5S – Spark the Improvement Cycle – Part III

Lean, based on the Toyota Production System, is about growing people. It’s a system that helps people learn together and create great products, together.  Therefore, it’s important to understand that Lean starts with respect for people and teamwork, before introducing any Lean tools. 

Creating a 5S mindset, in your team, is key for Lean operations. It is through 5S that we sustain all the Lean productivity improvements in the workplace. Implemented correctly, the system works to increase everyone’s capability to see waste in operations and processes, and also inspires us to take actions on the opportunities all around us.

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)

I wrote about Sort and Set-In-Order in my first article and then Shine in my second. In this article I focus on Standardize and Sustain.


A team at my company transformed a cluttered storage cabinet into an efficient centralized inventory location. We used 5S principles to de-clutter the cabinet and reorganize it with visual replenishment cues.  During the event, an observer came up to me and asked ‘It’s great we are implementing all these changes but how do we keep it going?”

I explained that to sustain this new shelf we need to implement standards. Standards are simply the best way of doing things until a better way comes along. For the new supermarket, a lean term for the new shelf, we had a lot of decisions to make and we had to come up with many new standards. What parts are we putting on this shelf? Where should things be put so that it is easy and obvious for everyone that uses the shelf?  What label machine and tape are we going to use to label the locations?  What information are we going to put there? How we are going to define our replenishment lines? In one case, the team decided to wrap a piece of yellow tape around a bottle. If the liquid line goes below the yellow line, it is time to order more.

During the event, the team members proposed these solutions and the team came to consensus on what to implement. It’s a step by step approach – train, plan, build, check, propose new ideas, listen, build again, check, and finally standardize. As we build more and more consensus we establish a new standard: the best way of operating the shelf.

With consensus the shelf will not succumb to entropy as easily and people will support the changes. However, it is important to understand that consensus does not mean agreement. This is important to understand because it turns out that people are more concerned about having their ideas heard than whether or not their ideas were actually implemented.  That means, during the event, if there is an idea or a concern, we encourage the team member to speak up and we listen. This way the person is more likely to support the final course of action, even if their idea is not implemented.

It turns out that people are more concerned about having their ideas heard than whether or not their ideas were implemented.


The next thing I explained to our observer was the idea of Sustain, the fifth S.  

When teaching 5S, I always start by writing out a famous summary of Aristotle’s works:

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit. – Will Durant

In order to make 5S thinking and 5S behaviours a habit,  we need to inspire the team every day. This is accomplished through training on 5S, discussion about 5S in a daily standup meeting, and providing time for the team to work on 5S improvements, every day. We can also inspire our team by sharing videos or pictures. Just take a video of improvements, before and after, and show the rest of the team!

Motivation can also come through auditing. In Lean, a 5S audit could look like a weekly walk in the production environment, by the team members! It can include a point system. Different departments are identified on a zone map and team members get to audit other areas. It is not to point out our faults but to keep the workplace in excellent condition at all times so we can quickly identify problems and provide an independent check on the system. Auditing is an excellent opportunity for coaching in 5S thinking, generating more suggestions and ideas, and improving the current standard.

5S Thinking in Action

The goal is to develop a more professional, mindset for workplace organization. A 5S mindset:  Sort Separate what is necessary from what is not necessary Set in Order Everything has a place and everything in its place Shine the daily rituals for tidy-up and cleaning, Standardize creating new standards that increase productivity, and Sustain motivating oneself to improve. 


When I started writing these articles, I was working at a company that was rebooting its Lean program. Before I started in my new Lean role, my mentor said we are going to do 5S in every major production area, including inventory locations. From my perspective, the Lean work that followed 5S, was more natural, and more effective. In fact, many of the common Lean artifacts such as supermarkets, picking carts, Kanban, water spiders all came together within weeks and months of 5S.  Actual Lean systems emerged.

Months later, as we got into more technical Kaizen events such as a SMED (single minute exchange of die) activity, I recall standing in the production area and thinking, without the initial 5S clean up, this project would have been a lot harder. We needed the work area to be organized and cleaned up. With that foundation of workplace organization, and the mess cleared, everyone can see the losses and the opportunities. The struggles and frustrations of the front line staff were more visible. I realized at that moment, that Lean transformation of a workplace really does start with 5S and repeating it daily was essential to everything that came afterwards.

A company’s performance can be assessed by simply watching the habits of how the people work together: how they show respect for each other’s ideas or how they encourage and inspire each other. 5S, from rapid transformation to sustained daily habit, is actually an excellent way to develop those good habits, build stronger teams, release the creative potential of your employees and create healthier workplaces.

* In preparing this article I referred to Yasuhiro Monden’s classic, The Toyota Production System, Third Edition, Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline, The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki and Steven Pressfield’s, The War of Art.

About the author:

Shamir Doshi

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

Other article(s) from the author
5S – Spark the Improvement Cycle – Part II
(published on April 2, 2017)
5S – Spark the Improvement Cycle – Part I
(published on December 1, 2016)

Copyright information: The article has been published with permission from the author. Title picture is not associated with the original writing.


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