James Fowler
When implementing a Lean plan, don’t leave out safety.

5S is a discipline that can help provide a strong foundation for a Lean enterprise by driving a focus on order and efficiency. The name derives from five Japanese terms that define the discipline’s key points of focus:

  • Seiri (sort) focuses on sorting and cleaning up by defining which tools and materials are needed at the job site and throwing away anything that is not needed. This eliminates clutter and the inefficiency that occurs when that clutter makes needed items difficult to locate.
  • Seiton (set in order) focuses on straightening and arranging necessary information, tools and materials in the correct order for their designated areas. Visual aids that can support this effort include a visual scoreboard, Jidoka lights, work areas designated by taped or painted lines, colorcoded ESD workspaces and Kanban squares.
  • Seison (shine) recognizes that problems and inefficiencies are more visible when everything is neat and clean. Production personnel should look for minor defects while “sweeping clean.”
  • Seiketsu (standardize) focuses on establishing a discipline of cleaning tools, equipment and the job immediately after use. Routine cleaning becomes a way of life.
  • Shitsuke (sustain) is the most important discipline because employees must continue to maintain the 5S discipline continuously. This includes following all procedures and work instructions.

Some companies follow a 5S Plus process. The sixth S is normally Safety and Environmental Health. While technically much of this is incorporated in Shitsuke, which mandates following all company rules and regulations, it helps put greater emphasis on worker safety and environmental responsibility.

The benefits of embracing a 5S or 5S Plus system go far beyond having an orderly workplace. They include:

  • Minimization of defect opportunities through carefully defined material and work-in-process handling and transport procedures.
  • Elimination of potential fire hazards.
  • Minimization of contamination from improperly stored hazardous materials.
  • Minimization of cross-contamination in production areas running RoHS and leaded production lines.
  • Maintenance of orderly evacuation routes.
  • Minimization of workplace injuries and accidents through elimination of the hazards created by clutter or unsafe practices.
  • Improvement in overall efficiency as employees can more easily locate key information and tools, change over lines faster, and identify and eliminate production constraints more quickly.
  • A positive impression on visitors touring a clean, orderly factory.

The primary challenge in implementing a 5S or 5S Plus program is maintaining it. Even the most dedicated employees can start to skip end-of-shift clean-up practices when the workload gets heavy. “I’ll do it tomorrow” can quickly grow into “I’ll do it next week” or “I’ll do it when things slow down.”

What is the best way to establish a program that will sustain itself over time? There are five key elements: Training, intra-work area audits, internal audits, keeping it relevant, and conveying ownership.

A good training program helps link the disciplines holistically to the overall activities of the work area so that employees constantly evaluate the outcome of their activities and the benefits that come with an orderly, clean workplace. For example, loading printed circuit board assemblies in a carrier correctly not only follows the “set in order” discipline, it also minimizes defect opportunities and eliminates wasted motion. The better employees understand the benefits of maintaining the disciplines, the more likely they are to sustain the program. A good training program also shows clear examples of practices to be avoided and should include photos of the most common violations. This helps ensure that even newer, less experienced employees have a complete understanding of practices to avoid, and also reinforces best practices with older employees who may be resistant to changing the way they’ve done things in the past.

The most effective way to ensure continuous compliance is to place audit ownership within the work area. Team leaders or supervisors should be charged with
daily or weekly audit responsibility. This ensures regular reinforcement of desired behaviors.

Compliance with 5S or 5S Plus discipline should also be part of the less frequent internal quality audit program. This helps ensure all work areas are consistently maintained, and can help identify areas where a team leader or supervisor may be too lax in their audit practices.

The final way to motivate sustainability is by linking it to other activities such as Kaizen events or training related to continuous improvement activities. Linking the 5S disciplines to these activities helps keep the program fresh and relevant in employees’ minds.

When approached holistically as a foundation discipline for an efficient, Lean manufacturing process, 5S is a powerful tool. The key to unlocking its benefits is engaging employees in ways that motivate them to continue to broaden the way they apply the disciplines in their daily work activities. Conveying “ownership” of sustainability to team leaders and supervisors helps ensure continuous reinforcement of best practices.

James Fowler is director of ISO compliance at SigmaTron International (;

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