So You Want to Know About 5S?

Since I have been involved in many quality systems over the years, organizing a business so that you can drive the maximum production potential has always been a top interest of mine. About 15 years ago give or take, the new buzz words were Lean Production Systems. The Japanese, always trying to improve their processes, came out with a continuous improvement process model which included something called 5S. It used some very interesting approaches to organizing the business. This wasn’t just for production, but for the customer service areas as well, including the front office and all the way through the rest area and customer convenience spaces.

So what is 5S?

5S is an organizational methodology that is used to be sure that we eliminate any waste in the facility or the processes to keep those producing the “widgets” focused on them and not things which don’t help produce the products. Anything that might be a detriment to productivity is eliminated helping to keep productivity at its maximum at all times. The 5Ss are:

  1. Sort
  2. Set in Order
  3. Shine
  4. Standardize
  5. Sustain

These are simple words with huge implications in all areas in the business they are applied to.


The first step, Sort, is going through all of the processes and materials, paperwork or systems used within those processes and identifying waste. That could be something as simple as forms, to something as complex as tools. It could be just old junk that’s just lying around and perhaps in the way. Once it’s identified, removing it and discarding it.

Set in Order

Then we move to the second step of Setting Things in Order or developing an alternative plan that removes the waste and starts to streamline the processes. With less interference, because waste is removed, improved efficiency typically follows. This results from simply putting necessary tools and equipment closer to the work area or, in the office areas, placing forms close to where office staff would use them versus their having to take additional time to go find them. Organizing the workspace is key to improving performance.


The third step is the Shine. Shine relates to the cleanliness of the facility. For the customer, it means entering a business that looks like a business should. Inviting, clean and organized and the appearance that the business is ready to serve the customer’s needs. This also impacts the employees as they see the more inviting workspace as a place where they can produce the maximum amount of work product. It helps them to be proud of their work environment and know that it’s safe and void of nuisance items and hazards. Maintaining this is a bit more of a challenge but if this process is followed properly, the maintenance of the facility becomes continuous. Continuous improvement is one of the cornerstones of this organizational model.


The fourth step is Standardization. This one happens to be this writer’s personal favorite. A place for everything and everything in its place. Repetitive processes that leave no place for excuses. The processes are clearly defined as are the expectations. If the employees make a habit of following the Standard Operating Procedures or SOPs, the implementation and execution of the processes are made significantly easier than the typical haphazard “do it different every day” approach.

Again this isn’t only for production employees; this could be tasks such as answering the phone and documenting files. Being sure that everything that the employee is accountable for is clearly identified, clearly defined and they are held accountable for compliance using measurements that can be validated through an audit process. Visual indicators are a big part of this step including labeling tool and equipment locations, mapping walkways and equipment on the floor, signage and performance charts or status boards on the walls. This takes any chance of making an improper determination out of the review process. The measurement dictates the performance goal and result.


The last but one of the most important aspects of this organizational model is Sustain. That means a long-term commitment to the plan and a very detailed execution process that gives consistent and repeatable results. All employees from the CEO to the lowest level employee must have the same commitment to the process. It is all-inclusive. Why? Each employee depends on the other for executing their part of the program without hesitation and at the highest level of competency. The team as a whole depends on the individual performances so that the overall performance of the business is sustainable with the least amount of effort. It is not unusual for this type of effort to result in a minimum of 15 percent improvement in overall productivity.


Like most changes in company policy, this one needs to be implemented with a long-term strategy as the goal. The changes that this type of organizational activity brings are significant. So as the implementation begins, create an environment where each step is implemented department by department. As successes are identified, then move on to the next. Wholesale change all at once doesn’t allow for an examination of each step. If a concern is identified, no one will be able to identify what corrective action will be required because too many things were undertaken at one time. Slow steady implementation is the key to your success. Managers who I have worked with on this process previously have always stressed slow and steady works much better than quick and radical.

Take some time to get better educated on this process which will help you long-term with your process improvement processes. There are now two 5S Webinars available in ATI’s member portal which will help you get a better understanding of the program and how it might work for you. Continuous improvement is the goal; using SOPs keeps the process grounded, and the use of audits or reviews keeps management focused on results and employee performance. The true winner is the business because all things that impact it are reviewed frequently and when a correction is required, the needed corrective actions are much easier to identify.