The Basics of 3S (Sort, Sweep, Standardize)

LS 003 | The Basics of 3S (Sort, Sweep, Standardize)

The Basics of 3S (Sort, Sweep, Standardize)

In this episode you’ll learn:

  • What is 3S? (0:58)
  • Where does 3S come from? (1:40)
  • Sort (2:09)
  • Sweep (2:27)
  • Standardize (3:30)
  • How 3S works in practice (5:22)
  • Four facts about 3S (6:07)


Today I want to talk about the basics of lean and specifically the practice of 3S. In this episode I’m going to tell you what it is, where it comes from, and how it works. This one show is not exhaustive. There’s many more things that can and will be discussed about 3S, but these will be covered in other episodes.

What Is 3S?

Let’s start out by answering the question, “What is 3S and where does it come from?” 3S is a workplace organization and productivity tool with the primary purpose of finding and identifying problems. It is actually a simplification of a lean tool called 5S. We’re not going to discuss today why I prefer to teach 3S at Lean Smarts whether or not it’s better than 5S etc. I’m just going to tell you what 3 S is, where it comes from, and how it works.

Where Does 3S Come From?

In the United States, 3S is perhaps best popularized by Paul Akers. And yet he learned it from a Japanese company named Hoks. It’s a simplified version of 5S. 5S stands for Sort, Straighten, Sweep, Standardize, and Sustain. 3S is just three of these: Sort, Sweep, and Standardize.


Sort means to get rid of all unnecessary items. Companies either sell them, recycle them, or throw them away. And the best companies do this on an ongoing basis. Once you’ve gotten rid of all the crap by sorting, the next relevant activity is to sweep.


Some people call this shine instead of Sweep. Sweep means to keep your workplace clean and tidy. It removes dirt, debris, oil, and grime and anything else. But the real heart of Sweep is inspection. Cleaning the workplace regularly gives you an ongoing opportunity to find problems and to address the sources of mess generators in your workplace. For example, instead of vacuuming up shavings from a table saw every day you might find opportunity to install a vacuum permanently onto the table saw with automatic turn on and shut off. That way the wood shavings never create a mess on the floor in the first place. But observations like this only happen when inspecting while you sweep.


The last activity of 3S is to Standardize. Standardization comes in many formats and some depend on the nature of your business and industry. This could be a document standard or a physical standard. It could be a work instruction, visual aid, form, or other document. Or it could be a physical label, a color coding system, a method or best practice, training, a set number, location, or layout of tools, or any other number of things.

I actually didn’t see or understand the true value of standardization when I first learned about Lean. But it is actually incredibly important. You’ve got to learn to rapidly Standardize your incremental improvements if you’re going to get anywhere with lean. If you don’t Standardize your improvements, they never get any traction in your organization. They have no sticking power and don’t get implemented. So standardization is huge. And it’s a job that is too big for management to carry out alone. It’s the duty of every employee to be constantly updating the standard way to do their work.

So one more time, 3S describes three activities of lean. Sort is to get ride of the crap that is cluttering your workspace. Sweep is to keep it clean and tidy, and really to inspect things for potential problems. And Standardize is to keep your work standards current and updated; its the key to successful implementation and sustainment.

How 3S Works In Practice

Now here’s how it works in practice. Many companies practice 3S as part of a daily Lean Operating System. This is especially the case for companies practicing 2 Second Lean. What they will typically do is dedicate the first 15 minutes of the day to the three activities of 3S: sort, sweep, and standardize. And they do this everyday with everyone in the organization. Even the CEO sweeps the floor and 3S’s an area. No one is left out.

This basic habit is the starting place of lean practice and thinking.

Before we finish I want to dispel a few ideas about 3S. I’ve got four of them.

Fact #1 – 3S Isn’t An Event

3S isn’t an event. It’s a way of life. It’s not something that you plan as part of a 2 week project and it’s certainly not spring cleaning. 3S is supposed to be a daily habit and routine of lean organizations. It’s better to do a little something everyday and make a habit than to revisit 3S every few weeks or months when the mess gets intolerable.

Fact #2 – If You Can’t Do 3S You Can’t Do Lean

If you can’t do 3S you can’t do lean. It’s not hard, but it does require consistency. If as an organization you’re not able to consistently 3S your company every day, you don’t have any business fiddling around with other lean tools. You’ve got to believe in what you’re doing first, and you’ve got to be consistent about it.

Fact #3 – 3S Isn’t Only For Manufacturing

3S isn’t only for manufacturing. It can apply to every area of your business and even life. It applies to how you handle paper, pens, and pencils at your desk. It applies to your computer files and emails. Heck, 3S can even apply to relationships. If you’ve got negative people wearing you out in life, you may need to 3S your relationships and create some distance between you and those negative people. Sort them out! 3S is not only about manufacturing. I consider it at my desk, my home, and everywhere. I heard someone say once that if you think you’re serious about lean but haven’t 3S’ed your sock drawer, then you don’t know what lean is about.

Fact #4 – 3S Is Not Merely About Organization

3S is not merely about organization. Organization is good, but the purpose of 3S is two-fold: to make it easy for work to be accomplished, and to find problems. It’s hard to get your work done when your workplace is cluttered with junk, dirty, and unclear. It’s also hard to find problems in that environment, because they hide behind all the clutter. On the surface, 3S may look just like organization, but it goes deeper than that.