The 5-S System: A “How to” Guide

Jonathan Trout, Noria Corporation

The 5-S system is a Japanese-based set of principles designed to eliminate waste and foster a workplace culture of efficiency. Read about the 5-S system and how to implement it.


What is the 5s System?

In today's competitive economic climate, a lot of businesses are continually honing their business strategy, often seeing fit to do more with fewer resources. There's a constant need to become more streamlined, creating a culture of efficiency which leads to a reduction in waste and, consequently, cost. Improving efficiency allows you to produce your current output in less time at a lower cost, and using the principle laid out by the 5-S system is a great way to identify and eliminate waste.

First used by Toyota in the late 1960s, the 5-S system is defined as a method of workplace organization based on five Japanese words: seiri, seiton, seiso, seiketsu and shitsuke. These words roughly translate as "sort," "orderliness," "cleanliness," "standardize" and "sustain." Typically implemented as part of a lean initiative, 5-S is most effective when the entire organization adopts its principles, making it part of the business philosophy and an integrated part of the company culture. In other words, the 5-S system is a method of focusing and a way of thinking to better organize and manage workspaces by eliminating the eight types of waste discussed in lean manufacturing.

The principles of 5-S create an effective visual aspect; when everything is organized and clean, problems and hazards are more easily identified. For example, having a clean plant floor helps identify any leaks occurring from nearby machinery that otherwise would have gone unnoticed. Organization can reduce wasted time and motion by having tools and other materials in the right place, a seemingly small detail but something that adds up over time.

Below, we'll break down the 5-S system, discuss the benefits it can have on your business and see how it relates to lean manufacturing.


Breaking Down the 5-S System

The 5-S system might be the least discussed and used "lean" technique, but it's a fairly straightforward process with significant benefits. It increases employee involvement, teamwork, safety and morale; reduces overall variability and uncertainty, which leads to a reduction in cost; and sets a good foundation for other lean principles. Let's discuss the principles and how to implement them.

  1. Seiri (sort): Sorting all material with the goal of getting rid of items you don't need is the first step of 5-S. Your team should ask what is necessary and what is unnecessary. Just by eliminating unnecessary items, you reduce cost through less storage space; this includes cost savings in storage rental, heating, cooling and maintaining the space.

    Seiri draws heavily from the Toyota technique of just in time (JIT), which preaches "only what's needed, in the quantity needed, only when you need it." To stay organized when implementing Seiri, many organizations use what's called the "red tag campaign." This involves placing a red tag on unnecessary items. The tag has a checklist showing the category of the item, the reason the tag was placed and an action to take (discard, move to storage, etc.). Your team should ask:

    1. Is this item necessary?
    2. If it's necessary, what amount of it do you need?
    3. If it's necessary, does it need to be placed in this exact spot?

    Once these questions have been addressed, action items can be taken. Take action by keeping the tagged items in the area for a period of time to ensure necessity, throwing the item(s) away, putting the items in another location, or leaving the items in the same place.

    Lesson: Don't forget to revisit the tagged items to determine necessity.
  2. Seiton
  3. Seiton (orderliness): You've likely heard the saying, "a place for everything and everything in its place." This is what Seiton is all about. Once items have been sorted, it's time to organize the necessary items so they're easily found by anyone in the area. To implement Seiton, follow these steps:
    1. Determine which items to position.
    2. Determine where you'll place the items.
    3. Determine how many of each item you'll need.

    When you're setting an order for commonly used items, always ensure they're stored in accessible areas that are easily navigable for employees. Group tools and other items by function and use so they're easy to find and identify. Finally, place heavy items and materials at an appropriate height so employees can pick them up and carry them without injury.

    Lesson: Think through daily tasks to determine how layout and organization can best eliminate time, motion and unnecessary movement.
    5s Principles
    5-S Principle English Translation Description
    Seiri Sort Sort all material to determine the necessity of each item
    Seiton Set in Order Organize necessary items so they're easily found
    Seiso Shine Clean workspaces and equipment thoroughly and keep them at that level of cleanliness
    Seiketsu Standardize Create standards for the first three "S"s, making rules for how and when the tasks will be done
    Shitsuke Sustain Make the new processes the new normal and conduct routine audits of these processes
  4. Seiso
  5. Seiso (cleanliness): Think of Seiso as deep spring cleaning and then maintaining that level of cleanliness going forward. Not only does Seiso address the current state of cleanliness, but it also looks at activities and items that cause dirt, dust and contamination and then addresses them as well. For example, this would involve keeping machinery clean and as close to new condition as possible. So, how do you implement Seiso?
    1. Establish cleaning routines. This involves what to clean, when to clean it and who will clean it.
    2. Train employees to clean their work area after each shift. A five-minute cleanup following each shift is plenty to keep the area like new.
    3. Make sure tools and equipment are clean and ready to use at all times. This includes storage areas.
    4. Establish routine visual checks for oil spills, leaks, damage to equipment and any other abnormalities.
    5. Install additional lighting to see dirt and dust.
    Lesson: For the sake of continuity, develop a cleaning regiment for each workspace. This includes which cleaning supplies to use, where they are located and how to clean each machine.

    Not only does Seiso complement the previous two 5-S principles, but it creates a safe work environment, allowing employees to focus on their performance instead of navigating hazards.

  6. Seiketsu
  7. Seiketsu (standardize): You've established the first three 5-S principles. It's now time to make them part of your organization's standard routine. Seiketsu is about standardizing the company culture and workplace norms to ensure working environments remain clean, decluttered and lean. Standardizing best practices so they become the norm is key. Among the ways to accomplish this include:
    1. Posting visuals as constant reminders or references of proper and improper workplace setups. These include photos, charts and labels.
    2. Ensuring all employees have a role and expectations so they can do their part in maintaining a culture of cleanliness.
    3. Creating checklists – either on clipboards or digitally – to audit processes and verify that the processes are being followed. There are many free, customizable 5-S checklists available for download online.
    Lesson: Use visuals to ensure the standardization of new processes. Signs, labels and floor-marking tape make following procedures easier.
  8. Shitsuke
  9. Shitsuke (sustain): The final principle in the 5-S system is set to ensure all your hard work is sustained. The idea behind Shitsuke is to turn the 5-S principles and procedures you've created into habit, making them part of all employees' daily routine. Shitsuke requires self-discipline and company-wide compliance to these new procedures. There are four things to keep in mind as you address sustainability:
    1. Communication: Has everyone within the organization been notified of the changes put in place? Are employees aware of their responsibilities? Do they know how to report ineffective processes?
    2. Education: Have employees gone through adequate training so they understand their role?
    3. Recognition: Make sure employees' efforts are recognized and rewarded.
    4. Time: Establish audit frequencies as daily, weekly or monthly. Ensure the time you allot is enough to know if the new processes are effective.
    Lesson: Train all new employees or those who have switched departments on their new area's 5-S procedures.

5-S and Safety: Adding an Additional "S"

Since the invention of the 5-S system, a case has been made to add a sixth "S" to the 5-S principles – "safety." It's not technically included as an individual step because the idea behind this principle is to keep safety at the forefront of everyone's mind as 5-S principles are implemented. For example, enacting a cleanliness standard helps ensure safety by cleaning oil spills or coolant leaks. Putting an orderliness standard in place helps clear workplace clutter, mitigating tripping hazards.


How to Implement 5-S Principles Successfully

When starting your 5-S implementation process, consider these five action items:

  1. Choose a team: When selecting a team to implement the 5-S principles, make sure they're reliable, engaged and committed. Since the end goal of 5-S is sustainability, it's important to have people in leadership roles who are fully committed to making it stick so other employees will latch on. Start with an easy area of the organization to clean up first. This way, you can work out the kinks before moving onto more difficult areas.
  2. Implementing 5s
  3. Measure: Measuring, auditing and acting are the keys to 5-S. These three things will be performed over and over again.
  4. Training: A simple two-day training or workshop is a great way to ensure everyone is on the same page and all things are communicated effectively. Managers and/or directors should attend the training sessions to show employees that the entire organization is committed to the implementation.
  5. Testing: This does not involve long, drawn-out written tests. See if employees can find an item, tool, document or person in less than 30 seconds. This will tell you if your processes will work well.
  6. Get creative: Welcome creative ideas from everyone. Most ideas cost nothing to implement but can save the organization thousands of dollars in benefits.

What Are the Benefits of Implementing the 5-S System?

Implementing 5-S principles is a great starting point for "going lean." Each principle has the chance to positively impact your bottom line either directly or indirectly. In addition to the previously mentioned benefits like removing unnecessary items, cleaning and organizing workspaces, and developing sustainable procedures, the 5-S system introduces a number of other benefits.

  • Increased productivity: Less waste leads to improved efficiency and productivity. Labeling, organizing workspaces and getting rid of clutter will result in less time searching for materials and tools and more time being productive. The ergonomic positioning of machines and equipment can reduce fatigue and provide easy access for a more efficient workspace. Even the standardization of processes ensures new and efficient processes are identified and put into practice, eliminating wasteful practices.
  • Less downtime: Sustainable cleanliness procedures keep equipment and machinery in "like new" working order. When machines and equipment remain clean, it's easier to notice defects, failures and other issues like leaks. Noticing these issues early enables preventive maintenance to address the problem before it turns into something more serious.

    For example, a clean machine lets you spot an oil leak quickly, allowing the maintenance team to identify and fix the cause of the leak before the oil reaches a critically low level that could result in future downtime.

  • Improved safety: Nearly all 5-S principles directly relate to improved safety in the workplace. Cleanliness ensures spills are cleaned quickly, preventing possible slips and falls. Removing clutter can reveal hidden mechanical, chemical or electrical hazards. Having tools and equipment nearby and easily accessible reduces movement and decreases the potential for injury. Standardizing new safety practices eliminates bad, old habits.
  • Improved morale: Employees want to be valued. When they see you care about their workspace and value their input, they care more about their job. The clean, organized and efficient workspaces resulting from 5-S, coupled with quality standards, create an increased sense of pride and ownership. Improved safety lowers the number of workplace injuries, leading to less turnover and happier, more motivated employees.

The 5-S System as it Relates to Lean Manufacturing

The 5-S system goes hand-in-hand with lean manufacturing principles because they share the same common goals: eliminate waste, improve quality and increase profits. The principles of 5-S are often used with other lean manufacturing tools like total productive maintenance, kanban, and kaizen. In fact, 5-S principles are typically utilized as a foundation for kaizen.

Let's take a look at how a 5-S implementation might occur in practice. For this example, say you're in charge of improving the workflow, efficiency and productivity of your manufacturing plant's metal shop. You might choose to start with the 5-S system before moving onto other lean manufacturing tools.

  • Day 1: You and your team move everything out of the shop except the heavy machinery mounted to the floor. Everything is moved to a temporary storage area where it's cleaned, refurbished and/or replaced. Tools and equipment not needed in the metal shop are moved to their appropriate locations.
  • Day 2: Walls are painted, and the floor is swept, mopped and cleaned of grease. Once the floor has been cleaned, a protective, glossy sealer is applied.
  • Day 3: Your team walks through the metal shop's usable area, mapping out the best locations to position everything to minimize movement. Colored tape is used to mark new production areas, as opposed to work-in-progress areas. Tools and equipment bins are clearly labeled and placed in convenient locations. Shadow boards are created with outlines of each tool for easy identification and so the tools are always in the correct spot.

Revising the metal shop's layout ultimately lets operators complete multiple steps in one process. For example, motion is greatly reduced by combining the welding and grinding operations. Combing operations also helps with the quality of work. When welding and grinding are combined, employees can determine if they messed up a weld as they grind it smooth. This allows the weld to be fixed immediately.

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