Implementing and Sustaining 5S in Manufacturing

Reducing waste and increasing productivity are both important strategies for gaining a competitive edge in manufacturing. Some interventions designed to achieve these effects are relatively expensive, but 5S is an exception.

The 5S system has been used by Japanese companies for decades and has also been adopted by many Western companies. 5S is simple and inexpensive on paper but many companies struggle to effectively implement it.

In this article, we’ll explain how 5S can be implemented in manufacturing. We’ll discuss the steps that should be followed, the common tools required, and how 5S can be sustained in the long run. We’ll also mention some barriers to watch out for when implementing this system.

What is 5S and Why is it Important in Manufacturing?

5S is a philosophy used to organize workspaces to make them more efficient. This is achieved by removing items that are not needed in that space and organizing the remaining items to be accessible with as little motion as possible.

In manufacturing, 5S is considered to be a key step when implementing wider-reaching changes such as Kaizen, lean manufacturing, and Six Sigma. By creating cleaner and better-organized workspaces, this system also improves worker safety.

5S measures can be an inexpensive approach to increasing productivity in manufacturing. Workers will spend less time in unproductive movements in a workspace that is clear of obstructions and where every item has a predefined space.

The 5 Steps of 5S

5S has five clearly defined steps that must be implemented sequentially for the process to be successful. These are:

  • Seiri or Sort: This first step advocates for sorting through every item in a workspace and removing anything that isn’t required for the activities performed in that area. Unnecessary items can be moved to their correct workspace, a red-tag holding area, or disposed of appropriately.
  • Seiton or Set-in-Order: Once the unnecessary items have been removed, the next step is to come up with a logical method of organizing the remaining items. The goal is to have items that are regularly used close at hand and to use a system that makes it easy to know where an item is supposed to be.
  • Seiso or Shine: After organization comes cleaning and inspection. A cleaning routine for all items and all spaces needs to be created along with schedules. It should be known who is responsible for each space and each cleaning duty. The cleaning should be coupled with an inspection and some routine maintenance of the items,
  • Seiketsu or Standardize: In this step, the processes used above are standardized so they can performed regularly. Important procedures are documented, checklists and schedules are developed, and visual aids are added throughout the facility to remind workers of what to do. Plans for educating and training employees are also developed.
  • Shitsuke or Sustain: This final step is about transforming 5S from a single event into a culture so that 5S activities are performed by workers every day. Sustaining 5S can be challenging and will require commitment from company leadership, reward systems for employees, and improvement of initial procedures by taking feedback from employees.

In many manufacturing spaces, Safety has been added as the 6th S resulting in the 6S system. Although implementing 5S will help to create a safer workspace, many believe that safety should have an even higher priority in high-risk industries such as manufacturing.

This sixth step is implemented by taking note of potential hazards in workspaces and coming up with systems and solutions that keep the workers safe.

How Do You Implement a 5S Program?

The best approach for implementing a 5S program will vary from company to company but the seven steps below can serve as a good general guide.

Step 1: Get Familiar With 5S

The person who is leading the implementation of the 5S program should find out as much about 5S as possible. If the program is being introduced as part of a lean strategy, they’ll also need to familiarize themselves with the respective lean methodology.

There are books and other publications on 5S and lean manufacturing that will help with this step.

Step 2: Introduce 5S and Form a 5S Team

Let the workers know of the plan to start the 5S program and what they can expect from it. Explain what will be expected of them by the program and how it will make their work easier in the long run.

This is also a good time to form a team that will spearhead implementation efforts. It should consist of people at different levels and from different departments in the company. Pick people who know the current state of things including workflows and challenges in their departments.

Step 3: Conduct a Walkthrough

To get a better idea of the current state of things, the areas where 5S is to be implemented should be visited.

During this walkthrough or Gemba walk, the team will observe how the workers go about their tasks. They should also interact with the employees to find out how and why things are done and uncover other insights.

Step 4: Segment Plant into Zones

The plant floor area is divided into different sections based on the design of the plant or the production activities taking place in different sections. These zones should then be assigned team members who will ensure that 5S procedures are implemented.

This is also a good time to decide whether specific sections will be used to run pilot programs or whether the plant will be going all in.

Step 5: Execute the 5 Stages of the 5S Methodology

The 5S steps described above are executed one by one in every section participating in the program.

Step 6: Perform a 5S Audit

Once the 5S steps have been implemented, regular audits should be performed to confirm that every section still follows the developed standards. This audit is done by the lead 5S team plus other department or section representatives.

These audits can be considered part of the 5th step, i.e. Shitsuke or Sustain. They can be used to determine the effectiveness of implementation efforts and identify areas of improvement.

Step 7: Improve Procedures

This could also be considered part of Shitsuke. It involves making changes to improve the implementation and effectiveness of 5S based on the results of the audit. Improvements should be developed and executed with the input and participation of both the leaders and employees.

Improvement can mean changing steps, conducting more training, or refining processes. The need for improvement should not be seen as a failure because the goal is also to foster a mindset of continuous improvement.

Handy Tools for Implementing a 5S Program

One of the many benefits of implementing 5s is that it is a relatively inexpensive process. However, there are still a few tools you’ll require to effectively execute steps. These include:

    • Checklists: Checklists are useful for auditing 5S implementation efforts and can also be used by workers to see which 5S activities are completed and which ones are pending.
    • Floor Marking Tape: These are used to mark out different sections in any workspace including individual workspaces, aisles that must be kept clear, hazards, and red-tag holding areas.
    • Red tags: These are small cards that are attached to items in the red-tag holding area. These are items that were not needed where they were found during sorting. Red tags contain information that will be useful for reviewing the need for the item later.
  • Shadow Boards: Shadow boards have the outlines or silhouettes of specific tools that show where those tools are supposed to be stored. They also serve as visual reminders when tools and equipment are missing.
  • Visual Cues: These include signs, color codings, and labels that remind workers to undertake certain activities, the location of tools and equipment, and even hazards.
  • Visual management boards: These are used to visually track progress towards achieving specific goals through the 5S program.

Benefits of Implementing 5S in Manufacturing

Implementing 5S has many benefits. The most obvious of these will be the improved productivity of workers by eliminating unnecessary movement. However, there are many other benefits including:

  • Removing clutter and keeping equipment in designated storage locations makes workspaces safer.
  • Employees in clean and well-organized spaces will have a better impression of their work and environment hence higher morale.
  • Tools and equipment will be kept in good working condition through regular inspections and maintenance resulting in better product quality.
  • Well-organized spaces will improve the company’s image when external inspectors or visitors come through.
  • Implementing the first two steps of 5S will create more space within the plant. This space can be left clear or put to other use.
  • Implementing 5S can also reveal other shortcomings that hinder productivity such as a lack of tools or lack of space for effective execution of some operations.

Barriers to Implementing and Sustaining 5S

Many organizations don’t make it a year before abandoning 5S and going back to their old way of doing things. This is a concern, but many of the causes of these 5S failures are known.

Failure to Commit to the Process

Many organizations take a half-hearted approach to implementing 5S. This includes working on certain steps and avoiding others, or only implementing 5S on certain occasions e.g. when top management visits.

Failure to commit makes it harder to change the existing culture at a company.

Lack of Understanding

For 5S to work, employees need to understand what the process sets out to achieve and how to go about various 5S activities. This understanding is necessary to ensure the activities carried out in 5S are repeatable.

This also highlights the need for proper and regular training. All employees should receive comprehensive training on 5S that is appropriate to their workstations.

Lack of Employee Engagement

When the people who are expected to perform 5S activities are not allowed to participate in the decision-making, the implementation will likely fail. The workers have a better understanding of their own spaces and engaging them is important to get them to commit to the process.

Lack of Management Buy-In

This is one of the most significant barriers to implementing 5S in any company. Implementing 5S requires good leadership. This ensures there is follow through on responsibilities like removal of waste and organizing of work areas.

Management also needs to support 5S by providing the tools and resources needed for the effective execution of the different steps. Top management should also lead by example to show employees that 5S is a priority at every level of the company.


5S can be a useful tool for improving productivity at both the individual and company levels. However, implementation is something many companies struggle with resulting in failed attempts at implementing 5S.

Effective implementation requires a dedicated team to lead efforts, employee engagement at all levels, and a commitment to follow through on all steps of 5S.

Companies can enjoy many benefits including higher employee morale, a better company image, higher product quality, and improved productivity by implementing 5S. Although there are barriers to effectively implementing 5S, many of these barriers are known and avoidable.

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