Don’t just organize your workplace; organize your thinking

Andrew C. Marshall
Tags: lean manufacturing
"A company that cannot successfully implement the 5 Ss cannot expect to effectively integrate JIT, re-engineering, or any other large-scale change. Good workplaces develop beginning with the 5 Ss. Bad workplaces fall apart beginning with the 5 Ss.”
Hiroyuki Hirano, Five Pillars of the Visual Workplace


For those of you who are unfamiliar with Hirano’s concept of the Five Pillars of the Visual Workplace – the five Ss, for short – they are five organizing principles that can maximize the utility of the physical work environment. The five Ss are Seiri, Seiton, Seiketsu, Seiso and Shitsuke. A corresponding set of approximate English alternative titles has been developed: Sort, Straighten, Standardize, Shine/Clean and Sustain. The Japanese concepts and their English equivalents are outlined and defined in Figure 1.  



The Components of 5S in a physical work environment
Figure 1


In the realm of manufacturing, the principle of the five Ss has long been established as the foundation for any successful performance improvement. Sorting, organizing, and standardizing the physical work environment so that the proper tools and equipment are at hand whenever and wherever they are needed is critical to getting work done. Maintaining an organized workplace is even more critical if you are attempting to achieve continuous improvement.


But any workplace encompasses two domains: the physical and the mental. It is not enough to ensure that the physical, or visual, workplace is uncluttered, organized, and systematized. If the people who work in it are mentally disorganized and lack a systematic thought process for solving problems and making decisions, goals will remain out of reach.


We believe that, to achieve maximum productivity and quality, employees’ brains must be just as uncluttered as their workspaces. They must have easy, consistent access to the mental tools that will enable them to work through and resolve critical issues. And these thought processes must be just as standardized as manufacturing equipment and processes.


Here are the ways in which you can apply the concept of the five Ss to your non-visual work environment – your employees’ brainpower – to achieve manufacturing excellence.


1.   Seiri - Sort

Remove what is not needed and keep what is needed.


The concept of structured thinking has been around for centuries. But the value of a common process and language for addressing problems or decisions has never been greater than in today’s complex, global, fast-moving business environment. Many of the concerns that organizations face are interrelated; often, the biggest challenge to issue resolution is being able to sort out all the component parts so they can be tackled one at a time. We call this mental sorting process “situation appraisal.”  Figure 2 lists some of the questions we recommend asking to identify the specific concerns you are facing. Once you have broken them down into manageable issues, you can then separate the high-priority ones from those that are less critical.


Some initial questions for sorting concerns

What deviations in business systems or process performance are occurring?

What decisions need to be made?

What plans should be implemented?

What changes are anticipated that will create threats or opportunities?

What opportunities exist?

What bothers us about present market conditions?

What problem causes us to expend the most energy?

What threats do we face?

What areas should be improved?

What actions do we need to take?

What are we dissatisfied with?

Where are we not meeting standards?

Where are we exceeding standards?

What new goals or standards would we like to attain?

Figure 2: Sorting Questions


2.   Seiton - Straighten

Place things so that people can easily reach what they need, whenever they need it.


Just as workers need to have the right tools for the physical job at hand, they need the right information in order to carry out their mental tasks. A rational process for retrieving the information needed to solve problems and make decisions is the best tool we know of to keep the mental workplace organized. Figure 3 includes some of the questions we recommend asking to gain access to the vital information needed to begin resolving on-job issues:


Some questions to ask to retrieve information about problems

What, exactly, is wrong? (What one object are we having a problem with, and what is happening that shouldn’t be?)

Do we know the cause? If not, do we need to find it?

What do we know the problem “IS”: What it is, where it is, when it is occurring, and to what extent it is occurring?

What do we know the problem “IS NOT”: What could the problem be, but isn’t? Where, when, and to what extent could it be occurring, but isn’t?

What is different, or distinct, about the “IS” compared to the “IS NOT”?

What changes have occurred in those areas of distinction?

How could those changes have possibly caused the problem?

How does each possible cause account for the IS and IS NOT data? Which possible cause seems most probable?

Some questions to ask to retrieve information about decisions

Do we need to make a choice?

What have we agreed to decide?

What are the desired results, benefits, and objectives we want to achieve?

Which objectives are mandatory, measurable and realistic (making them MUST objectives)?

What is the relative importance of the remaining WANT objectives?

What alternatives exist?

Do the alternatives pass the MUSTs?

Of the remaining alternatives, which perform best against the WANTs?

What are the risks?

Are the risks worth the benefit?

Figure 3: Straightening Questions

3.   Seiketsu - Standardize
Maintain cleanliness after cleaning; eliminate distractions.

Often, when a team first assembles to solve a problem or make a decision, everyone’s talking at once. Ideas are being advanced, shot down, and often brought up again minutes later. Without a shared, systematic process for tackling issues the team can keep going in circles indefinitely, wasting precious time and money while they struggle to get a handle on the situation.

When everyone on a team is using the same mental process, order is quickly restored. Information is gathered in an orderly, step-by-step sequence. At any one time, everyone on the team, from technicians to managers, is on the same page. No jumping back and forth, no going over ground that’s already been covered, no fixating on pet causes or alternatives. It’s the most efficient way we know of to get to the root of a problem or make a successful decision.

4.   Seiso – Shine/Clean
Keep things clean and polished; no trash or dirt in the workplace.

The best method of bringing the five S visual concept of Seiso into the thinking of an organization is by visible, clear, repeatable, sustainable thinking. This way of thinking requires mindfulness—an ongoing refinement of mental orientation. This mindfulness encourages an active refinement and differentiation of data that can be applied meaningfully to the high-priority issues an organization faces. It is not a recipe approach to managing and addressing critical issues, but rather a public, systematic, consistent approach to looking at each situation and accounting for its unique circumstances.

In the context of keeping organizational thinking clear, mindfulness is increased when people become more conscious of the ways systems work and how actions can have unintended consequences. Being mindful consists of ensuring that all the information necessary to take meaningful action is at hand, that the right people are involved, and that a standard process is used for gathering, sorting, organizing, analyzing, and confirming data over time. Using a consistent rational process for specific situations, and using that process repeatedly and visibly, conditions the organization to pursue clear thinking.

5.   Shitsuke – Sustain
Inspiring pride and adherence to the standards developed by all. 

The final component of the five S practices is Shitsuke. This element is crucial when applied to the invisible workplace. Employees may be trained in the use of critical-thinking skills to sort through issues and resolve them through rational analysis, but the continued use of these newly learned skills needs to be sustaining if the organization is to achieve long-term results. A performance system that supports the use of rational process can ensure that it becomes part of the organization’s culture.

Our model of the Performance System consists of five elements: the Situation, the Performer, the Response, Consequences, and Feedback. Management needs to pay close attention to each of them to ensure that they encourage organized, clear thinking.

Figure 4 lists some of the questions that need to be asked and answered in each of these five areas when constructing a Performance System to support rational thinking.

Click Here to See Figure 4: The Performance System Must Sustain Rational Thinking

(This figure is Copyright 2006, Kepner-Tregoe Inc.)

End Note
While it’s true that “good workplaces develop beginning with the five Ss,” it’s not enough to pay attention to the visual workplace. Continuous improvement can occur only when the invisible workplace – the thinking processes that employees apply to their job – is equally conducive to productivity.

About the author:
Andrew C. Marshall ( is a partner and global director of Operations capability for the Princeton, N.J.-based consulting firm of Kepner-Tregoe Inc. Since 1958, KT ( has been helping organizations dramatically improve their strategic and operational outcomes. The company’s real world expertise and unique and proven “KT Way,” used in collaboration with clients’ teams, drives predictable, measurable results and offers a more effective alternative to traditional business consulting.


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