Lean ManufacturingThe 5S

5S Challenge: Which S Is Most Difficult and Why?

By Jon Miller Updated on May 16th, 2017

“Which of the 5S is most difficult?” I received this question during a class I was teaching recently. I’ve never been asked this before. People often say “self-discipline is the most difficult” or “sustaining is the most difficult” but this answer never really satisfied me, so after a pause I gave my answer to the students.
In my view it’s one of the other 4S that is the most difficult. I won’t say what answer I gave, or why, quite yet. Let’s make this a 5S Challenge.
What do you think? Which of the 5S is most difficult? Post your comment below on which of the 5S is most difficult, and why. Bonus points if you can illustrate it with a story or example.
We will select at random three comments and give away three 5S In A Bag simulation kit from Kaizen Products.
Comments entered by noon PST on Friday May 18, 2007 are eligible for 5S Challenge prize.

  1. Konrad Grondek

    May 12, 2007 - 6:37 am

    I always thought that th 5-th S is the most difficult… But now, when I look back – 1-st S is the most difficult. It’s not the whole 1S is so difficult, but to do one of its action – throw away unneeded items. I found it difficult for every position in a company:
    – operators due to mentality “some day I will need it”
    – management ” if we throw it away, we throw money away”.

  2. Ron

    May 12, 2007 - 7:12 am

    Jon, while it is not an official “s” in the 5S lineup the hardest one to master is without a doubt – start.
    You see starting does not mean go and have a company wide 5S thrust event where everyone cleans up their desks. Instead it means to start having a kaizen mentality whereby every associate is empowered and expected to think about how 5S should not just start… but never end.
    The biggest issue I see if when people go for a big 5S event and then rests on their laurels only to see things fall apart. Then they say something stupid like, “See, I told this Lean stuff was no good.”

  3. robert thompson

    May 12, 2007 - 10:37 am

    Great question – For me personally, the most difficult “S” is Sustain: (Shitsuke). Unless a Lean philosophy has been adopted then a 5S activity will not be repeated and will therefore not become part of the culture. Change is difficult for most people and people tend to slip back into their own habits. That’s my opinion anyway!

  4. Nancy Kress

    May 15, 2007 - 11:49 am

    I’m with Konrad – Seiri /Sort, in an office environment, is hardest. Everyone enthusiastically sorts but what should be discarded ends up being stored, and everyone thinks they succeeded.

  5. Chris

    May 16, 2007 - 1:16 am

    Hi Jon
    The question about which S is the most difficult is in itself difficult to answer. At some point through the 5S journey each step can prove equally difficult for different reasons. We have many examples were 5S was started but failed to sustain after the initial big bang clean up. In the launch of TPM over 15 years ago here in Ricoh Telford 5S was heralded a pre-requisite before initiating TPM. We went forward and did a great job with TPM and gained lots of improvement, but somewhere along the way the discipline of 5S failed and the basics slipped back after a while. To avoid this happening I believe there are two important musts, first persuade everyone why 5S is important and get them to believe in it second carryout regular 5S audits. Here we have systematic approach to audits. The General Managers audit the Department Managers, they in turn audit the Section Managers who audit the Team leaders and they finally audit their teams. 5S is applied equally in all Gemba’s Office and Production Areas. In the case of the Production Area the benefits of 5S hinge around the need to have a well ordered workplace where errors or abnormal situations are then easy to spot. In the Office Areas this is not a good reason to use so we re-introduced Office 5S to support the drive to launch our Information Security Management System to achieve accreditation to ISO 27001 and a clear desk policy.
    I’ve rambled on haven’t I but having said the above I’ve convinced myself that if I have to choose the most difficult S I’ll go for Sustain.
    Best Regards & Thanks for another stimulating blog

  6. Eric

    May 16, 2007 - 11:00 am

    If I had to choose the most difficult “S” out of the first four, I agree with a couple of the previous posts that “Sort” is the most difficult step although my reasoning why is slightly different. I agree that throwing things away in the sort step is tough, but I have found that sorting is difficult because it is contingent upon having a good definition of value right from the get-go. If you haven’t defined value, you can’t say with certainty what is more VALUABLE! I’ve seen this in my work. We are a 600 employee company that is growing rapidly AND trying to undergo a lean transformation. On the floor we have shipping and managers that act as internal customers. Because their definition of value means ultra on time product, it pushes out the value of cleanliness (which only makes an appearance for the quarterly “5S facelift”.) It bugs me really, so before I get too into this post, let me sum. Sort is most difficult because it depends on the definition of value, and defining value well is never easy!

  7. Jason

    May 16, 2007 - 1:34 pm

    I nominate Standardize. Standardizing amongst individuals is a very difficult task. It means more than discarding an item rarely used. What it becomes is changing habits and methods and increases in difficulty with the number of individuals involved. Getting three shifts of operators or multiple buyers in purchasing to agree on a tool to use or placement of items when up until the improvement effort they had the ability to perform the task as they saw fit is quite difficult. Do we standardize or allow each shift or each desk to have their own tools neatly kept, but individually used and how do we determine the best practice to standardize? In my experience, these have been the largest hurdles to overcome.

  8. Rajdeep

    May 17, 2007 - 6:49 pm

    My personal view is that Sort is the most difficult. I have worked on 5S implementation in a few ‘service organizations’ (banking, call centers, s/w development offices etc.) and my observations on Sort are:
    1. People think of it as a clean up exercise. To begin with, people don’t see value in 5S. However you try to explain it, it gets perceived under the umbrella of cleaning up the workplace. Not workplace organization.
    2. To Sort, there is considerable effort spent (both physical and emotional) but to the people involved, payoff does not seem commensurate . At the end of day 1, no one wants to go ahead.
    3. It is difficult to let go. As we start we see some year old training manuals and operating instructions that are not referred to. Yet they don’t put them away. Feeling is they might need to refer to these. Or maybe the manuals etc. makes them look and feel important. Like very trained individuals.
    4. A lot of areas in the office have family pictures, photos from off-sites, certificates of attendance from trainings, and a lot of miscellaneous stuff like hello-kitty dolls, etc. These are very personal things. Once you start to ask the value and need for these, people feel we are encroaching. They may have photos everywhere but stapler missing when they need it a lot of time.
    5. It has happened at least 2 times with me that when we ask people how they feel at the end of Sort, and the reaction was that if the CEO was coming for a visit, we would do this in less than 1 hour!
    It is undeniably true that there is tremendous value in 5S. Where ever we have done this properly, people personally involved have been amazed and have felt an improvement in personal efficiency and feeling of well being. Earlier applications forms were getting missed, when customers or sales people called, it took quite some effort to trace the apps. Post 5S, everyone agrees to improvement and lot less time wasted in non value adding work.
    And unlike manufacturing where we were chasing seconds, in services we talk in terms of hours and days. The whole concept of workplace organization doesn’t seem worth it and people classify it all as a clean up or something they don’t feel they need to be told.
    While the whole 5S exercise requires a lot of effort, just to get started on the first S and for people to see value in continuing forward is a big challenge.

  9. Dee

    May 18, 2007 - 2:10 am

    I would like to propose Shitsuke/ Sustain as the toughest S. Shitsuke can only be achieved if the hurdles to the other Ss have been overcome. These ‘resistors to change’ will include changing the sloppy behaviour of lifetimes, accepting new standards – often with major reluctanance and then maintaining them meticulously and consistently. Most people find change really difficult and they will fall back into their usual pattern of behaviour at the first opportunity. In addition, they are unlikely to have adopted the 5 Ss in other parts of their lives (home) so their former behaviour is re-enforced on a daily basis when they leave the workplace. Thus 5S becomes a daily chore which is easily and readily abandoned. Example: I worked in IBM in the 70s and 80s where clean desks were rigidly enforced for security reasons & I never had a non-conformance. When I left, it took only one week in my new job for my desk to be a mess with paper overflowing everywhere. 16 years of learning was tossed in one week! When we implemented a quality programme one of our first actions was to implement a clean / tidy workplace policy (we hadn’t heard of 5S). Maintaining this position in a busy SW development / Systems Integration was the toughest aspect of our quality programme that covered all aspects of the business from quotations to post-service and support. We tried lots of sustain type mechanisms all of which worked for a short period and then gradually eroded.
    In the end we abandoned metrics totally and we had a Shame and Star programme where we took photographs of offenders and posted them on a notice board for all to see (including visitors and customers) and an equivalent Star programme where each month a star employee a star team was awarded a sponsored celebration at a local venue. This was very effective as team members encouraged their less enthusiastic colleagues to clean up their act so that the team would win the prize. The point of this example is that in order to genuinely sustain the achievement managers will need to be innovative and continually find new ways to promote 5S or it will regress. This is the toughest task.

  10. Stephen Kithinji

    July 8, 2007 - 6:20 am

    It is quite challenging to pinpoint which of the 5s is the most difficult because all of them are inter related. throw any of the 5s out and the rest will become useless.
    we have just been participating in the Gemba Kaizen cluster workshops in Kenya and the most challenging part has been to start implementing the Kaizen culture which has to start with the 5s.
    Most company executives feel that their managerial skills are being eroded by the Kaizen concept which is foreign to them.
    In the company where I work in Thika we started with the 5s and the managers were actually enthusiastic that the 5s will ultimately lead to a cleaner and more organized Gemba.
    But as we continued we came face to face with the same management unwillingness to throw out most of the items and machines that we did not actually require.
    The management was divided on what to do with all those red tagged items. I and my Kaizen lead team become so disappointed with the whole exercise that we openly complained that unless the management change their hard line stand on red tagged items we could not continue with the exercise.
    At the end in a meeting between us and the directors it was agreed that the red tagged items will be removed from the Gemba and be stored somewhere else at the company go down in Nairobi until they come up with an appropriate way of disposing them.
    According to this experience I submit that the most difficult S is the 4th just as the rest. But it should not be lost in our minds that unless we embrace the kaizen culture and start it, all the 5s’s will be difficult to implement. in my opinion the most difficult s to implement is the first. Once it is started it will roll out and the initial teething problems encountered will be overcome by the will to succeed. Remember it’s a lifelong journey whose result will not be seen immediately as most company executives would want. Kaizen is a continual journey of improvement.
    Best regards

  11. nate

    October 4, 2007 - 3:57 am

    The second of the 5 is hardest. set in order, how can you set something in order if your constantly sorting , standardizing and sustaining you r area. with one piece flow and VSM you can never keep one part or tool or whatever your setting in order in order.

  12. Melissa Falvo

    July 30, 2008 - 12:41 pm

    I believe the first ‘S’ Sort, is the hardest of the five. If a particular process does not have standard work, it is difficult to determine what tools are necessary to perform the work the same way every time while ensuring the same level of quality. If companies ignore the imporantance of standard work then beginning a 5S implementation will never occur. “I prefer to use tool A versus B”, is an example that I hear most often. As begin to standardize either on the manufacturing floor or in a back office processing area, 5S implementation will become easier. In addtion to knowing the tooling, some are reluctant to organize their work stations because it will become obvious as to what their work status is, and may not want management to know. For example, “If I have some accounts on hold, and can take on more work, I do not want management to know, then I’ll have to do more work.” This is the most recent example here in financial services.

  13. Ken5S - KL Malaysia

    October 7, 2009 - 1:01 am

    It is easy to do the 3S and the hardest part is Seiketsu. If you are able to maintain the 3S, the last Shitsuke will slowly be put into place. I do not see clearing & throwing away unnecessary things as a difficult task. Otherwise, the workplace will be cluttered with all kinds of things. If you are not able to decide, get your immediate superior to decide for you. Of all the 3S, Seiton has the most work to really organise the workplace.

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