What is the 5S method?

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A disorganized and untidy workplace is often a sign that a business isn’t as productive as it could be. And while cleaning up work areas is not always easy, it is often one of the first things that needs to be done to boost productivity.

To do efficient, high-quality work, you need to be in a clean, safe environment where tools are readily accessible. This makes it easier to concentrate on the task at hand rather than getting sidetracked on organizational issues, whether it be in a factory, office or a store.

One of the most popular methods used to create lean, functional work environments is the renowned Japanese management philosophy known as 5S.

What is the 5S method?

As the name suggests, 5S involves a series five steps:

  • sort
  • set in order
  • shine
  • standardize
  • sustain

Developed decades ago by Toyota, 5S is a proven way to increase productivity by identifying and eliminating waste. Today, it is widely recognized as the best first step toward fostering a culture of continuous improvement.

Although originally designed for manufacturing environments, 5S can also improve efficiency in the services sector and in digital environments. A wide range of organizations—from manufacturers to schools to hospitals—rely on 5S.

What are the benefits of the 5S method?

5S benefits not only the owners of a business, but also its employees and customers.

The main benefit of 5S is a cleaner, safer and better organized workplace. It is often a first step in a continuous improvement drive that aims to eliminate waste, boost productivity and increase profits.

Engaging employees in process improvement can also improve morale and working conditions. For customers, 5S can lead to lower prices and better products by pressuring other companies in the sector to keep pace.

“To realize the full benefits of 5S, it has to be functional,” says Lalit Bhushan, a BDC Business Advisor with considerable experience in industrial engineering. “Some businesses do what I describe as ‘aesthetic 5S’—they go through the motions without incorporating it into company culture. 5S has to be part of day-to-day operations.”

Benefits of 5S

  • Improved safety
  • Less waste
  • Lower production costs
  • Higher equipment availability
  • Lower defect rates
  • Increased production agility and flexibility
  • Stronger employee morale
  • Enhanced reputation among customers, suppliers, employees and managers

What does each “S” in the 5S stand for?

1. Sort

The first step involves identifying everything that is useless in your sector and at each workstation—raw materials, tools, parts, instructions and more. This reduces waste and promotes efficiency.

Start by identifying and eliminating items that are no longer required in each workspace.

Objects that are not used often need to be located at a sufficient distance from the active workstation. Locate the rest according to frequency of use.

2. Set in order

Next, put objects in the right place so that they are easy to identify and readily accessible as they are needed. This reduces the amount of time spent searching for a tool or waiting for materials to arrive and helps to ensure that processes run smoothly.

Objects should be sorted into:

  • equipment and tools
  • components, products being produced and completed
  • documents

3. Shine

The third 5S stands for shine. This refers to regular inspection and cleaning of the workstation. The idea being that a clean, uncluttered work environment promotes safety, minimizes distraction and encourages productivity.

Tasks for cleaning and maintaining the workspace should be distributed within the team. Sources of uncleanliness should be eliminated.

Maintenance and cleaning of machines also needs to be carried out regularly. You can take advantage of this time to review the security of machines.

4. Standardize

The fourth “S” stands for establishing standards for organizing workstations. The establishment of 5S relies on teamwork; everyone must understand not only overarching goals, but also the specific actions needed to achieve them. It’s crucial that everyone sorts, sets in order and shines in the same way.

For example, you may want to encourage the coding and use of predefined colours and pictograms. You can also make lists of maintenance tasks to carry out periodically.

5. Sustain

The final “S” aims to create mechanisms to maintain the good condition of the first 4 Ss. Some businesses focus on one “S” per month, then re-start the cycle. Others regularly analyze improvements inspired by 5S and incorporate them into training for employees and managers.

Lalit says that 5S is necessarily a never-ending process. “Clients sometimes look for a magic bullet or a rapid, easily implemented solution,” he says. “But the truth is, there isn’t one. 5S requires ongoing effort; it’s about inspiring people on an ongoing basis and creating a new culture.”

5S in the services sector

5S has grown increasingly popular in the services sector. A study completed by the International Research Journal of Engineering and Technology documents how 5S increased the competitiveness of a number of hospitals, hotels, banks and post-secondary institutions.

The 5S method also applies to digital environments. An officer worker can be more productive when extraneous files and software are removed from their computer, for instance, because it tends to make important materials more readily accessible. The key is to identify which tasks must be done and which materials (forms, manuals, support contacts and software) are needed to complete them. To make them more accessible, apply the first three steps of 5S—sort, set in order and shine—to your company’s shared drives and intranet system, along with the computers of individual employees.

According to Lalit, many of us follow 5S principles to manage our emails. “We organize incoming messages by moving them into appropriate folders, often by topic or client,” he says. “This way, they’re easier to find when we need them. Fewer of us “shine” our email folders by regularly identifying old messages and deleting them, however. Over the long term, this can impede performance.”

Implementing 5S properly empowers the workforce and encourages individual workers to take greater responsibility for a company’s overall success. It’s a win-win situation.

Change needs to come from the top

Many service entrepreneurs are suspicious of 5S and question its ability to deliver benefits in a non-manufacturing environment. Instead, many prefer to invest in functional software and digital processes. Lalit cautions against placing too much faith in technological solutions, however.

“The strength of nearly every business—particularly those in the services sector—is its workforce,” he says. “Implementing 5S properly empowers the workforce and encourages individual workers to take greater responsibility for a company’s overall success. It’s a win-win situation.”

“To realize the full potential of 5S, you have to be all-in,” says Lalit. “Everyone—from CEO to entry-level employee—has to be engaged. Some start by having the CEO apply 5S in their own office, then sharing the results—both the challenges and the solutions—with everyone in the company. This can help create the buy-in needed for 5S to take hold.”

Properly managed, 5S fosters a culture of continuous improvement. Training new hires in the five steps helps generate the fresh ideas needed to sustain the process.

“The improvements made through 5S can help foster team-building,” says Lalit. “It’s a great way to continually engage employees in enhancing business practices and customer relationships.”

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