Introduction to the "Five S" Method for an Organized Workplace

Introducing the system

"Five S" is a method to create a safer, cleaner, and better-organized workplace, using five Japanese words:

  • Seiri – "Sort"
  • Seiton – "Set in Order"
  • Seiso – "Shiny Clean"
  • Seiketsu – "Standardized Cleanup"
  • Shitsuke – "Sustain" (sometimes "Sustained Discipline")

This article is a basic introduction and overview for each of these steps, which should be followed in sequence. Later articles cover each stage in more depth.

It is possible to start a program in just one department or area. This allows management to fine-tune the approach and adapt it to the specific workplace.

Running a pilot project also permits a group of employees to learn what to do and how to do it. For example, suppose a factory has a centralized team for equipment maintenance, but separate workers for various processes. The maintenance team will be involved everywhere. They might be overwhelmed by an initial factory-wide project, but do well in one area at a time. Also, once they learn from the pilot project, they will bring their new expertise to each new area.


Seiri – "Sort"

Seiri means "to sort" or organize. It is the first stage of the method.

Sorting is a team activity. Production and maintenance workers should carry this out together.

The goals of Seiri are:

  • Remove unnecessary objects
  • Reduce waste

The basic tool is a red tag: tag the item, allow a month for someone to make a case for keeping that item; and discard the item after that month.

The additional tool is the Sort List: a log to follow up every red tag.

Remove unnecessary objects

This phase should identify and eliminate things like a bin of parts that were rejected and will never be reworked; broken or "custom" tools – anything jerry-rigged from string and duct tape; obsolete spare parts, inventory, and even documentation or binders.

If you don't need it: sell it or scrap it. If you need it but it is broken or hazardous: fix it properly.

Reduce waste

This identifies the hindrances, and goes beyond simple "waste material":

  • Do we lack work instructions that are available, accurate, and used?
  • Are there hazards: clutter; missing safety guards; electrical faults; broken steps on ladders?
  • What environmental hazards are we tolerating? Look for solids, liquids, gasses, and dust.
  • Are tools broken, missing or inadequate?
  • Are workbenches at the right height? Are chairs too low for some workers? Where have back injuries occurred?
  • Where has maintenance been neglected – whether for equipment or buildings?


Seiton – "Set in Order"

The principle here is to keep things in their proper places. One guide to proper placement is to keep frequently-used items handy, and store other things where they can be found.

On a personal level, you might carry a pen in your pocket because you jot notes all day. You keep your winter coat in a closet at home during the summer. Another example is how you should arrange your kitchen. You probably have cutlery sorted in one convenient drawer; the frequently-used pots and pans handy; but the once-a-year fondue set is tucked out of the way.

Seiton uses the same concept, expressed for a workplace:

  • Keep tools near the place they are used
  • Don't make workers bend or stretch frequently
  • Store rarely-used items where they won't get in the way, but where they can be found easily

The only exception to "store rarely-used items" would be for safety gear. Hopefully you rarely need a fire extinguisher or eye-wash station – but when you need it, it should be handy.

The Seiton article has more details on how to progress from identifying, through planning and implementing the "Set in Order" process.


Seiso – "Shiny Clean"

This is the exception – the only one-time activity in the Five S method.

This stage has two goals:

  • Determine and gain agreement on the desired level of cleanliness
  • Learn how to make new routines so this will become standardized (in the Seiketsu stage)

Several questions help this stage to be more than just "polish until it shines for inspection":

  • How much cleanliness is required for safety, for ease of use, and to minimize equipment breakdown?
  • How clean should the environment be for comfort and morale?
  • How will cleanliness improve product quality?
  • While cleaning, do we notice maintenance issues that should be addressed?

This is also a team exercise. Clean and inspect one area at a time: equipment; work stations; and common areas. Take notes to guide future work. Finally, take photos of the "shiny clean" workplace to illustrate the new standard.


Seiketsu – "Standardized Cleanup"

This phase draws on the notes from the Seiso stage. Consider the sources of dirt: air-borne dust; sawdust or other dry powder from cutting operations; splatter from wet processes; or simple trash because there is no proper container.

The results include:

  • Maintenance for buildings or equipment, if these are sources of dirt
  • Improvements to processes – for example, adding a dust hood over a cutting area
  • A binder with instructions for cleaning each work area
  • A checklist for each cleanup period (daily, biweekly, or less frequently)
  • A list matching the people with their responsibilities

A practical target is to have all workers take five minutes every day to tidy up after themselves – including the time to complete and sign the checklists. By dividing the work among all the employees:

  • No-one has a huge burden
  • No-one seems unproductive
  • Morale improves because everyone has a common purpose

Supervisors should monitor compliance with Seiketsu. The checklists make this both important and achievable.


Shitsuke – ">Sustain"

Shitsuke is a complex Japanese concept that includes instilled discipline, self-discipline, common cultural values, and self-motivated practice to improve. A Westerner might think of: parents training their children to brush their teeth after each meal; children then brushing regularly; expecting everyone to brush after meals; and (for a non-dental example) golfers continuing to practice putting, even though the stroke may seem easy to a beginner.

This step requires continued management support and communication.

Follow Up

Audit and certification programs should be introduced to follow-up once the whole factory has undergone the implementation program.

By Oskar Olofsson, author of the book "Succeeding with 5S"

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