What is the 5S System In the Workplace?

The 5S system is a method for organizing spaces with the goal of improving productivity in the workplace. The basis of this system is 5 sequential steps based on 5 Japanese words.

In a disorganized workspace, the movement of people, materials, and products is hampered. Additionally, locating tools, equipment, and other important items takes longer. Working in such spaces is less efficient and potentially unsafe, especially in a manufacturing setting.

The 5S system offers an inexpensive approach to achieving better workplace organization. By following the 5 steps prescribed in this methodology, individual workspaces and the workplace as a whole can be made neater, more efficient, and safer.

What is the 5S System?

The 5S system is a methodology designed to improve the productivity of workspaces through better organization. It is based on 5 Japanese words, i.e., Seiri, Seiton, Seiso, Seiketsu, and Shitsuke. In English, these words are loosely translated to sort, set in order, shine, standardize, and sustain.

When properly implemented, the 5S system can improve the quality of the work environment, resulting in physical and mental benefits for employees and improved productivity for the company.

Origins of the 5S System

5S was first used by Japanese companies in the 1960s. It was developed to serve as one of the foundations for Toyota’s Just-in-Time (JIT) Manufacturing philosophy. Efficiency and waste reduction are both key parts of the JIT philosophy and these ideas are also central to 5S.

It’s said that the idea of just-in-time manufacturing was sparked when representatives from Toyota visited a branch of the Piggly Wiggly supermarket chain. The store utilized a system where items were reordered and restocked based on purchases.

This approach was very different from what they had witnessed at one of Ford Motor Company’s plants where large amounts of inventory were stocked.

For JIT manufacturing to take off, Toyota needed 5S so they could have a series of sequential steps that could be used to improve existing systems. Hiroyuki Hirano is often credited with coming up with the 5S system.

Importance of 5S

Implementing 5S has become an integral step when adopting lean manufacturing practices. It is useful for fostering ideas of waste reduction and continuous improvement within a company. Both of these are required to achieve the greater goals of lean manufacturing.

5S practices are implemented by individuals in their own workspaces. This encourages everyone to take ownership of the process and fosters a companywide mentality of continuous improvement. Implementing 5S also helps to create a safer work environment.

The Five Principles of the 5S System

The concept of the 5S system is expressed through five Japanese words. These are:

  • Seiri: Sort
  • Seiton: Set in order
  • Seiso: Shine
  • Seiketsu: Standardize
  • Shitsuke: Sustain

This is also the order in which these steps should be implemented for the 5S methodology to be effective. Each of the five steps is explained below.


The idea behind this step is to remove anything that isn’t required from a workspace. This refers to tools, materials, equipment, furniture, and anything else that is not regularly used within that workspace.

The items found in any given workspace can be divided into four groups, i.e.:

  • Items regularly used within that space
  • Items used within another workspace
  • Items that may have some use in that space
  • Items that definitely have no use within that workspace

Items that are required in another workspace i.e., misplaced items, should be moved to the correct workspace as soon as possible. Items that are considered to have no use should be appropriately discarded. Options that can be explored include donating or reselling these items.

The red tag system is used to mark items that may or may not be needed. This involves attaching a red tag to these items with information such as the name of the person adding the tag, a review date for the item, and the name of the supervisor to approve disposal. Red-tagged items are kept in a red-tag holding area until their need can be reviewed.

In a manufacturing setting, sorting through a workspace could mean:

  • Removing all items that qualify as waste including discarded packaging, left-over material from a manufacturing process, and waste from maintenance activities.
  • Separating tools that are used on rare occasions from tools that are used regularly.
  • Removing any material not being used in production from the workspace.
  • Red-tagging obsolete or damaged tools and parts.

Sorting of any workspace should only be done by the person who works there. They are better placed to determine the need for each item in that space.

Seiton/Set in Order

This second step is about organizing what remains after unnecessary items are removed from the space. The objective of Seiton is to have items in an optimal location/position so they can be accessed efficiently when needed thus wasting as little time and effort as possible.

The challenge in this step will be determining the most logical method of organizing items. The person or people who work in that space will need to consider questions such as:

  • Which tasks are performed in this space?
  • Which items are needed for each task?
  • How frequently are specific tasks performed?
  • What items are needed more frequently?
  • How do people move around this space?

It is important to make frequently used items more accessible to limit movement. However, ergonomics should also be considered to limit discomfort for workers. Grouping certain items based on type or the tasks they are used for may also make sense.

In the long run, each item in a workspace should be assigned a specific location. There should be labels or marks to make it easier to return each item to its assigned location after use. Tools such as shadow boards are useful for the effective organization of tools and other supplies.


The Shine step is all about keeping the workspace and equipment in the best possible condition. This means performing cleaning activities such as dusting, sweeping and wiping surfaces, and putting materials and tools away when they are not being used.

Inspection and maintenance of machines and tools are also included in this step. This reduces breakdowns and contributes to the greater goal of cutting down on time wastage.

Like every other step, Seisou is the responsibility of the individuals who work in a particular space, not the regular cleaning staff. This encourages individuals to take ownership of their spaces.

New employees should be shown how to clean especially when it comes to cleaning delicate equipment or working with special cleaners.


It is difficult to sustain practices that haven’t been standardized. The best practices undertaken in Seiri, Seiton, and Seisou should be repeated regularly for the benefits of the 5S system to be realized. Standardization creates the standards that make the process repeatable.

To standardize the processes from the first three steps, schedules for undertaking specific practices will need to be prepared, along with the procedures to be followed. Each step should be broken down into daily activities that can become part of the routine and everyone should know their responsibility.

Checklists should be created to audit 5S activities to ensure that implementation is taking place. In the early days, workers will need reminders to undertake 5S activities. Standardized Visual cues and photos can remind people about activities or where to return items.


It’s easy for a company to slide back into the old ways after taking the initial steps of 5S. Standardizing the process is supposed to make it easier to sustain 5S practices, but the challenge is following through.

The goal of Shitsuke is for the workers to get to a level where they implement the steps of 5S without having to be reminded. Achieving this will require steps such as:

  • Conducting periodic audits using the checklists created in step number 4.
  • Improving existing procedures particularly based on input from those who use the space.
  • Conducting regular training so individuals can be reminded about activities that need to be performed, how they should be performed, and the greater goals of performing those activities.

Training is an essential step especially when there are new team members or members who have moved from one section to another. It’s also a good idea to look for new ideas to improve implementation. These can come from other companies or the employees.

Employees should also be trained on how to conduct 5S audits by themselves and reminders should be set to review items in the red-tag holding area as these may be forgotten.

Advantages of the 5S System

Implementing the 5S methodology has short, mid, and long-term benefits. A few of these advantage are discussed below.

Increased Space

Removal of items that are not needed will create more room within the workspace. Organizing the remaining tools also keeps them out of the way when they are not in use. In this way, both Seiri and Seiton lead to employees having more space to operate in.

Less Waste

Implementing 5S helps to cut down on all kinds of waste. There is less unnecessary motion as workers can get where they need to be and access items faster. Less time is spent looking for items thanks to better organization, and less money is wasted on costly maintenance thanks to early interventions.

Improved Safety

Removing unnecessary items and organizing the rest both make a workspace safer. An employee could get injured trying to make their way through a workspace that is full of unnecessary tools and materials. An item stored with little regard to ergonomics could also result in injury.

Better Employee Engagement and Improved Morale

The process of implementing 5S encourages employees to play an active role in keeping their workspaces clean and organized. This lets them take greater responsibility for keeping their spaces in that state. Workers may feel greater satisfaction when they see the results of their efforts and also develop a deeper connection with their jobs.

Higher Productivity

Improved productivity is one of the main mid and long-term benefits that companies expect when implementing 5S. By spending less time on unproductive movement, workers can spend more time on their jobs. Fewer breakdowns as a result of Seisou mean less downtime thus production activities can continue for longer.

Implementation of the 5S System

Implementing 5S in a manufacturing setting can be a major challenge. Some workspaces may have months of accumulated waste, unused material, and equipment. A good approach is to start with a few practical but important steps that can be accomplished quickly.

Preliminary steps should aim to identify which departments will be included in the program, the tools they’ll need to handle the process, and the training that will be required. Here are some key things to keep in mind when implementing 5S:

  • Everyone in any department that is implementing 5S should participate in the process. Employees will take the process more seriously if the managers participate and including every employee means no one who could be responsible for something is left out.
  • Training is an important part of 5S. Workers who will be participating in 5S need to understand the importance of the program. They may also need to learn how to approach the steps to achieve the best results.
  • Senior management needs to support the process as much as possible. They should do this by availing the tools needed for the process such as visual tools and training materials. They should also participate in the process.
  • All the steps should be implemented for the process to be successful. Implementing the first three steps only is not enough to create a lasting change.
  • Create and use checklists to quickly and regularly audit 5S procedures.
  • 5S procedures should be standardized to become part of the daily routine. This is more likely to lead to sustained change.
  • Be open to trying something different. The first attempt at 5S may fail or someone may come up with a more effective approach. For example, the organization method chosen in Seiton may need to be tweaked to find one that works best.

Challenges Of Implementing the 5S System

Implementing 5S is often not a smooth process. One or more barriers must be overcome in many companies. These barriers include:

  • Resistance to change: Many workers are used to the current way of doing things and are unsure what the changes mean for them. This could result in some reluctance to adopt 5S procedures.
  • Lack of training: Training should be comprehensive with some hands-on guidance. Training should also be an ongoing process. Without good, consistent training, the workers will not know or will forget what to do.
  • Inadequate resources: Implementing 5S requires tools such as additional storage bins for organizing, labels, and floor marking tape. Without such resources, it will be harder to follow through on certain procedures.
  • No clearly defined responsibilities: When employees’ roles aren’t clearly defined, there will be occasions where there’ll be nobody to take responsibility for sorting, organizing, or cleaning something.
  • No employee input: 5S is implemented at the individual level. The input of individual employees is important in making 5S decisions about their workspaces. When employees are not engaged they will be less committed to the process.
  • Lack of support from top management: The top management must commit to 5S efforts by providing resources, leading by example, creating incentives, and doing what it takes to show the rest of the company that 5S is important. Without top management support, 5S will be harder to sustain.

5S Vs 6S

6S includes the original 5S but adds safety as a sixth step. In this case, safety is not just a potential benefit of implementing the 5S system, but a priority that must be considered.

To achieve the sixth S, potential hazards around the workplace need to be identified and measures put in place to enhance employee safety. Safety standards also need to be established along with procedures to ensure these standards are maintained.

6S is important in workspaces with a high risk of serious accidents and injuries such as manufacturing.

5S and Lean Manufacturing

The 5S system is considered an important first step in implementing lean manufacturing in companies.

The broad goals of lean manufacturing are to reduce all kinds of waste in a manufacturing system and increase productivity. These are similar to the objectives of 5S. However, lean manufacturing is geared towards manufacturing companies and has a broader outlook than 5S.

Other concepts that are interconnected with 5S and lean manufacturing include Kaizen, another product of the Toyota Production System, and Six Sigma.

5S in Other Industries

The 5S system was developed with manufacturing in mind, however, the system has spread and has been successfully implemented in other industries. These include:

  • Retail: Companies in the retail space have found 5S to be useful due to the need for efficient stock management and organization in that industry.
  • Medical: In hospitals and similar spaces, 5S is used to ensure things are kept in an organized manner with everything properly labeled for the sake of patient safety.
  • Tech: In computer assembly, for instance, 5S is used to sort and label parts before storing them to ensure they are easily accessible. This makes manufacturing faster. Similar techniques are also used in software development.
  • Office Settings: In offices, 5S is used to improve productivity and employee morale by eliminating untidy areas and removing clutter from desks.


5S is a system that can help organizations improve productivity through better organization. 5S encourages change at an individual level in individual workspaces. As a result, the change becomes part of the culture that is ingrained in each employee.

Implementing 5S comes with many benefits including creating more space and improving safety. However, implementing this system can face significant challenges that can derail the process if not properly handled.

With more companies looking to introduce lean manufacturing ideas, implementing 5S is considered a key step to meeting these objectives. This system has been such a success that it has been borrowed by other industries outside of manufacturing.

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