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What the 5S Methodology Is Really All About

August 27, 2019
Volodymyr Rudyi

Have you heard about the 5S methodology but wondered exactly what it entails? 5S is a system used for organizing spaces to create an environment where work can be done safely, efficiently, and effectively. This is a specific system often used in lean manufacturing that ensures everything is in its place and the workplace is clean and free of hazards. This makes it a much simpler proposition for individuals to do their jobs in a timely manner without risking any injuries.

What 5S Stands For

5S, which can also be called Five S or 5s, is a reference to five different Japanese terms that describe the different steps of the system of visual management. All of the terms start with the letter S, hence the methodology name. In Japanese, those terms are Seiri, Seiton, Seiso, Seiketsu, and Shitsuke. However, in English, the terms are translated to Sort, Set in Order, Shine, Standardize, and Sustain. This methodology came about as a way to make just in time manufacturing a reality.

The Origin Story of 5S

5S as a methodology started in post-war Japan when the growing Toyota Industries was looking for ways to reduce inefficiency and waste. The end solution, which was known as the Toyota Production System, brought in place a number of methodologies which are still famous today such as just in time manufacturing, the visual workplace idea, and Jidoka.

While the original Toyota Production System was a secret, a gradual exchange of ideas eventually occurred and Hiroyuki Hirano, a ULVAC Inc. executive, devised the five factors of the visual workplace which would turn into the 5S methodology that is known and used around the globe today.

This methodology has only become more important through the years and is now one of the main elements of lean manufacturing along with practices and processes like the visual workplace, lean manufacturing, Six Sigma, Kaizen, Kanban, Gemba, and TIMWOOD.

The Five Key Practices of 5S

#1 Seiri or Sort

This is the first practice involved in 5S. This practice involves sorting through materials and then keeping only the items that are absolutely essential to complete required tasks. This means going through all the materials, tools, equipment, furniture, and other items in a certain work area to decide what needs to be there and what should be removed. There are a few questions you can ask to get a better idea of the answer:

  • What is this item’s actual purpose?
  • When was this item used last?
  • How often is this item being used?
  • Who uses this item?
  • Is there a reason the item should actually be here?

By asking these questions, you can more easily determine the value of any item in the workplace. Most workplaces are going to be more efficient without a bunch of extra materials around that are used infrequently or not at all. They can take up space and get in the way of productive work. The best people to decide whether items should be present are those working in a space.

If there are items that are no longer necessary, they can be moved into storage, given to a more appropriate department, thrown away, recycled, or sold, depending on your preferences and the needs of the business.

#2 Seiton or Set in Order

After most of the clutter is gone, seeing what is around you is much easier. Workgroups can now decide what strategies should be used to sort through the rest of the items. There are some questions for this task that also may prove to be helpful:

• What people are using which items? • When are the items being used? • Which of the items are used most often? • Where is the most logical place to store items? • Is there a need for more storage containers to keep things organized?

This phase of 5S looks at what arrangements will be the most logical. That means thinking about tasks, paths people take through a workspace, and how often the tasks are occurring. Many businesses will also want to consider organization and how it relates to lean manufacturing and avoiding waste.

#3 Seiso or Shine

Each of these things is helping with quality control but making the workplace a better space. This next step is all about cleaning up. Shine means keeping the work area clean by dusting, sweeping, mopping, wiping off surfaces, and putting things away when they are not being used.

This goes beyond basic cleaning and also includes providing regular maintenance on machinery and equipment. When you plan for maintenance ahead of time, that means problems can be caught early to prevent larger issues. This means less time wasted and fewer work stoppages that can cause profit loss.

While shining up your workplace might not sound fun, it is crucial. It also isn’t something that only the janitors should be tasked with. 5S makes everyone responsible for keeping their workspaces clean, typically on a daily basis. This gives workers ownership over their own space, which can make them more invested in the business.

#4 Seiketsu or Standardize

After the first three steps are in place, the workplace should be starting to look pretty great. All the extra items that are unneeded are gone, things have been organized, the area is clean, and you know your equipment is in proper working order.

The issue lies in the fact that companies new to 5S easily do the first three steps but then let things go back to the way they were as time goes on. The standardize step is what makes things different. When you standardize, you are taking everything you just did and systemizing it to turn it from a one-time thing into an ongoing habit. When you standardize, you have regularly assigned tasks, created schedules, and instructions posted that turn these things into a routine. This creates quality control for 5S so that the orderliness doesn’t revert back into chaos as time goes on.

Some workspaces do well with a daily 5S chart or checklist, others may not need that level of standardization. Having a schedule posted that marks how often cleaning tasks should be happening and who is in charge of them can be a helpful thing to have.

At first, reminders about the 5S system will likely be needed. People will have to set aside time to handle the new tasks. But as time goes on, this will become a routine and cleaning and organizing the workplace will seem like something you have always done.

#5 Shitsuke or Sustain

The last step in 5S is sustain and you may be able to guess what that means. After you have the procedures for this new lean manufacturing methodology in place, you have to put aside time to update the procedures and ensure they are maintained. Sustaining refers to keeping 5S running smoothly while keeping everyone in the organization involved. Not only should managers be involved, but so should everyone in the warehouse, the manufacturing floor, or in the office. Sustaining means making 5S a process that lasts rather than a short-term project. As the processes of 5S are sustained, businesses will start to notice positive trends that continue on into the future.

#6 Safety

There are only five steps to 5S, but many companies like to add on a sixth, which is safety. Most companies that use six steps call the process 6S instead of 5S. For the safety step, it involves looking at what changes you can make to processes at work, so risks are eliminated. This might involve arranging things in new and different ways.

For example, a company might set up workstations where they are more ergonomic, create intersections for areas where pedestrians and forklifts meet, or labeling storage areas where dangerous cleaning chemicals are kept so people know hazards are present. If the tasks workers do are dangerous or the layout of the space itself is hazardous, changes should be made to reduce the dangers. This is what the safety tenet is all about.

On the other hand, some companies are of the belief that the first five S processes will take care of safety altogether, so adding a sixth S isn’t something that needs to be done. The belief here is that an organized, cleaned workspace with visual safety cues is all that is needed. There is no right or wrong to either opinion. Every business needs to decide for themselves how safety is approached, but it should always be at the forefront of attention.

Visual Communication & 5S

One of the most crucial parts of 5S is that it helps create easier to navigate, cleaner spaces. This makes it easier for people to get their work done. Communication tools that work on a visual level like floor markings, labels, shadow boards, shelf markings, and other items can add to the flow in these spaces and maintain order. These are useful items to implement to ensure the workspace continues to stay organized. Any workplace that uses visual management techniques is typically referred to as a visual workplace.

How to Get Started with 5S

As you can see, the concepts behind 5S are fairly simple, but that doesn’t mean that bringing in the new system isn’t going to feel challenging and overwhelming. If you are starting development into 5S, all managers and employees should be a part of that. If part of the business is left out, this can make some of the workers confused or lead to problems that individuals aren’t going to want to take ownership of.

That isn’t to say that some people won’t play a bigger role in the system than others, because they likely will. Some workers might be in charge of coordinating systems, introducing new department members to the system, or keeping track of tasks that are assigned. These people are going to spend much more time thinking about 5S than the average employee. However, everyone should be aware of it and thinking about it enough that it becomes a part of daily work.

The leaders of the company should also be part of participating in 5S, especially if it is being implemented on a company-wide level. Seeing supervisors and superiors taking this lean manufacturing choice with an earnest intent will make others take it more seriously than they otherwise might.

Training Employees in 5S

Any person who is going to be working with 5S activities should receive proper training. This might be done using a training software program, in a classroom setting, or through the use of hands-on activities. Having a simple demonstration of how 5S might be used at a specific workstation can be helpful for workers.

In order to give employees an understanding of why the company is going to begin using 5S and why it is a crucial change, there needs to be an understanding of the history of the methodology, its benefits, and each of its parts. But keep in mind that 5S may be carried out in different ways in one business or even one department than it is in another. Taking the time to find the best way to perform the methodology may require effort.

In any case, all employees need training in 5S when it’s newly implemented. It should also be a part of training for all new employees that come on board after 5S has been made a standard part of the workplace.

While 5S started out in the automobile manufacturing industry and has been used in manufacturing ever since, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t work in other industries. 5S is also used in industries like healthcare, schools, and government institutions.

Any workplace can use the basic steps of 5S. A medical clinic can use it to organize supplies, while a kitchen can use it to prevent a walk-in from becoming filled with expired foods and beverages. It can be used in quality control, just in time manufacturing, and all sorts of other processes. It just comes down to deciding what work processes and workspaces will see the largest benefits from better organization.

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