Lean Tools – What is 5S really about? – darronrobertsconsulting

Lean manufacturing is a method of transforming raw materials, whether they are products or services, by adding value, to generate a finished product or service that your client wants to purchase.  It is different to ordinary or traditional manufacturing, because Lean manufacturing aims to give the client value for their money in terms of the specification of the product or service matching their exact requirements, delivered when requested with a consistently high quality level, at the lowest internal cost to you.  Lean manufacturing is not a project!  It is a complete manufacturing process, that when started is refined over time and becomes THE way of thinking and THE way of working.  It is not complicated and aims to simplify the transformation process.

Let me give you an everyday example.  You are out, it is a hot day and you are thirsty, you want to go to the nearest shop and buy a small cold, bottle of water.  When you get to the drinks shop and give the shopkeeper your order, there is a problem, he does sell water, but only 20 litres at a time, it is not cold and you can get it in two days time. Not what you wanted.  A fair analogy of what we do to our customers in our businesses?

So Lean manufacturing aims to reduce problems of quality and delivery and to remove or reduce wastes and costs in the process.  To do this it uses a number of tools, each one aimed at improving one or more of the three problems.  There are basic and advanced tools, of the four basic tools 5S, 7 wastes, Visual Management / Visual Control and Standardised Working, probably the 5S tool is the most misunderstood.

A number of you will have been on Lean or Lean Six Sigma courses, read books on the subject and come across the 5S tool.  The origins of the tool are unknown, but it was taken and developed into the tool we know today in the Toyota Japanese plants.  The 5 essees were originally Japanese words but have now been translated in to English as:


Set in order




You have understood the tool and armed with red tags, sweeping brushes, cleaning cloths, two inch yellow floor tape and a digital camera; you head out to the shop floor and begin your “project”.  You have a briefing session with operators and supervisors of section, explain what you are going to do and off you go.  You put red tags on objects that you think, should not be there, give the sweeping brushes and the cloths to the shop floor workers.  When they have swept the dust away and polished the equipment and removed the tagged items, you begin marking area with yellow tape.  Areas to stand, areas to hold equipment, e.g. hand trolleys, areas for raw materials and areas for processed materials.  You get Engineering involved and produce shadow boards for tools and hang them on the walls behind the machinery.   Pleased with your efforts you take photographs of the area and display them nicely on the walls and instruct the operators that this is what the area needs to be kept like and that you will be round every week to audit the area and give them a score.  You are now doing 5S, covering all the essees, couldn’t be easier!  Then every week you go and audit, find something that is out of place, issue an instruction to correct the non-conformance, and write a management report showing how good the 5S audit scores are.

As time goes on you get into a routine, nothing is improving and you are wondering why you are getting into arguments every week with the operators, who do not see the point in doing their cleaning exercises, which just adds to their workload with no incentive or reward.  Your Lean transformation might be stalling before it has even started or you might have given up on your first building block without fully implementing it because you want to move on to some cost saving activities.

By now you are asking, what this has got to do with improved quality, improved delivery performance and reduced costs.  The answer is absolutely NOTHING!

Let us go back to the 5S, the Japanese version with a correct translation.

Seri (Say ree) – Sort and Discard
Eliminate All unneeded items.

Seiton (Say ton) – Arrange and Order
Arrange all items that are left.

Seiso (Say zo) – Shine and Inspect
Clean all areas.

Seiketsu (Say ket soo) – Standardise and Improve
Maintain the first 3S

Shitsuke (Shee tsoo kay) – Believe and Discipline
Believe that the 5S are important and maintain DISCIPLINE.

5S is a management tool to impose operational discipline into a business, the result usually is a clean and orderly factory.  As I have written previously projects are about people, they are the change agents, involve as many of the shop floor as possible.  Managers usually have a problem with this.  They are, after all, the manager and they should be seen to be doing! Not leave it to someone who is paid to operate a machine.

So do 5S properly!

Sorting is about empowerment, you want the operators, or staff in an office to take responsibility for their work environment.  Explain to them what sorting is, removing anything that should not be there and needs to be removed, if it gets in the way, it is a waste, excess movement etc.  Give them the red tags and let them do the tagging, if there is more than one shift, repeat the process.  If one shift tags and the other shift removes the tag, you have to manage the process and determine if the object is required or not.  After a set period of time, say three days, remove all of the tagged items from the area.  This is where the manager comes in.  Is the item required or is it redundant?  If it is redundant sell it, the money will pay for required items for the next stage or maybe the whole project.

Set in order is about teamwork.  The objects that are left need to be arranged so that there is easy access to them.  For this you will need to work with the operators to design the work area, develop shadow boards,  build / buy draws or cupboards  to keeps the work space useable.  Buy more tools if necessary and put them where they are needed.  Make sure there is easy access for feeding and emptying the process, make their job easier for the operators, they will see the benefit and become more enthusiastic and creative.  We are now starting to reduce wastes, in terms of time, which benefits delivery performance and of money, which obviously benefits costs.

Shine and inspect, I will emphasise inspect, because it is very often missed.  This is about ownership. Operators taking ownership of their work area.  You want a clean process, because if it is clean moving parts will not wear out as quickly, if they don’t wear out as quickly they do not increase variation as quickly, thus you have a more stable process, and consistent quality.  The inspection comes from two aspects.  The operators spend their working day on their process, they can feel vibrations, or hear noises that are not normally there and can inform management that there is a problem before it becomes a breakdown, similar to you driving your car, you know if there is a wobble on the wheel you get it looked at before you blow the tyre!  The object is to bring the process back up to, or keep it in design specification.  The second part is if there are abnormalities they should be easier to spot, oil on the floor, damage to a cover etc.  It is then up to management to action these reports.  This is also an input to a Preventative Maintenance program.

So far so good, this is where many companies actually stop at 3S, because they do not really understand the 4 or 5th essees.

Standardise and improve.  This is purely and simply management.  Management or to be correct the Area Supervisor should develop a Standard Operating Procedure for the first 3S.  Specifying what has to be done, when it has to be done and how it has to be done.  With all procedures the operators have to be trained on the procedure and then managed to perform it.  There has to be concessions on this.  Time off production for 5S, 10 minutes at the end of the shift, checklists to show what has to be done at a particular time and follow up from the supervisor to ensure it happens.  The SOP, like all SOP’s should be reviewed at least at a quarterly basis, improvements through experience and new ideas should be included and the operators retrained in the procedure.

Sustain, believe and discipline.  The audits should be undertaken by the GM, MD, VP or whoever is the senior person in the company.  This sets the idea that the company are taking this very seriously.  The auditor has to congratulate teams that are performing well and admonish teams that are under performing, to the point of disciplinary action if the negative trend continues.

5S is a management tool as I stated earlier, for introducing operational discipline.  If you have ever embarked on a project in the past, and it has failed for some reason and you have tried something else to the point that the workforce think these are just management fads and will go away in a week or so, 5S implemented properly will totally break those ideas.  If you have implemented 5S properly, when you come to introducing new SOP’s through the Standardised Working Process, the new procedures will be implemented quicker and the benefits will gleaned earlier than if you had not. (The operators are now used to following instructions.) So 5S is a tool for making operators do what is required from them when it is required.  As a consequence you will have a clean factory and offices.  Did you know that you can use the 5S technique on your products, processes and people as well as the factory?

This blog was written to give implementers an insight into what 5S is really about and what benefits related to Quality, Delivery and Cost it will give you when implemented properly.  It is the first building block of a Lean manufacturing transformation.


One response to “Lean Tools – What is 5S really about? – darronrobertsconsulting

  1. I have been examining your web site whenever I obtain a chance…and I just wanted to tell you how much I enjoy it! Thanks for your familiarity to this matter!

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