How to Make 5S Stick

How to keep it clean …

In my last post I detailed the 5S method (and its variants 4S, 6S, and so on). However, knowing the theory is the easy part. Successfully implementing 5S is much more difficult, and industry is ripe with anecdotes on failed 5S implementations. Here I will give you a few tips on how to increase your chances of success. However, there is no magic bullet. Cleaning and organizing a shop floor is hard work, and keeping it that way is even harder.

 Mini Recap: What is 5S?

5S crosswords puzzle
The 5 S’es

As described in my previous post How 5S Works, 5S is a mnemonic that can help you get a shop floor (or any other area) organized. The most common 5S are:

  1. Seiri – Sort
  2. Seiton – Systematic Arrangement
  3. Seiso – Shine
  4. Seiketsu – Standardize
  5. Shitsuke – Sustain

Toyota uses only 4S, and others even use 6S, with the last S being either Shukan (custom,  habit, manners), safety, or security. Overall, the words, their order, and the numbers of S’s vary, but when done correctly will lead to the same results. For familiarity’s sake, I will use 5S as reference below, rather than a 4S or 6S. If done correctly, this method can help you organize your shop floor and reduce waste stemming from misplaced/old/dirty/ill-maintained tools, machines, and parts. Again, more details on the basics in my last post on How 5S Works.

Why Does 5S Fail So Often?

Examples of 5S failures are plentiful. So plentiful, in fact, that on the shop floor, 5S often has a different meaning: “Some Stupid Supervisor Said So.” Here are some reasons why 5S fails so often:

Let’s Do 1S and the Rest Should Come Automatically!

5S tool drawer
Ohhh … that’s nice!

Probably the funkiest and most interesting of the S’s is #2: Seiton – Systematic Arrangement. Unskilled lean project managers just love to label everything, mark all spots, and create cut-outs or shadows for tools. It appeals to a sense of order and arrangement.

Unfortunately, in their enthusiasm they sometimes forget to first sort out the necessary and unnecessary items  (#1: Seiri – Sort). They also often forget #3: Seiso – Shine, since it is so much more fun to create some new gizmos than to clean old dirt or repair damaged stuff.  They may even end up arranging tools that then will not be used ever.

Hence, overall there is little improvement by doing only 1S, and it is usually not worth the effort.

Umm… Isn’t 3S Good Enough?

Okay, lets do it better. Besides #2: Seiton – Systematic Arrangement, we also do #1: Seiri – Sort and #3: Seiso – Shine, and we will even do it in order. Isn’t that good? Well, a little, but not for long. The shop floor will improve – until it falls back into its old mess shortly thereafter. Often, the improvement is usually not worth the effort.

Hard core lean purists still would condemn you to the circle of hell reserved for bad lean implementations. However, I believe that 3S can be an improvement. After all, doing all 5S is not that much different from doing 3S very frequently. Yet, if you do 3S only once, you fall far short of the potential improvement. If you include the time and money for improving the shop floor once, only to have everything revert within one month, it may not be worth the effort.

Hey, We Can Do 5S without Those Annoying Shop Floor Workers!

No, you can’t! Since it looks easy, there is a temptation to do it without involving the employees on the shop floor. However, anything you do on the shop floor should involve the people there. How would you know which tools are necessary and which ones are not (#1: Seiri – Sort)? In what way would you determine a good placement for the items (#2: Seiton – Systematic Arrangement)? Finally, the #3: Seiso – Shine is something the workers have to do regularly, so you best involve them early on.

But Consultants Always Start with 5S!

Sneaky 5S Consultant
Hey, I have an idea…

No! Definitely no! Bad consultants do love to start with 5S. So do inexperienced lean project manager. And especially bad, inexperienced lean consultants!

5S is a very quick and easy way to create some nice colorful changes that impress the person on top who pays the bill (and who often also has little shop floor connection). Cleaning and marking a shop floor also usually lasts long enough for the consultant to charge the client. The inability to sustain it afterward is then no longer a problem of the consultant, but the client (i.e., you!).

Grumpy janitor
For $3,000 per day he will teach you how to clean

In short, doing 1S–3S is easy and can look very good, but it is so much more difficult to sustain. It also often lasts only until the consultant is gone. Additionally, not all lean consultants really know lean, and may be trying to do good but lack the knowledge.

In any case, if you have enough money to pay someone $3000 per day to teach you how to clean your shop floor, then, well, okay… call me.  Although I would prefer to use my paid time to your advantage. In any case, during my consulting time, we never did 5S on its own, and I do not plant to start it now.

Where Not to Do 5S

Office brief case
No 5S here!

5S can be incredibly useful if done correctly. However, even if done correctly, it is not something to do everywhere. Let me give you one example: During one of my employments, one of my colleagues had the great idea to do “5S with our office briefcases.”

He wanted to get identical briefcases, add foam inserts so every marker and pen would have its 5S place, and standardize it across the group.  Let me tell you clearly why this is a bad idea:

  1. 5S is to help people find tools quickly. I know my briefcase. I know the stuff in my briefcase. Hence, 5S won’t help me getting better organized.
  2. If anybody else sticks their hand in my briefcase, they are in trouble!
  3. Since I carry my briefcase around the world frequently, I try to save on weight and volume. Foam inserts and a new box-style briefcase are not things I want to lug around.
  4. I don’t use text markers in my brief case.
  5. I would have no space for my flashlight, which I use frequently.
  6. The effort of sticking stuff into foam inserts and pulling them out again by far exceeds its benefit for me.
Bad 5S in the office
Seriously ?!?!?!?

Similarly, you can also find examples of 5S on office desks. Over-eager consultants have marked and labeled the spots on the desk for stapler, hole puncher, pens, etc. This is nonsense! Besides, other research shows that, especially for creative workers, the paperwork on their desks is a sort-of brain extension. Hence some degree of messiness helps them think better.  Overall 5S is good for shared workspace but has limited use for private workspace like someone’s desk – and especially my briefcase! Luckily for me and most of my colleagues, the idea of a 5S briefcase never materialized.

How to Make 5S Stick

After going through many different ways to fail, here are some tips on how to make 5S actually stick!

Do Not Do Standalone 5S Projects

It is much better to do 5S as part of another, bigger project. For example, if you optimize worker efficiency by rearranging the workplace, improving the material flow, or establishing a new manufacturing line, 5S will come much smoother as part of the natural flow. The workers will see 5S not as a nagging mom telling them to clean up the room (and yes, we all know how that feels), but as part of a bigger piece of improvement.

Pick Your 5S Playground Carefully – Where is It Useful?

Do not do 5S for people’s private workspace. No matter if it is a desk, a machine where very few people work, or especially my briefcase. 5S can help in work areas where many people, often in different shifts, need to access the same tools. It can also help with shared tools, as for example cleaning equipment.

5S can also help if your tools are sensitive or your products fragile. For example, if you own a nice expensive camera, you most likely own a padded camera bag to protect your gear. Putting the camera back in its bag may be part of your 5S routine.

Involve the People

Factory Workers
Ask us! We can help!

When doing 5S, involve the people of the area you are optimizing. With their knowledge you will achieve a better result. Even more important, the chances of sustaining it are higher. Unless you want to clean the shop floor yourself all the time, you need the cooperation of your people.

5S can work if people take responsibility of their own environment, but management also has to give them the responsibility. All too often 5S is a management project forced on the operators, resulting in lots of activity with little improvement.

5S is Hard Work, Especially for Management

A shop floor is in this aspect very similar to an apartment.  Cleaning it once is pretty straightforward. Keeping it clean is not. It is a constant effort to keep it clean. This also means it is a constant effort for management to pay attention to it. Hence, unfortunately, 5S is not a “fire and forget” method that you set up once and then forget about it. Instead, management has to check if the shop floor stays clean, and has to start countermeasures if not. The last two S’s, self discipline and standardize, are not only on the shop floor, but especially at the management level.

Update Occasionally

Over time, your shop floor will change. New tools are needed, old tools will go out. Every now and then, the first two S’s (sort and set in order) need to be repeated to bring your shop floor up to date. #3 Shine should be done regularly anyway. As for how often to repeat, it depends. Again, lean purists may say monthly, but I think this may be too much, depending on the level of change on your shop floor. Use your common sense here (and hopefully everywhere else too).

In any case, if you do the first three S’s regularly, you get the last two for free 🙂 . Now go out and organize your industry!

By the way, Mark Graban did a nice Lean Office and 5S Gone Wrong parody video, so if you have time, watch it:

6 thoughts on “How to Make 5S Stick

  1. Hi Christopher,

    Good article. I agree with most of what you’ve said above, especially about including the workers and keeping it out of the office. The suggestion that “doing all 5S is not that much different from doing 3S very frequently” is questionable. I believe that the greatest benefit from a 5S initiative is the 4th S – Standardize. If done correctly, standardizing promotes employee involvement along with continuously looking to make things better. Moreover, not putting standards in place leaves a gaping hole for everyone to know what is expected in which case there’s no way to hold folks accountable. Standards are a must for making sure everyone is on the same page. Without them, you’re doomed to disgruntled and confused employees and a failed 5S program.

    David Visco
    The 5S Store

  2. Hi David,

    Thank you. I think we agree that standards are necessary, we just disagree which “S” it is in. For me, the first three S automatically include the standard of doing it. For example Toyota has only 4S, none of which is “Standard”, and it works perfectly (see my last post How 5S Works).

    Yet, I am also fine with you placing “Standard” as the 4th S. As long as you do standards, I don’t really care which S it is in. If #4 works for you, by all means do it!

    Again thanks for the input 🙂



  3. Great article. I would say you made this whole 5s religion stick to the ground. I loved the part about the consultants. Why? I am one of those ones saying NO to the client’s 5s preference in first go. They, Clients, injected with some flavour of lean and 5s nice- and-easy-toy tend to follow conferences gurus selling their experience on 5s as a cure for everything. The results are: clients wont pay for a 5s trick again and even worse scenerio comes after – they are unwilling to start the Lean journey. This is what happens in Poland. Regards

  4. Mariusz, thanks for the feedback and the stories from your experience. There are a whole lot of “Golden Calfs” in lean religion, many of whom are in my view way overblown, (5S, VSM, Heijunka, zero defects, zero inventory, etc to name just a few). Through my blog I try to get more common sense out into lean manufacturing. Great that this is appreciated 🙂

Add a Comment