5S Overview

What is it? What does it mean? Where did it come from?

Andy Pritchard  |   December 12, 2022  |    5 min read

TABLE of contents

    In order to be profitable and compete in a global market every company has to effectively steward its resources. It’s been said that waste is a thief.

    In manufacturing, where waste can take several different forms including wasted time, energy, movement, or materials, this is especially true.

    Following World War II, innovative Japanese companies like Toyota revolutionized manufacturing by finding innovative ways to reduce waste in small achievable increments.

    This process is now at the heart of what we know globally as Lean Manufacturing and Continuous Improvement.

    5S is a toolkit, process, or methodology that helps address the wasted time, energy, and materials that can result from the inefficiency of dirty, cluttered, and disorganized workplaces.

    If Lean is a strategy to improve efficiency, then 5S is a tactic, or set of proscribed steps that will help your plant be more efficient and reduce waste.

    What is 5S?

    Picture this:

    a worker producing widgets stands in his work area full of clutter, dirt, and debris. Tools are scattered randomly across various surfaces, which are piled high with half-used pieces of material.

    In the corner unused components are stacked chest-height and wobbling slightly as they wait to be used. Large unmarked bins contain a hodge-podge of tools and materials that may, or may not, be needed this month.

    The machines and equipment are rusty and rattle when used, smoking slightly as they overheat. Slippery grease and hazardous chemicals stain the ground where they were spilled months ago.

    Would you imagine this is an efficient work environment? Most would say no.

    The worker wastes time looking for tools, rummaging through those unmarked storage bins for the item they need. Safety hazards abound, whether from the pile of components waiting to topple or the slip hazard from the greasy chemicals on the floor. The machines, in their poorly maintained condition, are mere hours away from breaking down, causing unplanned downtime for the factory.

    The 5S System is a lean manufacturing tool designed to improve efficiency and productivity in your plant by making it more organized and efficient.

    It removes clutter, cuts down on time your staff look for tools and materials while working, and ensures workplaces are consciously free of hazards. The focus on Lean manufacturing is to increase the productivity and profitability of a plant by making small incremental improvements that add up to large benefits to a company's bottom-line over time.

    For example, a 5% improvement in production output would not have a drastic impact on a company's bottom-line. However combined with simultaneous 5% reductions in energy usage, raw materials used, employee injuries, etc etc these small changes would be very impactful over the course of a few quarters or years.

    5S is a specific set of actions that a company can use to start to realize these Lean Manufacturing gains.

    It's often the first step companies take in moving towards a Lean or continuous improvement focused culture because 5S is simple to organize, execute, and impactful. As a process, 5S is designed so that each step builds on the successes of the previous ones, and the last two steps of 5S ensure the benefits of 5S are maintained over the long term.

    The 5S Terms

    The term 5S comes from the five steps of the process, which are named with words that begin with the letter S in the original Japanese. In English you could also call them sort, set in order, shine, standardize, and sustain

    Sort / Tidiness

    整理 Seiri - Remove unnecessary or useless items from the work area.

    Set in Order/ Orderliness

    整頓 - Seiton - Arrange necessary tools and materials for quick storage and retrieval.

    Shine / Cleanliness

    清掃 - Seiso - Ensure the tools in your workspace are clean & well maintained.


    清潔 - Seiketsu - Document your new best practices by writing them down.

    Sustain / Discipline

    躾 - Shitsuke - Make 5S ongoing and commit to regular improvement.

    Ford and Toyoda 5S history-min (1)
    A Brief History

    Post World War 2 Japan had an enormous impact on Lean Manufacturing theory, forging new ground on how to make plants more efficient and safe. The Toyota Motor Company and analysts like Hiroyuki Hirano helped Japanese production outpace their American counterparts who soon took note and began to implement similar measures in their own plants domestically. Prior to Japanese innovation much of the progress in North America had come from the Ford Motor Company’s moving assembly line which had reduced the time needed to assemble an automobile from 12 hours to 90 minutes.

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