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Get Orderly and Organized With The Five S’s

An easily overlooked but essential step to becoming a Lean organization is the implementation and continual following of the Five S’s. These five words that begin with “S” refer to improvement activities aimed at increasing the cleanliness, orderliness and general organization of a work area for greater efficiency and the reduction of waste. The Five S’s are actually five Japanese words beginning with S, translated to English S words.

The first three S’s are tactical, and the last two are strategic.

In addition to striving for general efficiency and an overall waste reduction, the high-level goals of the Five S’s align quite well with the goals of a Lean organization in general.

The goals of the Five S’s are to:

  • Make money

  • Reduce waste

  • Increase speed

  • Make each person’s job easier

  • Help each person become a successful manager of their workplace

  • Improve the success of the workplace

  • Support a culture of pride and excellence

I started with “make money” for a reason. Whether your assets are hand tools, office supplies, kitchen utensils or computer files, having just the right amount of inventory and being able to access your gear or information fast is a competitive advantage for any business, one that can make or save you money. 

On the surface, the Five S’s are somewhat general and can be interpreted in many ways depending on the situation or context. In the context of Lean, however, they refer specifically to the following processes.

1. Sort (tactical)

The first step to utilizing the Five S’s is to Sort, or identify the waste. This can be applied to any situation where there is waste that needs to be eliminated, but office and workspace organization is a common one. 

One method of sorting in an office or workspace could be to tag items as either red, yellow or green. Red items are used rarely, yellow items are needed on occasion, and green items are needed frequently. 

The old television show Clean Sweep captured the Sort process well. On the show, the hosts and their crew would go into people’s notably dirty or disorganized houses and help clean and organize them. In one episode, the hosts met a man who had 50 pairs of khaki pants stuffed in his closet. This was not a good start to living an organized life. 

To get rid of most of the man’s khaki pants, they divided the front lawn into three sections using colored rope. The man placed each pair of khakis into one of the three sections.

  • The left section was where he was to place the pants he definitely wanted to keep. (25% of his pants)

  • The middle section was for pants he was unsure of. (50% of his pants)

  • The right section was for pants he could certainly get rid of. This last pile went to a charity. (25% of his pants)

Eventually, the man had placed all the pants into the three sections on the lawn. This process was akin to the Sort process of the Five S’s. 

2. Set in Order / Straighten (tactical)

After sorting, the next step is to Set in Order or Straighten your things. There is a place for everything, and everything should be kept in its place. This is the goal of the second S: Putting everything in its right place. 

In an office space, this step might involve further organizing the items marked as yellow and green, prioritizing each item to be stored in a location in the office based on how frequently it is used. This is similar to how you might sort your closet — in the summer, summer clothes should be the most easily accessed, and heavy winter clothing should be packed in the back of the closet. 

Let’s return to Clean Sweep. In the Sort stage, the man placed the majority of his khakis in the middle “not sure” section. The show’s team asked him why he put so many pairs of pants in this category, and he had a reason to keep each pair. For example, he said that he wanted one pair of pants because he got engaged in them. 

“When we really delve into the reasons for why we can’t let something go, there are only two: an attachment to the past or a fear for the future.” — Marie Kondo, #1 New York Times best-selling author of Spark Joy and The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up

The team eventually convinced him to move almost all of the pants into the right section to be removed forever, leaving six pairs of khakis in the left section to be kept. This is the Set in Order / Straighten step of the Five S’s. All those pairs of pants had a place — the team simply needed to put them where they belonged. 

3. Sanitize and Shine (tactical)

The next step is to make things clean and good-looking. Dirt and disorder are defects, and the goal of this step is to eliminate them. In the office organization example, this would mean a thorough cleaning of the entire work area. 

What happens when you remove everything from your desk including that big monitor? Dust bunnies, crumbs and coffee stains can be found and cleaned — this is the Sanitize and Shine part. This may seem a less critical step, but a clean work area is much easier to keep organized, and in turn, is a more productive environment and instills a sense of pride and ownership in the area. 

In Clean Sweep, while one team helped the man sort and straighten his massive collection of khakis, another team was Sanitizing and Shining his closet. They removed the old hangers and replaced them with six mahogany ones. 

When the man brought the six remaining pairs of pants inside to hang them in his closet, he was thrilled to see the beautiful hangers for his pants, and hung them up as neatly as he could. He would now be more motivated to keep his closet clean and organized. 

4. Standardize (strategic)

The final two S’s of the five refer back to the organization and implementation of the first three. The next step is to Standardize the sorting, straightening and sanitizing process. Establish a common methodology for carrying out the first three steps. 

To do this, assign consistent, exact tasks to the individuals in the workspace, and create checklists for these tasks to ensure they are carried out. This step is to establish an operating procedure (OP) for the first three S’s. 

My mother understood the value of standardizing. When I was a child, my sister and I got new clothes for school every summer and Christmas. To ensure that we wouldn’t collect too many items of clothing, my mother implemented a standardization process. Each time we went shopping, we had to remove all the clothes in our closets and dressers and decide what was worth keeping and what wasn’t. We then donated items we no longer needed. This is similar to a standardization process. We maintained the cleanliness and organization of our closets through the procedure established by my mom.

5. Sustain (strategic)

Sustaining your standard process is the final step. The culture of the organization must be changed to ensure that the gains you’ve experienced via the Five S’s process continue. 

To reinforce sustainability, measure your progress against your original baseline condition. For example, take a look at the items tagged green, yellow and red, and consider teh following: 

  • How well are you sustaining this version of sorting and setting in order?

  • How well are you keeping your space clean and orderly? 

  • What are the improvements you’ve experienced since these changes were made? 

Continue to measure your progress under the Five S’s and create case studies and checklists for each of the S’s to be disseminated. 

Next, you need a project plan that details the rollout of the Five S’s across your entire team, division, organization, etc. 

Finally, once all this is completed, set up a system to reward accomplishments under the Five S’s for your team members. 

Following are key attributes related to the fifth S, which is often the most difficult of the Five to successfully implement or follow:

  • Education

  • Training

  • Continuous improvement

  • Inspection

  • Feedback

  • Total team member involvement

  • Peer-to-peer coaching

  • Discipline

Do you have more questions about the Five S’s? Prime Vector lives and breathes operational excellence. Reach out to me ( to learn how we can help your organization.


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