5S Isn’t About Cleaning, Straightening, or Standardization

Quick question for you… what’s the true purpose of 5S (or 6S)? Go ahead and answer in your head or out loud.

Now, if you’re close enough to some colleagues ask them the same question. Go on, I’ll wait.

Great. Now that we have some “data” let’s see how your answers align with my ideas of what 5S is all about.

It’s not about cleaning up or labels

First of all, 5S is not about cleaning up. It’s not about sticking labels to everything in sight. It’s not about painting floors, machines, or walls. Nope, that’s not what 5S is about at all.

It’s not about straightening

Furthermore, 5S is not about straightening the items in your office or work area. It’s not about placing diagonal tape on books to keep them in the same place.

It’s not about standardization

Finally, 5S is not about standardizing the way our work is done. It’s not about audit forms or check sheets or fancy radar charts. No, sorry, that’s not the true reason for 5S.

It’s about Identifying Abnormalities

Of course, all the things mentioned above are important aspects of 5S and – obviously – things like sorting, straightening, and sweeping are crucial if you hope to standardize and sustain things.

But, you see, these are only the means to the true end of 5S.

And, you see, the true reason of 5S is to be able to immediately identify abnormalities. That’s it. Nothing more. Nothing less.

Done right, 5S will allow you and anyone in your organization to spot when something is not right within seconds. As such, once an abnormality is identified, immediate countermeasures can be put into place before serious issues arise.

What do you think?

That’s my two cents. Do you agree?

Want to learn more about 5S?

If you’re interested in learning more about 5S – what it is, how to do it, and how to make it stick – check out the Gemba Academy 5S Workplace Productivity online course.


  1. Alan Jones

    July 19, 2010 - 7:34 am

    I have never heard it put like this but I tend to agree. We started our 6S (we add safety) initiative as more of a housekeeping movement and the early gains quickly vanished. We then attempted to focus on why we were wanting to do 6S and while we still struggle at times we’re doing better. I have forwarded this posting to all my colleagues.

  2. leansim

    July 19, 2010 - 9:01 am

    Very simple and to the point. We try to address the “why do 5S?”question so many times, but you have summarized it nicely in 3 words.

  3. Rick Foreman

    July 20, 2010 - 6:15 am

    I really like the way you explained the “why” behind 5S. We continue to communicate the same message but also add the potential to improve disciplined thinking, which is somewhat of an action after the abnormalties are defined.
    Good stuff!

  4. shaunak

    July 20, 2010 - 6:36 am

    Since we all hear this term so many times, sometimes while implementing we tend to stuck in the operation part of it (like you have mentioned: putting labels, painting floors etc ). We forget the underlying “VALUE”.
    Thank you Ron for getting all of us back to the basic idea behind 5S. and that too, so simply…really liked it…

  5. Adam Pearson

    July 20, 2010 - 6:54 am

    Great post and you have it right – 5S is all about creating a view of “Normal”, so ‘not-normal’ sticks out like a sore thumb.

    As a well battered lean six sigma guy, my question back to the group is: For western culture companies, how do we get our management/leadership to see that and not get stuck on the “tools”?


  6. Mark Welch

    July 20, 2010 - 7:14 am

    I would only add 3 more words: “Make work easier.” Perhaps this is the complement to “immediately identify abnormalities,” but if it didn’t do this it would have little value.

  7. Tom

    July 20, 2010 - 9:31 am

    Maybe you’re right and it’s an interesting point of view. But for me the main thing concerning 5S is about workplace optimization, where the piece flow is at a higher speed and/or with smaller risk (6S). This could also be within an “abnormal” environment. Why not, if it works? By the way: What’s abnormal? Shouldn’t we always ask this with an open mind and consider not imaginable and abnormal solutions especially in brainstorming sessions?


  8. MartiB

    July 20, 2010 - 11:28 am

    I totally agree with you for common work areas, however in some of my transactional areas we use 5s as a huge eliminator of waste, customer wait time to be more precise. If a customer service rep has a computer desktop that has been 5s’d and they can’t find an application they can ask an associate. Without getting up and coming over to help them find it, the associate can simple call out ‘upper left quadrant 3rd icon down’ or where ever the app resides. Customers don’t have to be put on hold by 2 reps for 1 rep to find something they need. 5s Rocks!

  9. tford

    January 11, 2011 - 3:45 pm

    The secret service trains officers to identify counterfeit bills. When doing so, they study authentic bills to the Nth degree, never looking at counterfeits. They want the officers to know “real bills” so well that counterfeits stand out immediately. Just a little experience from a friend.

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