The 5S

Never Start with 5S!

By Jon Miller Updated on May 22nd, 2017

“Oh no,” some of you are thinking. “Too late! Why didn’t you tell us earlier?”
Jamie Flinchbaugh started a thought-provoking discussion today on his blog where he says don’t do 5S and gives good reasons. I encourage you to hop over and check it out if you haven’t already.

One of Jamie’s own comments contains some particularly good food for thought. Many, including myself, would say you need to do 5S early in the lean journey to set standards and put some discipline (being the 5th S) in place. Jamie agrees but goes further:

However, is that the FIRST behavior change you want to build in your team and your organization? If so, then great, 5S will help you practice building discipline. But what if you want to build engagement? Curiosity? Deep problem solving? Questioning everything? Of course discipline is a good behavior to build. My only question – is the the first behavior you want to address?

That’s a great point. It’s all about target, actual, why the gap? and how do we close it? If you have a prioritized list of non-lean behaviors to go about changing, and a pre-selected set of lean tools or practices that specifically target these, then all the well. Pick and proceed. In my experience people’s understanding of cause and effect, especially when the cause is human behavior and the effect is “it’s still broke” is weak and plagued by bias. And behavior is just one facet of lean deployment of course. Lean deployments that strongly drive behavior change without adequate financial and/or customer impact will not go far in most organizations.

Even if discipline through 5S is not the first and most urgent behavior change, don’t let that delay you for very long in doing 5S. There are reasons that 5S is a building block and prerequisite of so many other aspects of lean. If you want to know what they are, read Jamie’s post and follow on comments.

And when invited to visit your workplace, I will never accept “Discipline is not the most urgent behavior we are trying to change” as an excuse for trash on the floor, cluttered workstations or any other signs of poor 5S.

  1. Harish

    May 5, 2010 - 4:16 am

    Hi Jon,
    Really thought provoking post.
    I would like to point out two things.
    1) It is really easy for consultants to show and tell using 5S. Normally when a consultant comes in he does only the first three. The place will look a lot different from what it was. 5S is an easy concept. It is normal that all companies start lean with a consultant. VSM and SMED and other “tools” are not easy to understand. 5S is on the other hand visual. You just need a before and after picture.
    2) Toyota does 4S. 🙂
    Good stuff. Thanks Jon and Jamie.

  2. Anonymous

    May 6, 2010 - 12:59 pm

    Jon, you state: “Many, including myself, would say you need to do 5S early in the lean journey to set standards and put some discipline (being the 5th S) in place.” I think this is the wrong idea. The kind of discipline we are talking about, or should be talking about, is self-discipline. You can’t “put that in place.” It must come from within. All you can put into place is compliance (which is often, if not always, temporary); you are then compelled to “put into place” external “discipline” against those who are caught not complying (which may just lead to more clever avoidance strategies). Such an approach increases the likelihood of resistance, and if “successful,” it continues the pattern of command and control, which is likely to further diminish questioning and deep thinking from those upon whom it’s been mandatorily imposed. It reinforces “Just do what I tell you.” This is not true self-discipline. All of this is well-known to social psychologists; it is supported by a huge body of research. As Deming said, knowledge of psychology is important.
    Instead, people should come to the conclusion on their own that 5S has great merit and it should be pursued voluntarily, not by being “put into place.” It is far more likely to be sustained if it comes about from those who are to live by it. This too is well-known. A sense of autonomy is an essential ingredient of intrinsic motivation and engagement, without which Lean can’t succeed long-term. Imposing things on others should be kept to an absolute minimum. Knowledge of psychology tells us this; respect for people demands this.
    Harish touches on what I believe is the real reason why 5S is so popular at the beginning of Lean journeys. “It is really easy for consultants to show and tell using 5S: ” Lean is becoming, or has become, more of a way for consultants to earn a living, than for organizations to better contribute to society. Consultants need to make their needs secondary to their clients–it should be “Customers First.” Consultants must show self-discipline before they teach it.

  3. Jon

    May 6, 2010 - 1:55 pm

    Hi Anonymous
    Both discipline (externally imposed standards) and self-discipline are important. We can’t long succeed while living in violation of standards set by customers, the state, the environment, etc. When we have poor quality, inefficient or unsafe operations, we are either violating these laws and standards, whether aware or unaware. The purpose of 5S is to set standards so that abnormalities become immediately and visually obvious. That is externally imposed discipline. The self-discipline aspect relates more to sustaining this practice. Without the standard, there is nothing to sustain.
    I think Harish was pointing out that one of the reasons people start with 5S is because it is easy to show the results of the change. I don’t believe he was making a judgment as to whether this was good or bad.
    As far as whether lean is benefiting consultants more than society, I can only speak to my own experience and interactions with the clients we help, and cannot make claims as to the whole of society or for all consultants.

  4. Simon Ellberger

    May 7, 2010 - 7:38 am

    Jon: First, let me apologize for unintentionally posting as “Anonymous”; I was in a rush and forgot to fill in the blanks.
    Yes, externally imposed standards are necessary. I didn’t say we shouldn’t have them; I said they should be kept to an absolute minimum. Of course we need and should have quality and safety standards, and we need to obey laws, and protect the environment, etc. But 5S is not an absolute need. As many others have already pointed out elsewhere, 5S is a countermeasure. To jump to such a countermeasure (and worse yet, mandate it) without following a structured problem solving/PDCA process — e.g., first determining and clarifying the problem (including the ideal situation, current condition, and gap), doing a root cause analysis, considering other countermeasures, etc. — just runs counter to my understanding of Lean problem solving, and should be avoided (except as a temporary form of containment).
    I didn’t say Harish was making a direct judgment as to whether starting out with 5S is good or bad. All I said was he touched upon something. I then used it to form an hypothesis; it’s mine and not his, and I take responsibility for it.
    I realize you can only speak to your own experience and interactions. I too can only speak from mine. And based on them, I think my hypothesis is a reasonable one. I don’t claim it as fact.
    By the way, I am assuming we are talking about Lean in general, not just in a manufacturing environment. I think in non-manufacturing organizations, it may be even more important to hold off on 5S.
    Thanks for continuing the discussion on this interesting topic. Your blog continues to be an excellent source of provocative thought for me.

  5. Erik

    May 7, 2010 - 10:56 am

    To a large degree I agree with Anonymous. I currently have a boss who is amongst the world’s foremost experts on enforcing adherence to standards via the omnipresent audit. One of his top favorites on an audit is 5S compliance. This would be wonderful however he doesn’t understand the purpose of the standard in the first place. He’s been told what it is SUPPOSED to do, but can’t seem to perform the “CA” portion of PDCA. There is no hansei. In short, he confuses activity with progress.
    Furthermore, he has completely skipped the education portion of being a leader. People have been given a tool, they’ve been told how great the tool is, they’ve been told they’re expected to use this wonderful new tool and that there will be audits and consequences, but they’ve not truly been taught how to use it and worse yet, they’ve not been taught to see the benefits of the tool. I’ll invoke a bit of TWI wisdom here and say that if the student has not learned, the teacher has not truly taught. And when there is an audit “failure” his mode of thinking is, “I found it. You fix it.” Once again, a severe lack of teaching. A much better response in my mind would be, “This area is out of standard, please help me understand why so that I might work with you to improve it.”
    The end result is that at best we get compliance when what we need is commitment. In my opinion the creation of commitment, of engagement, in a belief in a shared vision is the most important and yet most elusive piece of being a Lean leader. Or any kind of leader for that matter. If this is the kind of 5S you have, my experience says it will be hard to sustain and certainly never produce the results that it could/should. Does that mean 5S is bad or shouldn’t be done? Not at all. To me it is yet another case of LAME.

  6. Machado

    May 9, 2010 - 5:44 am

    I´ll participate in two kaizen in portugal in ogma industria aeronautica de portugal, I´ll in september i am going to participate in another one i am going to be the leader of this kaizen ,the main goal is to implement a moving line in wings assembly,Can some one give me some help about this.

  7. Karen Wilhelm

    May 9, 2010 - 8:09 am

    Just curious – in an office environment a process typically gets hung up when it crosses department boundaries, which can happen often. If this silo-effect is one of the significant obstacles in the beginning of a lean transformation, 5S wouldn’t help much at all. But what would you start with there?

  8. John Santomer

    May 10, 2010 - 12:16 am

    @ Karen,
    From what I have understood, 5S focuses to bring out visually what is the root cause of a problem; eg. additional time taken for the process to finish because needed equipment are not found in the proper location, more movement required to find the required equipment as it applies to the production floor. In a way, if 5S is applied in the office area and everything placed in its proper location, a pending document requiring process to complete will be easily located and identified where it should be found. Processes crossing departamental boundaries will be easily recognized by the piles of documents pending approvals from that department. Imagine how hard it would be to locate that particular document to be processed if the next department required to act on it does not practice 5S? Change can not be imposed on that department from your side…this should coma as a “Pull” initiative or as an internal committment from that department. This is where “hoshin” and the lean leader focuses on. But the most important thing is that lean should start from somewhere first – even from your department as an example- and then the rest can follow from your own initiative. Talk about sustainability…well that is again another subject you would have a fun time tackling in the future. “Kaizen” spirit is all about having fun discovering viable things to improve on and keeping the spirit alive…

  9. Bob Duckles

    May 15, 2010 - 10:45 am

    Great post. One of my consulting principles has been “There is no right way.” For one thing, a “right way” precludes any improvement. 5S can be a good place to start, but sometimes other workshops develop more awareness of a new way of seeing.

  10. Jamie Flinchbaugh

    May 17, 2010 - 5:41 pm

    Thanks for picking up on my points. Great additions. I’m amazed at how much emotion this point has stirred up. I’ve received everything up to and including hate mail. But I think the debate is worth having. Those in a lean profession must continually challenge that profession to the most effective path forward.

  11. Joseph

    May 18, 2010 - 7:45 am

    Great post Jamie. When a company is up to its Neck in Alligators and swotting the Mosquito’s 5S may not be the best place to start. I agree the debate is worth having but I see two levels of people looking at the statement. “Never Start With 5S” the Lean professional and the Novice. Those who have reached enlightenment should not confuse those that are still struggling with the basics.
    Have a nice day.

  12. RalfLippold

    May 23, 2010 - 2:10 am

    … Jamie is quite right with his thought!
    Before moving on in the lean journey, in which 5S is certainly a major step there are other things necessary.
    Bringing people’s assumptions “into the room” while having the whole system in the room is way more productive. It may “hurt” one or the other, however without a solid foundation of mutual understanding the different activities such as 5S will lead into the “desert” and nothing much will be left for coming generations.
    Cheers, Ralf

  13. Bart

    June 11, 2010 - 10:38 am

    Whether or not to start with 5S all depends on what you want to accomplish. If you want to implement JIT then by all means start with 5S as part of the cultural awareness (JIT Factory Revolution by Hirano, Productivity Press). If you want to implement lean management then start with the CEO assessment and then policy deployment. If you are trying to save the organization definitely start with TOC.
    It also depends on if you want to use 5S as a tool or a system or a foundational principle and there is a difference.
    But remember that the decade of lean tools is over (not my words).

  14. boris

    August 12, 2010 - 1:07 pm

    We went through 5s, everyone was forced to spend hours labeling up bins, printers, pens, paper. It soon faded out as it was over the top and just annoyed everyone. I could see how it may look “good” when being a visiting head of the business, but in reality the extra time spending maintaining the 5 pens in the draw and creating new posters every time something changes far exceeds any benefits. Be realistic, people will say “yes”, “really good” just to shut you up, any 5s audits/checklists will just be blagged by people because the can’t be bothered as they see no benefit. This is exactly the same with any huddle/notice boards and problems and countermeasures boards. Don’t be naive save you time and resources, don’t bother.

  15. Ronak Shah

    August 4, 2011 - 3:43 am

    Hi, I also agree that ” we should not do 5S first”
    As we all know that with help of 5S we will not get direct benefits(money). If we start with SMED or value stream mapping, we can find more befits(Money), than management will understand the benefits of lean and support 5S afterwards.

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