010 - What Lean 5S Methodology is All About

010 – What Lean 5S Methodology is All About

010 - What Lean 5S Methodology is All About



Today, we’re going to be learning about lean 5S methodology. You can get to the show notes, including a transcript and additional resources at leansmarts.com/010 for episode 10. 5S is a very popular lean tool that gets a lot of attention. So today I’m going to give it an overview.

Today I’m going to cover:

  • What 5S methodology is
  • The origins of 5S
  • Each 5S discipline in detail
  • Variations of 5S including 3S and 6S
  • Recommendations for implementing 5S

So let’s get started!

Defining 5S – What 5S Methodology is All About

5S is a productivity tool that is used to increase workplace efficiency and make abnormalities visible. That’s what it is all about: efficiency and abnormality control. On the surface, 5S methodology looks like an organization and cleanliness program. But it’s not just organization and cleanliness for the sake of being orderly and clean. You see, you could have your garage all organized with 20 years of tools, junk, tax returns, and toys, and it could be very clean, but if it stands in the way between you and your car you’ve missed something. And by the way, the majority of that 20 years of clutter is probably just garbage. Don’t organize your junk and five redundant sets of crescent wrenches. Just get it out! That’s a better way to start.

So although on the surface 5S looks like order and cleanliness, it’s actually about efficiency and abnormality control. When things are disordered and messy, you work less efficiently, and it’s also harder to see problems. For example, if your garage floor has 20 years of oil stains, it’s going to be harder to detect when your car is leaking oil. One of he purposes of cleanliness is to help with abnormality control and to identify problems.

So the two primary benefits to 5S are better productivity and better quality as you increase efficiency and control abnormalities by making them visible.

The History and Origins of 5S

There are five disciplines all starting with S: sort, straighten, sweep, standardize, and sustain. This is how it gets its name of 5S. The five words are originally translated from the Japanese words seiri, seiton, seiketsu, and shitsuke. However it’s very likely that Toyota was influenced by Henry Ford’s CANDO program, which stands for Cleaning up, Arranging, Neatness, Discipline, and Ongoing improvement. In any case, 5S is the form we know this tool today.

The Five Disciplines of 5S

Now let’s overview each of the five 5S methods. It’s important to note here that western lean practitioners tend to view these disciplines as progressive steps. However, Toyota views the disciplines more as interrelated practices than five discrete steps. They really are all connected to each other.


The first 5S discipline is sort. In a sentence, sort means to get rid of stuff that you don’t use routinely. It is essential to do because it’s commonplace for clutter, tools, and leftover items to accumulate on the shop floor. It just happens because waste is like gravity, and just like the law of entropy, our work environments move from order to disorder unless we do something about it.

I once was the general manager of a new business acquisition with 30 years of history. Now, 30 years of history is remarkable, but it also came with 30 years of junk. We did some extensive sort to gut out all the clutter and you wouldn’t believe the things we found. Broken radios, a remote control car, old prototype inventions, outdated inventory, and all kinds of stuff.

However, sorting is much more than spring cleaning. It’s supposed to be a daily way of life. Indeed, if this company had practiced sort on a daily basis for 30 years, I’m certain there’d be no remote control car lost in the building.

But in my opinion, sort is more about what remains after sorting than what is taken away. We’re not just removing things that don’t belong. We’re deciding what things are truly needed. And to be even more specific, we’re making design decisions about the workspace. You see, everything in lean is scientific and follows a plan, even with 5S methodology. So when we are removing things from a workspace, we are in effect keeping the things we’ve decided to keep by design.

If I have a toolbox with a bunch of cluttered, old, and somewhat redundant tools, I am not just going to start removing things willy-nilly. I’m going to make a decision first of what tools I require in my toolbox for the work that I’m performing. Everything else is useless to me in the toolbox, so then I remove it.

So in my opinion, when you sort, both of these perspectives are useful. You’re taking stuff away, but only after you decide what stays. And the only things that stay are the things that create value. If it doesn’t create value, get it out!


Now I say “straighten,” but other people call this “set in order.” They both describe the same thing. Straighten has to do with the efficient layout of all tools, materials, and information in the workplace. It’s wonderful if you have sorted out all the junk and unneeded items that don’t belong. But that’s not to say that the value-adding items remaining are laid out in the best configuration possible.

So when we straighten, or set in order, we design a specific and unique place for every item.

The lean saying is “a place for everything, and everything in its place.”

The placement of every item should be three things:

  • Easy to access
  • Visually apparent
  • Prioritized by frequency of use

It should be easy to access, because this eliminates the waste of motion. There’s no point in struggling to reach or access a tool or material. It costs time and creates added delay. It interrupts the flow of the work being performed. Remember that I said 5S methodology is about workplace efficiency? Well this is one way that efficiency is achieved.

The placement should also be visually apparent. This is why you might see shadow boards, tool foam, labels, color codes, and other visual information used to identify the placement of every tool. If the location of every tool is obvious and clear, including when the tool is present or absent, it makes abnormality control that much easier.

Lastly, the placement should be prioritized by frequency of use. If you use some tools more frequently than others, they should be closer to the point of use. Put it in the top drawer. Or put it in tool foam on top of the cabinet so you don’t even have to open the drawer. The point is to get the needed tools at the team member’s fingertips. And that should be prioritized based on frequency.


Shine has to do with cleaning and some people also call it “sweep.” However, shining doesn’t clean for the sake of making things pretty. It cleans for the sake of finding problems and abnormalities.

Team Members are required to shine their own work area every day as a part of their normal responsibilities. When they do this, they are supposed to observe issues like frayed cords, spilled materials, leaking machines, rust on equipment, wear on tools, and anything else of that sort. These discoveries are diamonds in hiding. Most people would just clean the mess up and move on. But that’s the wrong action to take. Because these little messes are indicators of problems in the equipment or process.

Why is that machine leaking fluids? How was that cord frayed? Why is tool wear occurring, and what is its effect on the product?

If you just clean things up and make it pretty, two things will happen.

  • First, you’ll destroy the evidence of a true problem.
  • Secondly, that problem will get worse overtime until one day you have a breakdown, quality issue, or some other crisis.

So the intent behind shine is to discover and expose the symptoms of these problems, and then trigger action to solve the root causes.

Obviously, we’re talking about abnormality control when it comes to shine. But it can also affect efficiency. If an operator takes 5 minutes every day to clean up shavings or mess, he or she might ask “how is this material getting on the floor in the first place?” and discover a root cause. If that root cause is eliminated, those 5 minutes can be spared or reduced. This decreases the amount of time spent performing non-value-added work and can improve workplace efficiency.


Now let’s talk about standardize. Standardize can have two different meanings. The most common meaning in the West is that standardize has to do with standardizing and systematizing the first three S’s. This means that if one workcell has a certain layout of tools and method of shining, that all other similar workcells must also be sorted, straightened, and shined in the same way. They have the same tool placement, same identifying labels and colors, and are maintained and cleaned to the same standard.

This is what many people will tell you about 5S standardize. In fact, I’ve stated it as so in other resources at Lean Smarts.

There’s a second meaning to Standardize, but hold onto that for a moment and let me first explain the fifth S Sustain.


Sustain to many lean practitioners in the West has to do with maintaining and enforcing discipline with the previous four S’s. This commonly comes in the form of daily checklists and 5S audits performed by management.

Standardize and Sustain in Japan

But Standardize and Sustain are different in Japanese. The Japanese word for standardize is seiketsu, and it does not mean standardize. It means cleanliness. The lean expert Michel Baudin says, “it is the reduction of the first three S’s to daily practice by management enforcement, through things like checklists, assignment of responsibility for daily housekeeping activities, and routine audits.”

Now, based on what I’ve already told you, you’re probably thinking, “Hey, that sounds like Sustain!” And you’re right. It basically is what many companies outside Toyota call sustain.

So then what is the equivalent to sustain at Toyota? The Japanese word is shitsuke and it means “upbringing.” Baudin again defines this nicely and says this: “It is not an action but the condition you reach when the performance of the first three S’s has become second-nature to the organization.”

And this is what he says is the difference between the two: “As long as you tell your kid to brush his teeth every day, you are practicing seiketsu; once he does it without prompting, you have achieved shitsuke.”

I think this is important to understand, even while the common English translations of 5S are somewhat different for standardize and sustain. The point is to reach a place where the disciplines have become so second-nature that they happen automatically and without prompting. The ideal is for team members to become so responsible and autonomous that they don’t even require checklists or management enforcement to sustain 5S. It just happens.

Variations on 5S including 3S and 6S

Now that we’ve defined the five practices of 5S methodology, let’s broaden our scope a little bit and take a moment to discuss innovations on the tool including 3S and 6S.

These variations occur for different reasons. Sometimes it’s due to the belief system of the organization using the tool–they believe in it! Other times it’s for branding purposes. If a consultant or influencer is doing something other than 5S and say it’s different or better, that may give them a more compelling argument.

So first 3S. I first encountered the use of 3S in Paul Akers’ book 2 Second Lean. He and some but not all companies following his example use 3S. However, Paul says he learned 3S from the company Hoks in Japan, and he loves it because of its simplicity. There’s not five things to keep in mind, just three.

However, the three components are not the first three in the 5S methodology list. Don’t miss that detail, because I had it confused for a while at the start. Paul’s three S’s are Sort, Shine, and Standardize. He skips the Straighten and Sustain. I want to comment more on this but I’ll save it for a separate cast. However, the short summary is this: straighten and sustain still happens at these 2 Second Lean companies–at least from what I’ve observed. For that reason, I’d call them the two silent S’s.

Now let’s talk about 6S. 6S includes all five disciplines from 5S but adds one more for Safety. Now, who could disagree with safety being important?! Of course safety is important. And 5S easily creates a safer work environment.

My personal opinion is that safety is assumed in the five disciplines of 5S and I don’t see the value to adding one more component. If you do all 5S’s extremely well, safety is taken care of. You don’t need to add it to the mix.

Recommendations for Implementing 5S Methodology

Now, before we finish, let’s talk about how to implement 5S methodology. I have a few recommendations. But first let me remind you of episode 007 titled, “Lean Thinking is Scientific Thinking.” You need to know why you’re doing 5S and what problem you’re trying to solve with it before you start implementing. Be smart and scientific. Don’t do it because everyone else is doing it.

For this reason, I don’t recommend that you assume you need to start with 5S. Lots of people and even consultants will tell you that. But why? Is 5S truly the answer to your greatest needs at your organization? If so, go for it! I fully support you. I just can’t support starting with 5S because someone told you it’s the first step.

Consider Creating a Pilot Area

One thing you might do when implementing 5S methodology is to start with a pilot area. If you’ve never done it before–or even if you have done it and unsuccessfully–it’s smart to focus your efforts onto a smaller area. “Don’t boil the ocean,” as some people say.

This is also smart because you are going to learn a lot from your first 5S implementation experiment. You’ll encounter resistance, you’ll encounter questions, and you’ll encounter problems. Now, do you want to deal with all that among 100 or a 1,000 people all at once? Or can you do it with 20 and learn a bunch so that it’s easier and less painful when rolling it out to the masses?

A pilot area also serves as proof of concept. Haters gonna hate, but if you can prove that it works in one area, that resistance will hold less credibility.

I mentioned 2 Second Lean in this episode… in Paul’s model the pilot area is the lean bathroom.

Consider Applying 5S Methodology as a Finishing Touch

Another strategy you might employ is to use 5S methodology as a finishing touch to other lean projects. This is smart to do, because traditional process don’t support lean tools and methods very well. Adding 5S onto batch-and-queue manufacturing with firefighters and crisis management doesn’t survive very well. But if you first create a lean process and transform a work area into something better like a flexible workcell or a line employing flow and production matched to takt time, then it becomes easier to design 5S into that lean transformation.

Remember that it’s always easier to design for lean than to correct bad habits formed over years of doing it the old way. If you’re converting your organization with lean methods, you can just add 5S methodology as you go.

Don’t Underestimate the Role of Lean Management

Lastly, don’t underestimate the role of lean management. It is different than traditional management, and for this reason I highly recommend David Mann’s book Creating a Lean Culture. It’s not necessarily about 5S, but I believe it is closely related. If you’re going to apply and use 5S methodology, you’ve got to have a the supporting structure of a lean management system. In fact, this may be my own paraphrase, but Mann basically teaches that technical transformation has to precede cultural transformation.

References & Resources