What’s so special about 5S?

The 5S process is just about cleaning up and getting things neat and orderly, right? So, what’s so special about that? How can something so simple have a large effect on my business?

Many of us have asked these same questions about 5S, so let’s talk about what makes 5S so special and how it can have a large impact on the shop floor.

On the surface, 5S appears to be an organized cleanup campaign. Many companies take that approach and are left wondering what everyone is talking about. 5S provides much more than a clean and orderly workplace. 5S provides:

Visibility to shop floor performance

Involvement of people on the shop floor that do the work every day

Accountability for everyone in the organization


Many companies miss a large opportunity during a 5S event to create a visual shop floor. When materials are given a home in the work area, don’t stop there. Tie that location to an action – a replenishment step. Take the time to link the day to day delivery of materials into the 5S event and make it visual. When the space is empty, I need to fill it – with what? – in what amount? Answer those questions during the 5S event and not only is the area neat and orderly, anyone walking into the area can understand what is running, if it is running normally, what materials are needed and when they would be needed. All that information without the need for a schedule, computer, or bills of material – and at a moment’s notice. The ability to tie material removal and delivery visually to a work area is one of the things that makes 5S special.


Whether it is stated or not everyone on the shop floor wants to have a say in the improvement of their day-to-day activities.  The 5S process is a structured format used by the shop floor to create work improvements. The 5S process requires the shop floor to make decisions about what tools and materials are needed, where those items will be placed, and how the items will be identified. Then the 5S process reaches across shift and crew boundaries, touching everyone and asking for opinions. The 5S process creates an environment where shop floor opinions are required and acted upon. The 5S process empowers the shop floor, drives ownership and cultural change, another reason why 5S is so special.


The 5S process creates accountability on the shop floor. By accountability, we are talking about creating a system that does not allow the 5% who always let everyone else do the work off the hook. Let me give you some examples of accountability that were created by shop floor people during 5S events.

A company had eight (8) similar pieces of equipment in a work cell being 5S’d. It had taken the team over a day and a lot of effort to get those machines cleaned. The question for the team was “How do we keep these machines this clean?” (Standardization) The answer came back, “Put the cleaning on a rotating schedule so everyone has the opportunity to clean.” Then one of the machine operators in the back of the room who had been very helpful but quiet for most of the event said, “No! If we use a rotating cleaning schedule then the ones who let the machines get this way will make the rest of us keep them clean for them.” This statement by one of the quiet majority created a great deal of discussion. Once the smoke had cleared, the team developed a method of creating accountability that is being rolled out through the company. The company has four (4) crews that operate the eight (8) machines. Two (2) machines were assigned to each crew for cleaning. That crew is completely accountable for the cleanliness of the machine. If one of the crews does not want to complete their cleaning tasks, it becomes obvious to everyone who that crew is. The 5S process was used to create this level of accountability.

Shift handoffs often seem to end in a finger-pointing contest. A lack of clear cut expectations is often the cause. During the standardization step, have the team develop a 5S handoff checklist that is filled out by the crew that is manning the equipment and verified by the oncoming crew. This list should include minimum tool, material (available and in what quantity), and information requirements along with the general cleanliness of the area. Utilize the list at every shift change. When this list is employed appropriately, shadow boards always have tools, materials are always available and the schedule is understood between shifts. The shifts even seem to get along better and share more information.


The 5S process as a cleanup process is mundane. The 5S process incorporating visibility, involvement, and accountability on the shop floor is a dynamic tool that drives change within an organization. The 5S process instills the discipline that will be needed when more advanced lean concepts such as pull systems are put into place. Make sure to truly involve the shop floor in your 5S events – not just a rubber stamp – and you will be amazed at the transformation.


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