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  • Writer's pictureFilipe Barbosa

The simplicity and effectiveness of 5S

Updated: Nov 28, 2023

In this article we present one of the improvement methods available to organizations that have started or are about to start the Lean journey. It is the 5S method which, due to its simplicity and effectiveness, should have a prominent role in the work plan of the journey. However, for various reasons discussed here, this is not always the case.


One of the characteristics of a mature and well-organized improvement process is the existence of a roadmap of improvement activities in the short- to medium-term, typically for a one-year period. This roadmap usually results from a strategic planning activity, in which the board of the company defines concrete goals to be achieved in the following year, also defining the improvement initiatives to be implemented, as well as the execution calendar. This roadmap usually includes initiatives such as:

  • Improve productivity in sector A

  • Reduce the level of defects in sector B

  • Increase the OEE of machine C

To achieve each of the objectives there is a specific, demonstrated, and proven method that is included in the toolbox of Lean practitioners. Some examples of these methods are: One Piece Flow, 8D, Pull Flow, SMED.

Well, the 5S method is the one that allows you to put into practice improvement initiatives such as: Improve the workplace organization of sector X.

5S Method

Indeed, 5S is a method, divided into steps, that allows you to improve the organization of a sector or workstation and has the following objectives:

  • Increase productivity - increased productivity is achieved by reducing basic waste in people's daily activities, such as searching for materials, documents or tools.

  • Increase safety - the increase in safety results from removing all objects that are not necessary, thus minimizing the risk of accidents. On the other hand, using visual management techniques makes the place more obvious to everyone who works there.

  • Improve the overall appearance - is a consequence of improving organization and visual management.

  • Change or strengthen the culture - which is achieved by standardization and the culture of discipline.

The implementation of 5S is done intensively over a few days, in a well-defined area, by a team of people who work or use that area, ideally joined by some people from other areas of the organization.

The 5 steps of implementation are the origin of the name because in the original language, Japanese, all the steps begin with the letter S:

  1. Seiri, in English Sort

  2. Seiton, in English Set in order

  3. Seiso, in English Shine

  4. Seiketsu, in English Standardize

  5. Shitsuke, in English Sustain

In the Sort step, the team will observe all the areas within the scope and separate all the objects they find into 3 categories:

  • Used regularly in that area

  • Used occasionally

  • Obsolete or damaged

Next, the team removes all objects that are used occasionally or are no longer used and decides what to do with them. In some cases, the destination is trash, in other cases the decision may be to relocate these objects to another, less noble location. The result of sorting is a place with more free space available.

In the second step, Set in order, the team will decide the most appropriate location for all the objects of regular use that are left after the Sort step. The most appropriate location follows the criteria of proximity, ease of access, visual management, ergonomics, and safety. Note that Set in order is not the same as store. Looking at the picture below, we can say that the volumes on the left are stored. However, access to the volumes on the lower level is not easy because it requires manipulation of the volumes on the upper levels, and that implies waste. Set in order these same volumes would be possible, for example, by using a shelf, where each volume could be placed and manipulated individually, as shown on the right.

The third step, Shine, allows us to create the conditions for the site's level of cleaning to be maintained with as little effort as possible in the future, as cleaning tasks themselves are also wasteful. To do this, it is essential to identify and eliminate the sources of dirt on that area. When that is not possible or economically viable, solutions should be found to contain the dirt as close as possible to the source, to minimize the cleaning effort. It is also at this point that the most efficient way to clean is decided and the necessary utensils and materials are combined into a cleaning kit.

In the fourth step, Standardize, the team decides, sets, and puts into practice the standards to comply by everyone using the area. For example, routines are defined for checking frequency and responsibility. Standards for colours and/or symbols to be used are also defined. Markings on the floor, machines, tables, or walls are made so that the rules are obvious to everyone, as in the following examples.

These examples of standards and visual management in the workplace apply the same concepts as others in our daily lives, which also aim to make it easier for everyone to understand the rules.

The fifth step, Sustain, serves to define the mechanisms that will allow the team and managers to follow up on the area's level of compliance with the 5S criteria in the future. One of the main tools is the definition and implementation of a periodic audit based on a checklist. At the end of this intensive 5S implementation activity, a routine begins, usually monthly, to quantitatively evaluate the compliance with the criteria, and the result is made available to all sectors of the organization. This visibility allows to correct any deviation found, as well as to stimulate a healthy competition among the different sectors.


As explained above, the 5S method has no technical complexity, and is based on common sense. Many of us already follow these practices naturally in our daily lives, without even thinking that it is 5S. However, looking at the improvement roadmap that many organizations use, we don't always find activities which promote the application of 5S. Why? Some possible explanations include:

  1. It is not easy to quantify the relationship between 5S implementation and improved productivity or improved safety. Common sense shows that the relationship exists, but in fact you can't always quantify the effect.

  2. 5S has already been implemented in previous years. Sometimes there is the idea that you only need to apply 5S once and from then on, you're done. The same often happens with the implementation of other improvement tools, such as SMED or VSM. This is clearly incompatible with the principle of continuous improvement.

  3. The simplicity of the method contributes to devalue its effects and importance.


Applying the 5S method to a workplace is very simple and brings important benefits to the organizations that decide to do so. These benefits are not always easy to quantify, although we know they are real. In addition, there is also the cultural change of the team involved, who will work in a cleaner, more organized, and pleasant environment. The workplace is standardized with clear rules agreed by the team members who commit to follow them. This cultural change is decisive both for the success of other improvement activities in the same workplace and for the success of the Lean journey.


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