a role to play in ensuring that 5S is sustained in the work areas and that the 5S system evolves and strengthens.

• Establish and document standard methods across similar work areas.

• Document any new standard methods for doing the work.

Sustaining — Sustaining is usually thought of as the toughest “S.” However, it doesn’t need to be. The trick is to let the 5S system work for you. When you get to this point, you should have engaged everyone in the work area during 5S activities and have a “tell at a glance” visual workplace. If this is so, then sustaining is much easier. That is important, but not sufficient. A more systematic way to prevent backsliding and to foster continuous improvement is needed. The steps of sustaining are:

• Determine the 5S level of achievement – the overall grade.

• Perform worker-led routine 5S checks using the 5S check list.

• Address backsliding and new opportunities found during routine checks.

• Conduct scheduled, routine checks by team leads or supervisors or by people from outside of the workgroup.

• Perform higher-level audits to evaluate how well the 5S system is working overall.  For example, are there systemic issues with sustaining 5S? Often, the company’s safety committee is an excellent body for conducting these audits.

It is through sustaining activities that the practice of 5S is refined. When items aren’t returned to their homes, the cause is most likely to be that the home was inconvenient. When the work team addresses these problems, they improve the sustainability of 5S and, more importantly, they improve safety, morale, and productivity.

Measuring the 5S Level of Achievement

Applying the adage, “what gets measured gets done”, 5S uses a five-level maturity matrix to grade the 5S level (illustrated in Figure 3). To illustrate the use of the matrix, look at the levels from I to V for Simplifying. Level I is a typical starting level where the work area is an unorganized mess. Achieving Level II for Simplifying requires that needed items are safely stored according to frequency of use. Frequently-used items should be close to the point of use. Achieving Level III requires that the correct quantities of those items have a clearly marked home. Often work areas can achieve this level relatively quickly by installing shadow boards (outlines showing visually where items belong). Levels IV and V require additional refinement. Level IV requires that the number of items in an area are minimized. That means fewer consumables, fewer files or paperwork, and fewer tools. Level V requires that anyone, even people unfamiliar with the area, can retrieve any needed item within 30 seconds and with minimal movement. The overall 5S Level of Achievement is the lowest level attained for any of the S’s. 5S is only as good as its weakest link. If a work area has not addressed Standardizing and Sustaining, no matter how high the level achieved for the other S’s, the area will eventually revert to a non-5S state.


Although 5S will not solve today’s competitive challenges, it does provide a solid foundation for achieving operational excellence. In fact, some world-class companies claim that there can be no improvement without 5S.

The teamwork and discipline built through 5S improve worker-to-worker and worker-to-manager relationships. When people see that what they do makes a difference, and when they see that they have eliminated wasteful practices, their pride grows. This is perhaps the greatest benefit of 5S.


For ways to implement 5S at your facility, see our custom shadow boards and signage here:


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