Why 5S is the key to a successful continuous improvement plan

Individual perceptions of 5S differ widely. Very often, it is wrongly perceived as a mere tool for tidying up and cleaning. These are indeed essential elements of Seirin (Sort and Clear) and Seiso (Shine), but they do not capture Taiichi Ohno and Shigeo Shingo’s original idea of the famous Ss.


One can hardly blame anyone for this limited understanding of 5S, mainly because of these five reasons:

  1. There are different translations of the concept – some more correct than others. Even best-selling books on lean manufacturing get 5S wrong, most often misinterpreting Seiketsu (Standardize) and Shitsuke (Sustain).
  2. 5S is not a very intuitive concept: Standardize is fundamental to Sort, Shine and Set in Order, and Sustain fundamental to Standardize, and is a higher-level characteristic of the organizational culture.
  3. Because companies usually do not understand Sustain, the other Ss can never be sustained. This leads to cyclical restarts of incomplete 5S projects.
  4. 5S itself has a direct cost, but doesn’t save a penny; the benefits are plentiful, but indirect and hard to measure.
  5. 5S is not very appealing – it makes people start daydreaming of the weekend.

Build your continuous improvement plan on a 5S foundation

For any lean or similar CI initiative to succeed, participants must immediately identify with and buy into the concepts, and learn how these best practices will benefit their lives. One of the most effective ways to gain this support is to start a continuous improvement plan implementation with the 5S best practice.

Our experience has shown that the typical shop floor employee is interested in finding out two things when a CI initiative is introduced:

  • “Does CI work?”
  • “How will it affect me?”

A well-executed 5S event can address both questions, and thus help to garner employee buy-in for the program.

5Sis often hailed as the first tool to implement in a continuous improvement initiative, and creates the foundation and environment for other CI best practices to be implemented. Put simply, the strength of the foundation will determine the strength and sustainability of all other best practices.

The following video illustrates the implementation of 5S in five different environments:

Empower teams to eliminate waste

The 5S concept of Sort, Shine, Set in order, Standardize, and Sustain (or whatever your organization’s translation of the five Japanese terms may be), can be used to teach the general lean concepts of waste reduction to your workforce.

As the 5S event gets underway, it is important to emphasize the fact that 5S is more than simply cleaning up. It puts into practice the lean philosophy of continuous improvement through the non-stop elimination of waste. And who better to identify the waste in a particular work area than the people who work in it every day?

The 5S event allows management to illustrate how lean empowers employees to make positive changes in their work environment. And by empowering team members to take action, the CI philosophy can be fostered throughout the organization.

Keep on improving

Implementing 5S occurs in two phases: initial implementation and later refinement. It may begin as an event, but thereafter it is a never-ending daily process in which the fifth ‘S’ (Sustain), means not only sustaining the gains, but also continually improving workplace organization. This requires concentration, dedication and devotion to sustaining it and ultimately making it a company-wide culture. 5S must be viewed as a set of principles, values and practices that people adopt as a guide to working together productively.

To sustain and build upon the benefits of 5S as an integrated process, implement it in a pilot area together with other best practices such as teamwork, focused improvement and visual management. Here’s why:

  • It focuses concentration of effort in one area to achieve results instead of diluting the effort across a wide front
  • It allows learning and experimentation in a confined area, making roll-out easier
  • It develops a visible zone of excellence to act as a role model for the rest of the organization
  • It convinces the sceptics and achieves employee buy-in
  • It provides quick results to sustain the momentum

5S provides the opportunity to show your employees that a continuous improvement plan initiative is not an abstract philosophy invented by mass manufacturers for high-volume production. Instead, it’s all about taking ownership of an area or process, the freedom and autonomy to improve, pride in excellence, and the ability to control outcomes.