Empowering Lean Solutions for Everyone

5S Principles

 5S Principles in Plain English

In our discussion of the 5S Principles, we decided not to bother you with the Japanese terms. Do we detect a sigh of relief? After all there are plenty of good old fashioned English words we can use to get the job done. Forcing you to learn a bunch of new Japanese ones, is just more waste since, next to none of you will ever get the chance to use them.

In order, each S means:

  • Sorting
  • Setting in order, Straightening, Simplifying
  • Sweeping, Shining, Systematic cleaning
  • Standardizing
  • Sustaining

Without further delay, let’s talk about each 5S principle.

1. Sorting

You separate the things you need from the ones you don’t need.

Sort through items in the work area and remove what is not essential to conduct your business there.

Why do that?
  • To eliminate unnecessary items
  • To free floor space for the required items
  • To reduce your inventories (be they supplies or work in process)
  • To free resources (things that other areas might need and not have)

To sort, you could use red tags. Simply attach a red tag to every item you want removed.

What you sort
  • Stock
  • Machinery
  • Equipment
  • Tools
  • Furniture
  • Stationery
  • Locations
  • Anything else in the work place

Be Red Tag obsessed. Tag anything that doesn’t belong.

But please, please DON’T TAG PEOPLE!

Please reflect on the Sorting component of the 5S principles.

2. Setting in order, Straightening, Simplifying

Organize the workplace in such a way that it is Easy to see, EASY to get, EASY to return. That is a good reason to pursue it now, isn’t it?

A motto often used in the industry is:”A place for everything and everything in its place”.

How do you set in order? Ask yourself

  • Why are the items located where they are?
  • Is it a better location for each of them?
  • Are the items in closed stores where it might make more sense to have them in the open?
  • Are the frequently used items close by, easy to get?
  • Are the tools and equipment close at hand?

To make it easier on yourself, clean and straighten as you go; which brings us to the cleaning concept.

3. Sweeping, Shining, Systematic cleaning

As the name says, it means to wash, dust, sweep, and clean everything.

It’s understandable that you cannot make parts without any mess. But it should not be acceptable that the machines and floors have residual grease, dust and whatever you have there.

Why clean?

First, it improves overall plant safety for obvious reasons.

We say: “Cleaning is Inspecting”. So true! Each time you clean, you may find leaking hoses/valves, broken switches, etc.

So, it helps with TPM (Total Productive Maintenance).

Also, it promotes pride in your people, it boosts morale. Who doesn’t like to work in a safe and clean place? And who doesn’t want to be part of something, to be appreciated for making a difference?

Just so you know, these first three components of the 5S system can be instituted right away. They are part of the 3S housekeeping.

4. Standardizing

It means that you need to have some standards in place to make sure that everything is kept where it’s supposed to.

What exactly should you have?
  • Cleaning schedule
  • Visual controls to let people know what goes where
  • Ways to prevent the area from getting dirty
  • Audit schedule
  • Checklists and results posted
But, why do it?

That’s an easy question.

  • It establishes a baseline for continuous improvement. In plain English, how can you make it better in time, if you go backwards instead of forward?
  • Determines exact location for everything, so it’s easy to see if anything is misplaced or missing.
  • Promotes discipline and adherence to standards.
  • Everybody has a sense of purpose. Your people can come now with suggestions for improvement and feel good about being involved.
How do you standardize?

Think about simple solutions. Make up your own standards. Say, use a certain color and material to mark locations, certain labels to identify
items, etc.

Standardizing part is a powerful 5S principle. Without it, it all comes down to basic cleaning of the shop floor. It cannot be maintained and build upon.

5. Sustaining

The thing is that, no matter how well you do on the previous components, if you don’t sustain the gain, you move slowly back to Square 1.

Believe us, there are a lot of companies out there that failed in implementing and sustaining a successful 5S program.


It’s because they missed the last part. They couldn’t sustain it.

It’s hard to point out what caused that. Maybe poor standardization “helped” too.

We’ll mention a few causes:

  • Lack of discipline (some employees avoid cleaning and straightening at all costs)The checklists were not followed or are not created clearly and to the point. The audit was not done consistently and properly. The results of the audit were not communicated and nobody was assigned to fix the problem, with a deadline. The employees were not trained properly in 5S. The employees were not made responsible for 5S. They are not “owners” of the operation. Recognition and rewards were not in place.

So, the sustaining part involves looking at all these topics (you can surely find more underlying causes) and making sure that everything is done right.

How do you sustain?

You do it by instituting a 5S audit process. Then, you follow up on the findings and make sure all the issues are addressed in a timely manner by somebody who is held accountable for making it happen.

So, here you have all the 5S principles revealed.

The 5S Implementation section offers some additional material on each component.