How Does 5S Contribute to Lean Systems?

Having a lean system in place can significantly boost your company’s bottom line. However, the path to becoming lean is long and requires a series of small steps that make large contributions in the long run. One of these small steps is 5S.

Many companies implement 5S before moving on to a lean system. 5S is a low-cost initiative with objectives that are in line with the larger goals of lean manufacturing. Implementing 5S can also help identify obstacles that may affect lean manufacturing later.

In this article, we’ll explain how 5S helps to build a lean manufacturing system. We’ll examine the basic ideas of these two ideologies and show why 5S is an excellent foundation for implementing lean practices in a manufacturing setup.

What is 5S?

5S is an organizing philosophy that makes workspaces more productive and safer by reducing clutter and facilitating efficient movements by workers. The smooth flow of work activities is achieved by:

  • Relocating items that are not needed to an appropriate workspace, storage, or disposal.
  • Having important items in a workspace out of the way when they are not in use.
  • Having tools and equipment easily accessible when they are required.
  • Reducing breakdowns and equipment failure through regular inspections and better maintenance practices.

5S is a cyclical system that should be standardized into steps that can be performed daily and improved when necessary.

What Are Lean Systems?

A lean system refers to a process or a series of processes where steps that don’t add value have been eliminated or are being eliminated regularly. The goal of lean systems is to minimize waste and maintain lower inventories while giving customers more value.

There are 7 main types of waste that lean systems aim to eliminate, i.e., overproduction, excess inventory, transportation, waiting, motion, overprocessing, and defects.

Converting regular systems into lean systems is guided by five principles. These are:

  • Value: Identifying what customers consider worth paying for. In the case of manufacturing companies, these are products and features.
  • The value stream: Mapping the existing flow of materials and information and redesigning the process to achieve the same or better outcomes with less waste.
  • Flow: Removing obstacles, physical or otherwise, that interfere with the smooth operation of the system or unexpectedly stop a manufacturing process leading to waste.
  • Pull: Making the system demand-driven so products are manufactured based on present customer requests. The alternative is producing to meet production targets based on sales forecasts and pushing the products to customers hoping to meet sales targets.
  • Perfection: Always looking for ways of eliminating more waste, giving more value to customers, and improving productivity.

How Does 5S Help to Build a Lean System

5S is a product of the system that pioneered lean manufacturing, i.e., the Toyota Production System. It is now considered an important component of many methodologies that aim to improve productivity. In manufacturing, 5S makes many contributions to making systems lean.

Removal of Clutter

Clutter in a workspace creates physical barriers that interfere with flow, the third principle of lean manufacturing systems. In a cluttered workspace, workers have to move things around and spend time looking for items. This leads to two kinds of waste, motion and waiting.

Some workspaces may also have too much material creating excess inventory. In the first step in 5S, Seiri/Sort, items not immediately required for work activities in any workspace are removed. This reduces physical barriers to flow.

Organization Makes it Easy to Map the Value Stream

Mapping the value stream requires the assessment of processes and the activities that take place within these processes to identify the flow of materials and information. This helps in identifying activities that don’t add value.

Mapping the value stream can be challenging in a disorganized workspace. Disorganization makes it harder to determine if certain activities are wasteful as a whole or wasteful because they take longer and require more effort to execute in a disorganized workspace.

Better organization also makes it easy to see all the activities that make up a process.

Initiates A Change in Company Culture

One of the main challenges in initiating lean manufacturing ideas can be the existing culture at a company. If the current company culture is incompatible with lean ideas, implementing lean manufacturing on a wider scale in the company will be challenging.

5S can be implemented on a small scale to test the response and challenges to its implementation. It can also introduce the cultural change that clears a path for a lean initiative.

Achievable short-term goals

Lean manufacturing may have significant long-term benefits but may cause disruption and other negative effects early on. 5S on the hand has achievable, visible, and measurable short-term goals. This creates an opportunity to register an early win for the larger lean initiative making the company and employees more enthusiastic about the whole lean process.

Encourages Employee Participation in Lean

Both 5S and lean manufacturing depend on the participation of all workers to be successful. However, the overall benefits of lean manufacturing may not be immediately felt by employees and some may even experience a negative impact.

5S makes workspaces neater and improves safety and ergonomics. These benefits of 5S can be easily felt by workers at all levels, encouraging participation in implementing the wider lean initiative.

Makes Visual Indicators Visible

Lean systems rely on visual signals so workers know when something should be moved ahead in the process or when supplies need to be replenished to keep production moving at a consistent pace. These visual signals would be harder to spot in a cluttered work environment.

Other 5S Contributions to the Reduction of the 7 Wastes

Implementing 5S helps to directly reduce at least five of the seven wastes of lean. Examples of these are:

  • Excess inventory: When materials, spare parts, and other items are not in their correct location or can’t be accounted for, the company may assume there is a shortage and order more leading to excess inventory.
  • Waiting times: When workers can’t move quickly or take too long to find items in cluttered workspaces, it leads to longer waiting times for items waiting to be processed.
  • Motion: In the situation above, a worker may also have to make a lot of unnecessary movements to find items or to position materials correctly for processing.
  • Defects: Poorly maintained tools and equipment are more likely to create defects in products.
  • Transportation: If a certain section in the plant has excess materials or incorrectly stored large equipment, items may have to be taken through longer routes leading to unnecessary transportation.

The first three steps of 5S can eliminate or reduce the above situations, reducing the amount of waste they generate.

Why 5S is a Good Foundation For Lean

Initiatives that are aimed at improving productivity in companies often fail. Many of these initiatives fail because they are not built on the right foundation.

Successfully implementing 5S has its own barriers, but lean manufacturing faces even more significant barriers because changing to a lean manufacturing system is a companywide initiative. It necessitates that a company changes existing processes and even its business philosophy. This requires more time, resources, and a greater level of commitment.

This level of change is likely to encounter resistance at various levels including from top management and floor-level workers. In contrast, 5S may encounter less resistance because:

  • A 5S project can be performed on a small scale such as individual workstations. This minimizes disruption and doesn’t require that the company change its entire way of doing business.
  • 5S projects as a whole don’t require many resources. They require fairly inexpensive tools and can be performed on a limited scale when resources are limited.
  • Some of the benefits of 5S can be realized in the short term. Although it may take some time to sort items and find a good organizing system, the benefits of a cleaner work environment such as faster execution of processes can be realized quickly.
  • 5S can be implemented without the company having to commit to anything larger since it can be a stand-alone project.

If the implementation of 5S is successful, these early wins can be used to spread 5S to other parts of the company. They can also be used to sell the ideas and benefits of lean manufacturing to the company leadership and workers.


As a lean manufacturing tool, 5S presents the simple idea that neater and more organized workspaces are more efficient and increase productivity. However, this simple idea helps to eliminate many of the types of waste that lean systems aim to get rid of.

5S helps to remove physical barriers to flow, reduces motion waste by implementing better organization systems, and even makes it easier to spot the visual indicators required in pull systems.

5S can also serve as the foundation or first step to implementing lean manufacturing in companies. It helps change the existing culture and may lead to initial wins that encourage a wider shift to lean manufacturing.


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