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Jesse Allred


Cleaning Up Clutter for Quality

Foster a culture of continuous improvement with 5S

Published: Thursday, March 26, 2020 - 12:03

Imagine a manufacturing facility prioritizing cleanliness and organization—aisles are kept clear, equipment is well maintained, the plant floor is regularly cleaned, operators can easily locate tools, and materials are always stored in the right place. All employees contribute to managing work spaces, creating a culture of efficiency and quality.

Unfortunately, many facilities are disorganized and confusing. Cluttered workplaces are an all too common scene, but it doesn’t just make for an eyesore; it also affects:
Workplace safety: Messy and disorganized workplaces are havens for slips, trips, and falls hazards; stacks of materials create fire hazards; and clutter can even hide or exacerbate air quality issues like mold.
Production times: Employees working in a cluttered environment may get frustrated, and poor employee morale hinders productivity. Production lines face bottlenecks and downtime when workers must spend time moving items out of their way or search for missing inventory.
Product quality: Companies face higher defect rates when it’s difficult to manage quality in a facility littered with tools, excess inventory, and unnecessary parts.
Potential clients: Cluttered workplaces are not the ideal first impression warehouses want to give any visiting customers or suppliers. This has the potential to dissuade potential clients and may even harm the company’s reputation.

The 5S solution

So, how does a facility clean up its workplace while fostering a culture of continuous improvement? The answer is 5S—a housekeeping process popularized and used by Toyota based on five principles: seiri (sort), seiton (set in order), seiso (shine), seiketsu (standardize), and shitsuke (sustain).

5S is a systematic, cyclical methodology for creating a clean, organized, and efficient work environment. It’s one element of a broader company-wide lean or quality management initiative that aims to maximize capability, free up space, and optimize productivity.

1. Seiri: sort
The first step in 5S is to sort through all the unnecessary items in the space. Get rid of duplicate items, broken tools, excess inventory, garbage, and anything not essential to production operations. The 5S methodology offers a very effective tool for this step: red tags, which are tags used for items in the area whose immediate use or need is unclear. Red-tagged equipment is moved to a central holding area for reevaluation, where it will later be disposed of, recycled, or reassigned to a different department. The key to the sort step is identifying and separating needed items from unneeded items and removing the latter from the space.

2. Seiton: set in order
Next, it’s time to organize all of the tools and materials that are remaining in the space. 5S is centered on the adage “a place for everything, and everything in its place.” Every item has a designated location and it’s placed in that designated location. This is an opportune time to evaluate how the placement of items are contributing to inefficiency. Are operators having to dig through a drawer to find a tool? Do operators need to leave their station multiple times to retrieve materials? Are operators going through unnecessary motions to complete their task? If items are used together, store them closer to each other. Putting frequently used tools in reach of the operator and arranging them in a logical manner, such as order of use, makes workers’ jobs easier and your workflow smoother.

3. Seiso: shine
It’s then time to make the uncluttered, organized space shine. Sweeping the floors, wiping down surfaces, replacing bulbs, dusting, and mopping, are key to meticulously cleaning the space, but equipment maintenance is the crux of the 5S shine step. Conducting equipment inspections and performing preventive maintenance such as tightening up belts, checking the oil level in machinery, and sharpening tools safeguards these items, extends their lifespan, and reduces the need to purchase costly replacements. Having a clean and well-maintained space will make it much easier for workers to notice any leaks in a machine or if it’s in need of servicing.

4. Seiketsu: standardize
Now that the space is organized and clean, the next step (and arguably most important) is to create systematic practices and procedures that will establish the standards of your 5S system. Develop work instructions, post checklists, practice standard work, create a reward system—but whatever you do, be sure get everyone involved. Even if your facility has cleaning crews and a maintenance team, a 5S program is something practiced every day by employees from all departments.

5. Shitsuke: sustain
The final step of 5S—sustain—is a step to ensure standardized procedures are being followed. It’s important that all the efforts from the previous four steps are established as the new status quo; otherwise, the improvements made thus far will quickly fall to the wayside. The goal is to ingrain the 5S process into the company culture. When the whole company is on board with 5S and understands its benefits, they are likely to take more ownership of their processes and feel confident making improvement suggestions. The more effort put forth to sustaining 5S, the easier it is to make it habitual.


5S, in one way or another, works to address each of the eight wastes of lean: defects, overproduction, waiting, underutilized talent, transportation, inventory, motion, and excess processing. The system optimizes work spaces for quality, directly impacting defects, which are often noted as the worst waste of all. Defective products increase a facility’s scrap, reduce process efficiency, cause nonvalue-added activities, and create bottlenecks. With less work in progress (WIP) flowing between work cells, the likelihood of defective products getting lost and overlooked in a large batch are greatly reduced. Nonconformance issues can be easily spotted and remedied.

Adopting 5S is more than just following the steps of a process; it’s about incorporating the lean philosophy into your company’s culture. 5S establishes a strong foundation for other lean strategies: Total productive maintenance, cellular manufacturing, and just-in-time (JIT) production can be introduced. Remember, 5S is just one piece of a lean puzzle, but it’s a great place to start with if you would like to turn your cluttered, hazardous workspace into one that’s organized and optimized. With 5S, you can create an efficient facility that’s part of the solution rather than the problem.


About The Author

Jesse Allred’s picture

Jesse Allred

Jesse Allred is the media and content outreach assistant at Creative Safety Supply.


5S and Quality

With respect to quality, I  see the key point of 5S as ruling out causes of problems. Let's say you encounter a quality problem in a clean, uncluttered workplace with accurate signage that everyone understands and abides by, You know right off the bat that it's not due to dirt and grime, clutter, or confusion. It narrows your search for the root cause. 

I believe Toyota uses 4S, not 5S. Also, the attempt to translate five Japanese words starting with S into five English words also starting with S was misguided as they are grossly inaccurate. Early on, I heard a more accurate translation in the UK for the first four S's: R.I.C.K., or "Remove, Identify, Clean, and Keep Clean.

The meaning of the 4th and 5th S in the common English translation is completely lost. Seiketsu is about reducing the first 3 S's to daily practice through management enforcements, including procedures and audits. The 5th S, Shitsuke, is what you accomplish when the practices become second-nature in the organization. It's part of "the way we do things around here." When you train children to brush their teeth, you first have to remind them every day. That's Seiketsu. After some years, they do it on their own, without needing a reminder. You have reached Shitsuke. 

It's been over 30 years since 5S has been introduced in this country and, to this date, factories that practice it are the exception, not the rule. Many have attempted it and, in many factories, what you see is the vestiges of failed attempts. If anything, this legacy should tell us not to present it as simple and straightforward. That it is technically trivial does not make it easy to do. It's quite the opposite. It's all about human behavior, and it makes it difficult.