5S – Why bother?

computers and tangled cables

The 5S methodology is nothing new in industry these days, but it’s surprising how often such a simple, yet potentially extremely effective methodology fails to deliver its expected results. Considering how long 5S has been with us you’d think that generally speaking we should have managed to get it right by now. I’d like to share some of my own experiences of 5S implementation with you – Why it fails to deliver, and what are the major factors that we must avoid so that we don’t fall into this trap.

5S methodology follows five stages of implementation – SORT (eliminate un-needed items), SET (a place for everything, everything in its place), SHINE (check for abnormality), STANDARDISE (simplify and define best practice), and SUSTAIN (ensure that disciplines are maintained). For organisations embarking on implementing Lean, 5S is often seen as the best starting place and remarkable visual impact and tangible benefits can be yielded within a very short timeframe of implementing just the first three stages of 5S. However, it’s during these early stages of implementation where an organisation is most vulnerable to making the oh-so-common errors that are the hallmarks of failure. So what are the most significant pitfalls to avoid failure?

Not getting real management buy-in

Managers are busy people, surely if the 5S principles are so basic why do management need to get involved?  – WRONG! Everyone has a part to play in making 5S work, offering token support just doesn’t work – involvement has to be seen to be done at all levels. Delegating 5S administration down the management chain might get you by in the short term if you’re lucky, and then it inevitably falls apart. People in the process don’t value 5S if they perceive management don’t value it – they need to see their managers engaging in regular reviews with the workforce as well as becoming involved in the initial 5S kaizen teamwork.

Double standards

“Do unto others as you would expect others to do unto you” sounds like a good idea. Upholding best practice instilled by 5S is only as good as the consistency and rigour put into it. A great deal of energy is expended getting the initial benefits of 5S and this can all go to ruin if compliance to agreed standards and objectives are patchy. Everything will tend to degenerate to the lowest level of compliance – if 5S standards in the manager’s office aren’t seen to be followed then there’s an almost certain likelihood that 5S will not be sustained throughout the rest of the organisation.

Poor demarcation of the organisation

Unclear or undefined areas of ownership and responsibility can have a big contribution to failure. Area ownership boundaries are often defined to the edges of the areas’ functional limits leaving ‘islands of no responsibility’. The most obvious example of this is leaving ownership of adjacent walkways undefined. Anywhere there’s a lack of ownership unofficial ‘dumping grounds’ are created, if these happen to be walkways, serious health & safety risks can develop.

Inconsistent roll-out

Once you start a 5S implementation you have to plan to finish it within a reasonable timeframe. If timeframes are too long, or delays are imposed on implementation, perceptions will be ‘well, this can’t be all that important can it?’ – another killer blow in the long run. As implementation timeframes for larger organisations can often extend beyond 12 months it is vital to be sure that an effective audit mechanism is put in place as soon as possible as this goes a long way towards stopping inconsistencies developing over time.

Uncontrolled disposal of un-needed items

During the SORT phase of 5S implementation there should be clear rules for the disposal of non-essentials. Getting rid of non-essentials isn’t just a ‘license to scrap’, often there are opportunities to reallocate. Where un-needed items are inventories it’s important to create rules that will assure that these excesses cannot recur, and that clear mechanisms exist for absorbing inventories back into the system. I encountered an example of this with a client where their service replacement parts were being brought back to their workshops by field service engineers and handed over to internal engineers on a ‘just in case you can make use of it’ basis. Because there wasn’t a clearly defined system to bring these back to central stores this inventory was invisible. This organisation quickly realised well over £¼M in cash flow gains by introducing simple procedures to get returned parts back to where they belonged. Another problem with disposal of non-essentials is not having clear rules for defining equipment asset value – disposing of equipment with residual asset value in an uncontrolled manner will guarantee a bad reputation for any 5S implementation. I’ve heard of plenty of experiences where apparently redundant equipment, jigs and fixtures have been disposed of only to find out in no time at all that they are needed for another job.

Assuming shining is just cleaning

It’s not as easy as you would imagine to ‘sell’ 5S when a major stumbling block at the SHINE phase is people misunderstanding this requirement to be just janitorial duties. This is especially galling for office staff to take. One of my clients had previously tried promoting their 5S implementation by awarding ‘the golden broom’ at the end of the week to the supervisor in charge of the best kept department – no guesses how soon that implementation fell over!  If this is not addressed right from the start with thorough explanation of what the shine phase is really about, there will be no real buy-in from staff. It is absolutely vital that SHINE is explained in its proper context of ‘routinely checking for abnormality’ – its primary function – to ensure valuable equipment can be maintained to always perform in a safe way at maximum effectiveness.

Not clearly associating 5S to the 7 wastes of Lean

Taking the previous statement to its logical conclusion, if 5S discipline cannot be effectively communicated to be completely in support of eliminating ALL the Lean wastes, then it’s clearly not going to be the expected ‘foundation’ stone required to support Lean. So it’s essential that initial and continuing communication of the linkage to Lean is completely understood by all.

Not having a clear linkage to improvement activity

Introducing 5S without creating a mechanism for using it to identify on-going process issues and inefficiencies will ultimately become a definite ‘why bother’ scenario. Good 5S implementation WILL focus people’s minds to be able to distinguish what’s not right and allow them to communicate these up to people that have responsibility to do something about them. This is an essential lesson for any organisation wanting to demonstrate a ‘Continuous Improvement’ attitude. If there are no mechanisms to communicate opportunities to improve, or if they exist but are not effective, then staff will simply not give management the essential information they need to keep efficiencies moving in the right direction.

Lack of auditing consistency

It’s surprising how many times I’ve seen 5S implementations floundering because no formal auditing has been implemented. Auditing forms the transition between STANDARDISE and SUSTAIN phases, but in practice, the sooner auditing is introduced the better – ideally immediately after initial 5S kaizens are implemented. The next potential problem to overcome is lack of consistency between audits. Some people advocate cross-departmental audits to avoid measurement bias, and natural tendencies to over score, but this doesn’t singlehandedly account for inconsistency. The best ways to avoid inconsistency is to ensure audit questionnaires are as unambiguous as possible, and also to train more than one person to audit in any one area – rotating this responsibility around regularly so auditors skills stay fresh.

Not having a recognised review process

I find the most effective way of really addressing inconsistency is to augment departmental auditing with periodic senior management led audits involving local managers and staff members. Held at short notice, these can be highly effective in ensuring the auditing process is not inward-looking and provides a great vehicle for senior management to be seen to continue to directly promote the importance of their investment in 5S discipline.

Despite these potential pitfalls, 5S is still without doubt the best way to become involved in your Lean journey – it provides great value for money when done right first time and lays down solid ground on which to reap much bigger rewards. So we shouldn’t be afraid of giving it a go – even if the challenge is to rescue and revitalise existing implementations.

At Paloma Consulting, we have many years of experience in helping our clients ensure they avoid these pitfalls and can reap the fuller benefits of Lean. If you’d like to share your own 5S experiences with us or if you’d like to discuss 5S implementations further, we’d love to hear from you.


16 thoughts on “5S – Why bother?

  1. A walk down memory lane, how many times have i seen the pitfalls.
    Typically when 5S doesn’t work it’s the tool rather than the implementors that is held to account; the tool cannot defend itself and acquires a poor ledger as a consequence.
    One failure I have experienced in the past is “for 5S, read 2S”, i.e companies that 5S by cleaning down and red tagging everything. It all gets put in the red tag area (where it is inevitably collected by the very people from whom it was taken, and put back in the same place it was taken from) over time the initiative dies but the ackowledged existence of a now empty red tag area is enough to have the activity declared a success. There was no sustained activity, the perceived gains were undermined by lack of change inertia and the company benefitted not one jot!
    I will remember to my dying day a company (now long gone) who red tagged an old and dusty pump motor. The shiny new manager gleefully sold it for £2K and pronounced the event a success. A month later the insurance company auditted and asked to see the backup motor held in case of failure and, against which, significant premium savings were gained. They hunted high and low . . . The assessor asked to see the in-situ pump working. It had siezed. The factory was declared unsafe and all work ceased until a replacement could be acquired . . . at a cost of £36K. Plan well and have the right level of involvement, its not just senior people, the RIGHT senior people.

    I have to confess to giggling at some of the memories that this piece conjoured. In retrospect that was shameful but what did the matchbox say: “He who never made a mistake, never did anything”


  2. I learned 5S from a Japanese team in the late 1980s. As it was explained to me, 5S is not a process as much as a set of personal characteristics that we must bring to work with us every day. The physical 5S is the most easily seen demonstration of these personal characteristics. When seen as a project, 5S has a beginning and an end. When seen as a personal attribute – such as honesty, perseverance or diligence – 5S has no end. I wrote an article for ASQ a few years ago regarding 5S in this light.

  3. Hi Colm,
    This is a very good article by Bob and he hits the nail right on the head.
    Last week in a management training session in Japan the Japanese plant management team were astounded that a 5s culture was deemed ‘difficult to maintain’ outside of Japan.
    Making process abnormalities visible is so ingrained in the Japanese culture that they have real difficulty understanding why we find it so hard.
    They also commented that we have misunderstood the translation of 5s from the original Japanese meaning and we focus too much on the janitorial aspects rather than the ‘sense of reduction’ that the first 4s are intended to achieve. The 5th “s”, as Bob says, is the discipline to sustain and continually strive for continuous improvement.

    Interesting stuff – thanks for the message


  4. Hey Colm
    Good article as I am a firm believer in Culture, 5S, and Lean Management as the foundational elements and without 5S Lean is probably not possible.
    I use 5S to really start the Cultural and Lean Management Changes necessary to move forward.
    Best regards

  5. Hey Colm,
    Great article and excellent points! To reinforce some of your and others points: 1) What measured gets done – integrating a 5S assessment/audits that clearly describes performance at each stage level helps build the plan to drive continuous improvement; 2) Utilize 5S as a foundation project theme. Link/Integrate to existing/new projects/improvements that are being executed – don’t make it a separate event (project); 3) To Stuart’s point – embrace the “red” – it is good to find mistakes – view this as a positive. 4) Embrace the vagueness of boundaries as opportunities for improvement; 5) Communicate Successes!

  6. Hi Colm,

    Bob has succinctly encapulsated every pitfall of 5S I’ve seen over the past 20 years of working as a lean practitioner. The real benefit of regular audits was really brought home to me recently, when a team started “waste walks” after completing their first 3Ss. After week 1 there was serious unrest in the camp about how it was all a waste of time. By week 4, the team were starting to “coach” their colleagues in the adjacent workarea on how to work when in the 5S area. The pride and enthusiasm was great to see and re-inforces Jim Van Patten’s comment about 5S being a way of being, not a process to follow.

  7. Excellent article. You are all hitting the nail on the head with this one; along with your Japanese counterparts. 5S is about mindsets and improvements; so right. Where I have seen the most success of 5S personally is where the implementation team understood and explained the 5th S to mean “Show respect for standards” which I believe is the direct Japanese translation (don’t hold me to it). 5S is often seen as a project when it is a process and should be another priority in the way we manage and lead.

  8. Hi Colm,

    I believe Bob’s post does a good job of laying out the framework for a coherent, sustainable 5S implementation as a portion of the journey towards waste elimination.
    I can personally attest to the wisdom pointed out in the post based on hindsight of some of my past failings.

    However, I would take issue with two statements within the post; first the “Management Buy-In” and second the “Double Standard”. My first taste of Six Sigma was full of evangelistic fervor , demanding management accept the new religion of Six Sigma or be cast as an unbeliever unworthy of the benefits of variation reduction. I now feel this was wrong. Management need to be shown the value of tools if they are to embrace them. So this would suggest a model line, or model area where we can demonstrate the value of the tools used in concert. As the post says, Management are busy (doing what?) so we need to show there is value for time in supporting lean generally or 5S specifically.
    If Bob was suggesting layered auditing of the 5S system, asking senior leaders to be visible out in the gemba, then I am happy to fully agree. I would suggest however, again based on experience, that as the lean professional we shouldn’t send senior leaders into an area unarmed or potentially at the start unescorted. They need to be coached on what to look for, what is OK to ask and what will just cause more waste. As leaders learn more about the actual conditions on the ground then they can become more participatory in lean.

    As I have gotten the chance to visit many plants and companies over time I have come to see 5S as the quickest way to get a read on the site. I also have come to feel that 5S is one of those tools easy to abuse. Bob’s post and this linkedin conversation are getting people to engage in useful discussion about continuous improvement.

  9. Hi Colm

    Interesting article, the issues raised are all valid, however I would point out that use of one tool on its own to drive implementation without the understanding of “why it is to be used” and how it links in with the way in which you work generally leads to sub optimisation and often why so many lean iniatives fail.

    5s was developed as a way of helping detect abnormality and linked to visual management can be a powerful in helping raise questions related to system failure leading to root cause analysis. Its not just making things pretty?
    So like the blog, would be happy to contribute sometime.

    Best wishes

  10. Hi Colm

    At DSM I see the benefits of 5S programme. A clean & safe working environment, it safes time and improves quality.
    I have to convince my wife to implement 5S also in our home.



  11. Hey Colm
    I liked what Bob said and it seems he is on the right track. We need the 5s program in almost every business on the earth, even in the animal industry. If more people followed this, we would be better organized in our offices and use time more efficiently!

  12. Hi Colm
    Like other correspondents my own experiences mirror much of what Bob has said. However, whilst I firmly believe that I have not lowered my own standards from when we started the journey all those years ago I have to confess to a softening of my approach & expectations.
    Top of Bob’s list – Senior management commitment, an area in which I have had to modify my aspirations. I have not met a CEO or senior manager yet who has said they are not commited to 5S / Lean. Those who practice it over an extended period however are a rare breed. But in the grand scheme of things, providing they are not obstructive to the improvement initiative, it may not matter all that much. Take the definition of a manager “one who gets results through the efforts of others” then maybe we would be better served by concentrating our efforts on the “others”. Don’t let me lead anyone into thinking that commitment from the top is not important – it is vital. But only to a point.
    Experience has taught me that the real improvements are made (& sustained) by concentrating effort in 2 major areas.
    1) First line / middle managers (supervisors / team leaders)
    These are the people who get ‘beaten’ from above & ‘kicked’ from below. Why should they be enthused by yet another management initiative which is imposed upon them & creates more work? Give them good reason, the tools & the where-with-all to be involved & the programme stands a chance. This middle band of management will make or break any lean programme but 5S in particular.
    2) Front line operators. Get into the hearts & minds of this group & the 5S program will work, often in spite of senior management.
    Train / educate / persuade / lead these 2 groups into changing their behaviour & over a generation the desired culture change may follow.

    One last thing. Don’t ever settle for second best but accept the fact that it is rarely possible to sustain 100% “text book” results. Don’t lose faith in the process if (as they inevitably will) standards set in the initial phases of enthusiasm drop back. Take a moment, step back & ask the question “is the standard of 5S as bad as we believe”? It may not be perfect but are we maintaining a level above that which we had before we started the program? If the answer is yes congratulate yourself / the business & the people involved on the achievement.
    Always aim for & hit the stars, but then if you fall back to the moon are things all that bad? What happens next? Build a launch pad on the moon & use it as the starting point for the next improvement cycle.

  13. Hi Bob,

    Excellent article. There are lots of brilliant points raised.

    For me the key to the success of 5S lies in the engagement of management and their commitment to make 5S an integrated part of their working philosophy.
    Shopfloor staff at the forefront of manufacturing process know usually best of the issues they have to deal with everyday, and come often up with the best solutions of how to solve those. Management need to be visibly active involved in the whole 5S process, including making time for 5S to take place frequently, giving support and guidance and ensuring identified solutions are implemented, removing obstacles where necessary. As a result, staff is empowered and trusted to make positive change, its motivation will increase, leading overall to improvements (decrease in waste, equipment in tip-top working order, risks identified and dealt with, procedures in place, etc…) and thus to increased effectiveness.
    To achieve long-lasting benefits and continuous improvement, 5S requires to be imbedded into the works routine and across the whole factory (all department, all production cells). Publishing the current 5S score (by a trained cross-functional team) or a particularly smart solution on the company’s intranet site may act as an additional motivation booster (to become the best) as well as showing the importance of the tool to the business and raising generally its profile.
    Reality however is often different: Doing a 5S activitiy is not a big deal. Making 5S part of the business philosophy and integrate it into the works schedule is much more difficult.
    Before embarking onto 5S program indepth education and training should be carried out, not only to shopfloor staff, line and senior management, but also to the departments whose services are required for solution implementation, to give a fundamental knowledge in 5S and 5S the appreciation it deserves.

  14. Hi Bob,

    Very good article. My experience is similar to others. 5S is a way of life. In all my training/coaching I explain that you will learn 2 important things from 5S. Discipline & Respect. The discipline to ensure that the work is done in a standardised way, and the respect is to respect the standards which have been set. People create standards in 5S for very good reasons and an effective demotivator is to dis-respect the standards. Its the same in life.
    The point about Management buy in which you highlighted IS very important. “Lead by example” is a key management responsibility. The other key thing from management buy in is that it motivates the team. So, a passionate manager will have a positive effect on the 5S.

    I look forward to more informative articles from you.


  15. Dear Colm,

    This is certainly an interesting article. Due to the fact that the LSS projects I worked on till now are Master Data driven I didn’t use the 5S approach personally.
    But I do have quite some experience with the deployment of standard processes/systems and when I make the comparison with the ‘deployment’ of 5S I do see how important it is
    • To get management buy-in
    • Avoid double standard: walk the talk, set example as management.
    • Poor demarcation: Specific attention for the ‘integration areas’ is indeed key
    • Uncontrolled disposal: Alignment with finance.
    • Not having a clear linkage to improvement activity: Recurring and transparent communication/change management are very important.

    Thanks for sharing and kind regards,

    Jan Houben

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