5S is not about tidying stuff up

Anyone who has been through a 5S session will I am sure remember the buzz when you pulled out that old broken fan from under your desk and finally binned it. Perhaps you got the chance to clean the top of your machine and actually make it a nice place to be for a change. These are often the memorable bits of a 5S session but they are never enough to sustain a good 5S.


5S is about spotting the unusual condition. It removes clutter, imposes order and creates ownership for local management to manage locally. The hardest part is sustaining the new conditions. After the first burst of enthusiasm the day job takes over and within a month the work place looks just like the ‘before’ pictures plus a sad shadow board with nothing on it – we have all seen it. So I thought I would add my reflections on what I have seen working in the hundreds of companies and places I have visited that have managed to sustain 5S.

I am not going to list the 5S stages here – google it and you will get all the help you need, this is about the sustaining stage.

Sustaining Action 1: Crystal clear accountability. The work place has visible boundaries and the team who are responsible for the area are named and on the local visual management board. No exceptions, no excuses. It is management’s responsibility to make this happen.

Sustaining Action 2: The audit list. The worst 5S process I have seen was a global company that imposed the SAME AUDIT list in every workstation in the world, completely missing the point about local ownership and local issues. The audit list is a statement of what the team (under guidance from seniors) considers important. It consists of a short description of what good looks like, for example, in an office they decided one audit item under safety was:

Walkway is clear and uncluttered, Fire extinguishers are accessible and in date. There are no trailing wires under the desks or across the floor. Filing Cabinet interlocks are functioning.

This was supported by photos, it was simple and worked well. Every audit has some actions when the score is below the standard and the actions are checked at the next audit and the score is posted on the local visual management board. Audit lists are local and must be created by the team that work there. It is their work place and they are the experts.

Sustaining Action 3: Checking by Managers. Show respect to the effort the team is putting into their area by talking about the results and the audit actions.  This is standard work for managers “go see, show respect, ask questions”

Sustaining Action 4: Permanent Red Tag area. During ‘Sort’ any item that does not belong in the work area is red tagged until it finds a new home, is thrown out or is agreed that it is needed. This is useful when working in a project environment when equipment may be needed for a while but then can be returned to stores on completion. This encourages local debate and anyone can put something into the red tag area – this encourages involvement.

Of course the word ‘sustain’ suggests stable and static which is something of a dilemma – Lean teaches us that staying still is going backwards so the best sustain systems are actually also constantly evolving the standards and the methods.   If you think of the ‘sustain’ to mean maintaining effort rather than maintaining a static workplace organisation system your 5S will definitely not be ‘about tidying stuff up’.

If you want a copy of the audit sheets I have then email me at paulbrown@icepartnership.com and I will ping some across to you. Also remember to contact me if you want to know about funding opportunities in Yorkshire and Humberside for SC21, of which 5S plays a significant part.