The Lean Way to Organize Your Workspace

5S is a system for organizing spaces so work can be performed efficiently, effectively, and safely. This system focuses on putting everything where it belongs and keeping the workplace clean—which makes it easier for people to do their jobs without wasting time or risking injury.

Small Things Make a Big Difference

It’s often overlooked that improving the small things around you can greatly impact the large aspects of your work process. Thankfully, the 5S method can help you make your workplace a sanctuary of productivity. It will allow your team to work with more discipline and apply every tool in the Lean arsenal with less effort.

5S Requires You to Sweat the Right Small Stuff

Excellence in all areas of your business can flow from determining the right small stuff and then focusing on those small things. For example, in the world of sports, the New Zealand All-Blacks Rugby team, the highly successful team has the habit of cleaning the dressing room after every match, win or lose. Every player, including the stars, are expected to pick up, sweep up, and generally leave the dressing room as good or better than they found it.

Perhaps this is a little thing, but it says much about the character and culture of the team, doesn’t it? It shows discipline, and it highlights the power of the small things. If you knew just this one thing about this team, and you had to bet, would you bet they were successful or average?

Overview of 5S

Each S represents one part of a five-step process that can improve the overall function of your organization:

Japanese Translated English Definition
Seiri organize Sort Eliminate whatever is not needed by separating needed tools, parts, and instructions from unneeded materials.
Seiton orderliness Set in order Organize whatever remains by neatly arranging and identifying parts and tools for ease of use.
Seiso cleanliness Shine Clean the work area by conducting a cleanup campaign.
Seiketsu standardize Standardize Schedule regular cleaning and maintenance by conducting seiriseiton, and seiso daily.
Shitsuke discipline Sustain Make 5S a way of life by forming the habit of always following the first four S’s.

1. Sort

The first step of 5S, Sort, involves going through all the tools, furniture, materials, equipment, etc. in a work area to determine what needs to be present and what can be removed. Some questions to ask during this phase include:

  • What is the purpose of this item?
  • When was this item last used?
  • How frequently is it used?
  • Who uses it?
  • Does it really need to be here?

These questions help determine the value of each item. A workspace might be better off without unnecessary items or items used infrequently. These things can get in the way or take up space.

Keep in mind the best people to assess the items in a space are the people who work in that space. They are the ones who can answer the above questions.

2. Set in Order

Once the extra clutter is gone, it’s easier to see what’s what. Now work groups can come up with their own strategies for sorting through the remaining items. Things to consider:

  • Which people (or workstations) use which items?
  • When are items used?
  • Which items are used most frequently?
  • Should items be grouped by type?
  • Where would it be most logical to place items?
    • Would some placements be more ergonomic for workers than others?
    • Would some placements cut down on unnecessary motion?
  • Are more storage containers necessary to keep things organized?

During this phase, everyone should determine what arrangements are most logical. That will require thinking through tasks, the frequency of those tasks, the paths people take through the space, etc.

3. Shine

Everyone thinks they know what housekeeping is, but it’s one of the easiest things to overlook, especially when work gets busy. The Shine stage of 5S focuses on cleaning up the work area, which means sweeping, mopping, dusting, wiping down surfaces, putting tools and materials away, etc.

In addition to basic cleaning, Shine also involves performing regular maintenance on equipment and machinery. Planning for maintenance ahead of time means businesses can catch problems and prevent breakdowns. That means less wasted time and no loss of profits related to work stoppages.

Shining the workplace might not sound exciting, but it’s important. And it shouldn’t just be left up to the janitorial staff. In 5S, everyone takes responsibility for cleaning up their workspace, ideally on a daily basis. This way, people take ownership of the space, which in the long run means people will be more invested in their work and in the company.

 How to clean may seem obvious, but make sure people know how to properly Shine their spaces. Show employees—especially new employees—which cleaners to use, where cleaning materials are stored, and how to clean equipment, particularly if it’s equipment that could be easily damaged.

4. Standardize

Once the first three steps of 5S are completed, things should look pretty good. All the extra stuff is gone, everything is organized, spaces are cleaned, and equipment is in good working order.

The problem is, when 5S is new at a company, it’s easy to clean and get organized, and then slowly let things slide back to the way they were. Standardize makes 5S different from the typical spring-cleaning project. Standardize systematizes everything that just happened and turns one-time efforts into habits. Standardize assigns regular tasks, creates schedules, and posts instructions so these activities become routines. It makes standard operating procedures for 5S so that orderliness doesn’t fall by the wayside.

Depending on the workspace, a daily 5S checklist or a chart might be useful. A posted schedule indicating how frequently certain cleaning tasks must occur and who is responsible for them is another helpful tool.

Initially, people will probably need reminders about 5S. Small amounts of time may need to be set aside daily for 5S tasks. But over time, tasks will become routine and 5S organizing and cleaning will become a part of regular work.

5. Sustain

Once standard procedures for 5S are in place, businesses must perform the ongoing work of maintaining those procedures and updating them as necessary. Sustain refers to the process of keeping 5S running smoothly, but also of keeping everyone in the organization involved. Managers need to participate, as do employees out on the manufacturing floor, in the warehouse, or in the office. Sustain is about making 5S a long-term program, not just an event or short-term project. Ideally, 5S becomes a part of an organization’s culture. And when 5S is sustained over time, that’s when businesses will start to notice continuous positive results.

 To help sustain 5S practices, make sure all new employees (or employees who switch departments) receive training about their area’s 5S procedures.

Each S represents one part of a five-step process that can improve the overall function of your organization.

The Costs of 5S vs. Long-Term Savings

Leaders considering using 5S may wonder if 5S is expensive to implement. Generally, it’s not. There may be an up-front investment in tools like floor marking tape and labels, and some time does need to be spent on training and on 5S activities, which takes up employees’ time. In the long run, though, 5S makes processes run more smoothly and prevents mishaps, and those things usually save businesses money.