5s Is The One Foundation For A Triumphant Lean Culture

The Problem

“5S is the foundation of Lean Implementation”.  You hear it over and over again, in each training seminar, during Kaizen events, or when managers come down on operations because the work area or office is a wreck.  So everyone knows that 5S is the foundation, but can anyone say why?  No, for the most part you will hear people respond with something like, “well you have to have a clean work area to get anything done”.  The truth is most businesses have no clue why 5S is so important.  5S has become a box to check “because it’s the foundation”.  It is something businesses do when their customers or executives come to visit.  Additionally 5S is rarely ever fully practiced in the U.S. at all, it should actually be called 3S because no one ever makes it past “shine”.  Worse than that there are countless businesses who have never heard of 5S.  If 5S is new to you and your business, don’t feel bad, but allow me to explain. 

What is 5S?
Let’s back up a little and define each of the “S”s.  They are set in a logical order starting with “Sort”.  Sorting should always be your starting place because you are likely to have trash, old tools, obsolete contraptions, and excess material.  It only makes sense to work with what is actually necessary otherwise you waste space and time.

The second “S” is to “Store” which takes what is left after the sort and gives it a home.  This is important because if everything has a home that is defined and labeled, then there should be no problem finding what you need to do the job.  No one wants their employees burning up production time trying to find a tool.

“Shine” is the last step of the 3S system and beyond it is uncharted territory.  No one can deny the importance of a clean space.  Shine means to clean off the dust, grime, and spills that make a work area look terrible.  Shine also includes painting which can really make an area pop, and mopping which can help with safety issues.  The problem with Shine is that it is the last step for most organizations who attempt to use 5S.

Then there is “Standardize” which insinuates you are to develop some standards for the work area, this could be color coding, specific labeling requirements, making similar work areas identical, and so on.  The value here is that an employee who does not normally work in a specific area would expect to see similar systems set up no matter where they work.  Expectations for cleanliness and organization are the same everywhere which leaves a lot of the guess work out of the picture.

The final “S” should be the dream of every business, “Sustain”.  To sustain means to cling to the changes that were supposed to bring so much value.  Sustainment sets your business up to run itself.  Some examples of this are using methods in material flow like First In First Out (FIFO), Kanban (pull ordering systems), and Standard Work.

4 Reasons 5S is Foundational
Now that we are all on the same page on what 5S is, we can begin to answer why it’s the foundation of a lean business.  The first 3 “S”s are tactical in nature which deals with immediate actions, while standardize and sustain are more strategic since they are focused on long-term benefits for the company.  So to answer the question 5S is the foundation for these reasons:

  1. If a company only practiced 5S it would be better off than most
  2. It’s a philosophy, system, and tool that moves an organization through tactics and into strategy
  3. A business can build an entire culture on top of it
  4. It is simple and can be applied to any type of business


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