Success with 5S: The Lean Concept of Simplicity Applied

The 5S method is a set of guidelines that help guide expectations for both management and staff.

5S is a practical application, and a best practice from the Lean method of manufacturing. When discussing applied Lean methods, it is important to remember that Lean is not just a set of manufacturing specs and guides.

The complex waste elimination protocols are bolstered by soft skills development as well.

What this means is that before diving into the ways 5S can be implemented for organizational success, we will get started by looking at the Lean philosophy and how some of the intangible components of the Lean method come together to provide a blueprint for success.

The Lean Philosophy

Implementation of the Lean methodology can be time-consuming and, at times, challenging. No organizational change from top to bottom can happen overnight, and a complete shift in organizational culture and focus can produce a kind of corporate culture shock.

Implementing Lean methodology according to the letter but not the spirit will only produce half-measures. Because of this, whenever we discuss specific aspects of the Lean method applied, we must also explore the underlying Lean philosophy components that back up those best practices.

Lean philosophy can be broken down into six core components.

These elements of the Lean philosophy are what make the methods that Lean firms employ so successful.

Explorations of each of these concepts could fill a book, but suffice it to say that pairing these guidelines with the real-world applications of Lean makes each of those processes greater than the sum of its parts.

The 5S method benefits from these Lean philosophy guidelines as well, but one stands out.


Simplifying a process has a transformational effect on success.

Simple problems have simple solutions. When complex problems that are daunting are broken down into smaller challenges, those challenges can be overcome until the higher-level problem is solved.

Simple processes are easier to learn, and they are easier to teach. They are much more repeatable with fewer errors, and they have a higher degree of transparency. Errors, issues, and defects are more difficult to uncover when a process is complex. With a simple process, monitoring inputs and outputs is much easier.

This transparency is also helpful in identifying sources of waste, one of the key functions of the Lean method.

Simple processes are easier to scale, and they are easier to troubleshoot.

The list of the benefits of operational simplicity goes on and on.

None of the benefits of a policy of simplicity are high-level concepts, and that is itself an asset. The 5S method, like other practical applications of Lean, embodies these core philosophy elements but is best served by simplicity.

The 5S Method

Keeping simplicity in mind, along with the other Lean philosophy elements of waste elimination and continuous improvement (the latter is also known as kaizen), let’s examine the 5S method.

5S stands for sort, segregate, shine, standardize, and self-discipline.

These terms come from the Japanese seiri, seiton, seiso, seiketsu, and shitsuke. They are simple protocols that build on one another to produce consistent, repeatable, and teachable results.


The first aspect of the 5S method can be summed up by the phrase “everything has a place.”

This concept can be applied on the micro scale to a single workstation, all the way to the macro of an entire factory floor.

Remember that simple concepts are easily scalable.

When a space is “sorted,” unnecessary items, debris, and unneeded tools will be clear from workspaces.

All of those distractions will be in their own homes, and staff will know exactly where to find the things they need for the task at hand. This basic elimination of redundancy is a simple concept that can be easily understood, rolled out, and justified.

To effectively sort a space, there is an initial investment of administrative time and effort.

What tools or resources should be available and at hand in which areas? What steps will be taken to ensure that the sorting guidelines will be adhered to? The answers to these questions require an initial commitment of resources.

This initial investment is followed up by the continual assessment that is part of the program. When correctly executed, the administrative burden of maintaining the sort guidelines is offset by smooth, obstacle-free production.

A well-sorted space is also an important foundation for the successive steps of the 5S program. Later steps build on this foundation, and without a solid foundation, program such as 5S stands little chance of continual success.


Segregation is the next logical productivity step after sorting. Now that redundancies have been eliminated and everything is in its place, those resources must be organized in a manner that provides the most benefit.

Again, administrative effort is required in the form of planning activities.

Workflow diagrams, observation, and staff feedback can all be helpful tools for decision makers who are segregating their resources.

Like the sorting process, segregation is a simple concept that can produce outsized results.


Shine is sometimes referred to as “sweep” or “scrub.”

Shining a space is a normal part of day-to-day maintenance of workspaces and equipment. To shine a space is to clean it regularly, to perform normal and mandatory maintenance, and to ensure that production is free of obstacles.

There isn’t a manufacturer out there that doesn’t already maintain their equipment.

The preventable cost of equipment failure or malfunction means that preventive measures are at the forefront of any decision maker’s production plan.

A clean workspace is not only an efficient workspace, but it is also a safe workspace. Slips, trips, and falls can be avoided as well as potentially dangerous equipment malfunctions.

These cleaning activities can serve a dual purpose. Using extensive, regular cleaning as an opportunity to perform regular inspection tasks as well means more work is done in a single pass.

“Shine” activities are essential. Regardless of an organization’s Lean adoption, they will be carried out in one form or another.

The structure of 5S, however, is instructive to managers and decision makers in the sense that all the pieces for efficient production should be in place before those processes are maintained and solidified with routine.


Now that the space has been sorted by necessity, segregated for efficiency, and is continuously being “shined” to maintain those standards, the progress thus far can be cemented into standards.

Standardization is a common theme across the Lean framework.

Standardization is a tangible application of simplicity. It is much easier to teach a process as a series of repeatable steps than as a loose collection of activities.

Standardized practices have a cross-functional capability as well. Moving from one portion of a production floor to another that has the same standardized practices means faster training and fewer errors.

Standardized activities can also be better compared to a benchmark.

This means that tracking progress and measuring growth are much easier. The small amounts of flexibility that are lost through standardization can be made up many times over in productivity and waste reduction.


Sometimes referred to as “sustain,” this final component of the 5S method ties together the previous steps.

The original Japanese word, shitsuke, has two definitions.

Shitsuke was originally defined as a more forceful discipline. In this way, the creators of Lean sought to reinforce the idea that any gains cannot be made without hard work, and in some cases, sacrifice.

Shitsuke represents a reminder to all staff members that to maintain standards and practices takes discipline. Discipline is not always pleasant, but it is essential to success.

To succeed means to make an active and conscious effort to maintain the gains created through this structured approach, even though the process may require more work than some other approaches.

The second definition of shitsuke is more relatable to the Western business world. It is the idea that these standards must be maintained for firms to see success. This is more of a top down approach, and it traditionally has been enforced with rules and regulations. This is distinct from the original methods that often placed the bulk of the responsibility on front line staff.

To sum up self-discipline, it means that everyone at all levels should follow through on the 5S standards “without being told.”

The Bottom Line

The bottom line is that simplicity can be a powerful approach toward operational success.

Methods like the 5S method are practical, repeatable applications of the process of simplifying operations across an organization.

It can sometimes be easy to discuss abstract concepts like simplicity as applied to operations. The 5S method is an example of a practice that bridges the gap between simplicity in the abstract and simplicity applied.

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