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Blog, Process Improvements

5S – Spark the Improvement Cycle – Part I

Posted: December 1, 2016 at 6:38 am   /   by   /   comments (0)

G U E S T  A R T I C L E

For PART – II – Click Here!

ecently the ASQ Ottawa leader team released a Doodle poll to determine, what quality topics are of interest to the Ottawa ASQ community. 5S came out on top!  To address this interest, I have put together a series of articles on this powerful tool.

The 5S system is the foundation of the Toyota Production System. 5S corresponds to 5 Japanese words that start with the S sound. The 5S’s in English, are as follows (other translations are possible!).

Sort (Seiri)   Set In Order (Seiton) Shine (Seiso)  Standardize (Seiketsu) Sustain (Shitsuke)

Early in my career I saw an implementation of 5S but the purpose and the principles behind it was not clear to me then.  Here is one of the most important principles to be learned from 5S:

5S exposes and makes visible the 7 deadly wastes of production.

This principle did not come to me at the time because, like many disciplines, a real deep understanding of the purpose of all the techniques and the methods, in any particular field, is only achieved after many hours of practice.  It may come after hours and hours of watching the same videos over and over, or after teaching the same training, over and over.  Maybe, in a brief moment, it will become clear when studying Lean books or an article. As a Lean Engineer, I have been doing all of the above for the past 6 months and I am still learning about the 5S program.

Here’s the thing: to the amateur, 5S is just window dressing; to a master, the 5S program is the foundation for an entire production system. That is a huge swing for the newbie to grasp. But, yet, it’s written in one Lean book after another, in one way or another: without 5S, you can forget the rest. The following is an attempt to provide some understanding of the process and the principles, however, with consistent practice and learning you will also see the principles behind the methods.

Sparking the Fire of Continuous Improvement

Companies have repetitive processes but there is one thing common to them all: they are run by people. With that in mind, let’s look at what would happen if you don’t implement 5S.  What would happen, if people do not have a consistent way to remove unnecessary things from their work areas, every day? What if the people do not have standard places for things, such as a consistent place for each tool in their process?  When more than one person is using the work spaces, what would happen if there is no discipline to put everything back in its place, before the end of shift? Now, without any program to help people improve all this, how effective do you think these processes will be in producing consistent output and quality?

The Goal of a 5S Program

The goal of a 5S program is to help all people improve the repetitive processes in an organization so that they are consistent in meeting customer expectations.

Here’s how I think it works. As mentioned earlier, when people work with the principles of 5S thinking, hidden waste is exposed. For example, when our team creates a new layout for tools, the team begins to notice deviations or inefficiencies in the layout.  The natural tendency is to be annoyed by the layout. What happens next is the exciting part: they start fixing the layout.   By adjusting and tweaking and creating new standards like this, every day, the repetitive processes keep improving. Finally, if we provide the tools and materials, coaching and training, waste becomes recognizable by all people, in all the processes, every day. All this visibility, and empowerment to make these little changes, sparks the cycle of improvement. The goal of a 5S program is to help all people improve the repetitive processes in an organization so that they are consistent in meeting customer expectations.

The 5S program works in 2 ways: an all-in-one go blitz and the daily habit. The all-in-one go blitz, performed quickly and, with facilitation from a Lean practitioner, is important as it prevents rebound.  Depending on the size and complexity of the workspace, a 2-3 day event with focus on SORT first, and then SET IN ORDER, is typical to get things rolling. It is important to note that floor markings, signage, layouts as well as tools and workbenches are all part of the 5S activity, and thus requires a lot of pre-work and full employee engagement. Proper facilitation during the 5S event will help your team and management understand the purpose and ensure the principles are being followed correctly.

The daily habit of 5S is how you sustain continuous improvement. More on this later but for now, let’s talk a bit more about the first 2 steps in the 5S program, SORT and SET IN ORDER.


Recently, I have started asking 5S trainees, what does SORT mean to you? Most people think SORT means creating categories for your things and putting things into those categories.

In the SORT step, there are only 2 categories to be concerned about:  items that you need for your process and is necessary now, and things that your process does not need or is unnecessary RIGHT NOW.  In other words, what does your process need, currently? And if it is not necessary for the process now, move it out!

SORT, in my experience, appears to be the most powerful idea in 5S thinking. When you reduce the items (tools and materials) to only what is necessary for a process and move out the unnecessary materials, to another location, so many wasteful activities are exposed and become visible.

One common outcome in manufacturing environments is the discovery of excess inventory (raw materials or consumables) in work areas. As this extra inventory starts moving out of the area, the team starts to talk about all the problems and difficulties they have accepted as the norm: the burden of monitoring materials for their expiry date, organizing the inventory to prevent mix-ups or controlling contamination. But wait until materials management hears about all the extra material: the new found material will surely affect procurement in the near future!

Excess inventory is just one of the wastes that team’s find. Wasted motions, compliance issues and even safety issues are being discovered all the time.

I know when a production team is getting the principle when I overhear conversations like the following:

‘Look what I found!’
‘Is it necessary for production?’
‘Well it could be handy.’
‘But, is it necessary today, now?’
‘Okay let’s move it out to the red tag area.’

With SORT in action, you to start seeing the true process again, as it was originally designed. But what about all the ‘not currently needed’ items? For now, tag items that are not dispositioned immediately and move them to an area marked with red tape. You can use red tags with information on them to indicate things like where it came from and when you found it.

If they are needed for the process, but not right now, they will be addressed later through other improvements, and often more quickly than you think. One idea is to create a centralized inventory location, called a supermarket. Another is to develop a method for quick changeovers. Those tools are already part of world class companies, and they will come to your company, at the appropriate time. Remember, doing the right thing, but at the WRONG time, works against you and is often deadly for companies. So start with SORT first, then those tools will come.


This workplace has some unnecessary items that require a sort.

0-2Unnecessary items found in a production area during a 5S blitz. A temporary red tag area is marked with red tape.
Red tags on items contain information such as what it is and where they come from.

The SORT principle is simple but profound: keep what is necessary and currently needed, and everything else will find a home, be re-purposed elsewhere or thrown out. Keep in mind, SORT is a process for people to improve their repetitive process. So, without the SORT thinking applied on a daily basis, workspaces will eventually become cluttered again: unnecessary things, by nature, will start to accumulate in the area again.

After SORT, and only after, it’s time to focus on setting things in order.


Once all the unnecessary items are removed from the production area, you can begin to put the remaining necessary items into a convenient layout: easy to get and easy to put back. By making a new home for your tools and making it obvious; the workplace is more likely to be restored to the new standard layout after use.


Visual indicators indicate that everything has a place and everything in its place. 

It is important see here that as each new layout materializes, a standard emerges. With this standard, improvement is now possible. In the words of Taichi Ohno of the Toyota Motor Company, where there is no standard, there can be no Kaizen.


This machine worker has moved her Andon Light above her machine and has removed the excessive signage.
The sorting worker still has to deal with the safety issue that was hidden by the extra bin.

Different employees or the same employees returning to the same workspace, every day, are encouraged to challenge the new standards being set. One example is to improve a tool layout. Eventually, the employees will see how the 5S thinking is actually making their work more enjoyable. The goal is to actually achieve flow in their work.

Now, similar to SORT, the SET IN ORDER thought process helps people working directly with the repetitive process. So as SET IN ORDER becomes a habit, everything has a place. Without the habit of SET IN ORDER, items, by nature, will start to wander off and find new homes.


Now, what do you think will happen if you skip SORT and go straight to SET IN ORDER?  What usually happens is stuff that YOU DON’T NEED starts getting organized!  If SORT is not followed first, teams become very efficient at organizing things like excess inventory and unnecessary tools. Unnecessary items that don’t add any value in transforming product, clutter the work space.  Teams become really good at working around them! These same items may become part of the landscape and in some cases may create quality problems down the road.

I see teams dealing with similar problems and difficulties because they don’t take a hard look at their work areas and SORT out the unnecessary, first. If a department truly grasps 5S, accumulation of unnecessary things is understood to be a deadly mistake and is sustained on a daily basis.

The first 2 steps of 5S requires that you take a hard look at your process: sort out what is not necessary and what is necessary, NOW, and then set in order all that remains, in an easy and obvious way.  Good lean practitioners will put a lot of hard work and energy into the 5S program. They will release documentation and will train and coach this material over and over.  Hopefully, you now know why: exposing the waste and making it visible, sparks the improvement cycle. The next article in the series will cover the next steps in the 5S method for continuous improvement.

About the author:

Shamir Doshi

Shamir Doshi is the current Arrangements Chair for the Ottawa Chapter of the American Society of Quality (ASQ) and is a Lean Engineer for a leading biomedical company in Ottawa. He can be reached using our contact form.


ASQ Ottawa

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