Don’t Do 5S

by Jamie Flinchbaugh on May 4, 2010 · 23 comments

I know I’ll catch plenty of flak from the lean stalwarts out there. This will certainly go against conventional wisdom and common practice. But sometimes conventional wisdom is wrong.

I don’t believe companies should start their lean journey with 5S.

Many believe is should be done early. Many believe is it step #1, as this consultant argues.

5S as a practice has a life of it’s own. It has made it into Dilbert and is even promoted as a best practice on Lifehacker and described on eHow . I’ve even had companies ask me if lean is compatible with their 5S practice, not realizing how related to two are. There are two problems that I see with starting lean early.

1. If your first step in lean is one that involves mandates, it is harder to get long-term engagement.

5S is not done one person at a time. At the very least, you must blanket an area and multiple shifts. There can be more volunteerism. There can be no opting-out. It requires management to put their foot down on certain issues. However, that can go very well, or it can go poorly. It is easy to misapply the discipline and management aspect, leading to disengagement and negative results, as this blogger describes:

…telling them they put the stapler in the wrong drawer is going to be a bit grating on already frayed nerves.

That’s not going to be effective. Of course that’s on the wrong side of the normal behavior. But even if you get the forced behavior done well and not heavy-handed or misapplied, it is still forced. And that can be a negative for many people.

2. The benefits of 5S are often long-term and not direct

The biggest benefits of 5S are that it creates a stable environment to spot problems and deviations. This makes process control easier. It makes preventive problem solving stronger. However, many organizations aren’t even ready for such activities when they are just starting out with lean. Sure, 5S is nice. It cleans things up and makes finding things a little easier. But it doesn’t exactly move the performance needle.

What happens when your first engagement in a long journey doesn’t move the needle? We lose interest. It’s just that simple. And this is something I’ve seen happen in dozens of cases. The employee response is “I now understand lean: do a lot of work for no benefit.” Obviously that’s not the intent.

So make sure that using 5S, at any point in the journey, is solving actual problems that you currently have. Start with the problem statement, then pick the tool. Don’t start by picking a tool. That is a bad precedent for your lean journey.

For many companies 5S will help solve real problems. That’s great. Then 5S may be a great place to start – for you. But that is probably 30 percent of cases, not the 90 percent of companies now starting their lean journey with 5S.

3. 5S doesn’t force engagement of executives and senior managers

As I’ve written many times, there is a difference between leadership support and leadership engagement. A big difference. It is easy to say “yes, that sounds good, I approve.” It’s a lot harder to change your own behaviors, mindset, and skills. But lean requires changes at all levels.

5S is really easy to delegate. Leaders obviously have to get involved. But they don’t really need to get engaged. They need to expend some of their time, but not really change their behaviors.

Again, there is always time down the road to engage leaders. But why not start with something that does this right away. Why not get people out of their comfort zone that they understand it will require changes from them as well.

Overall, none of these flaws are fatal. All are recoverable. But I believe there are often better ways to get started. 5S is an easy answer. Lean is not an easy journey. Start your journey with purpose.

1 Mark Welch May 4, 2010 at 9:21 am

Jamie – points well-taken. I completely agree with starting from need and solving problems. Would you agree, though, that 5S is part of the foundation for ooperational stability of the Toyota House Model and that it is frequently a major contributor to creating a robust system that will enable people to later apply the pillars of built-in-quality, just-in-time, etc.? I’m thinking that 5S will likely come into play very early, rather than later, in most lean journies – yet still when needed, as you say.

2 Jim Fernandez May 4, 2010 at 10:30 am

As Shakespeare’s Romeo said,
“Oh, wilt thou leave me so unsatisfied?”

Now the gears in my mind are turning at full speed. Can you or the lean community come up with a good place to start a lean journey? OK, yeah I know it would be a different place for each company. But can’t we at least come up with an evaluation test or formula for figuring out where to start?

Some very good points made in your post.

3 Rick Foreman May 4, 2010 at 10:55 am

Great points and it certainly depends on the current state of an organizational culture. We’ve seen at times that engagement and I hate to use the word, “enforcement” are both needed depending on the many different situations involved in a continuous improvement implementation. Your comments make perfect sense as I reflect with sports analogies. Should every baseball game begin with the picture throwing a fastball? Should every football game begin with specific pass play? Or in light of the NBA playoffs, should the Celtics always have Ray Allen take the first shot in every game? Certainly every situation depends upon the environment and current conditions. Nice post and food for thought.

4 Jon Miller May 4, 2010 at 12:43 pm

Good post Jamie.

I’ll take the opposite position for the sake of a thought exercise: start with 5S, because:

1) It will force discipline, open discussions about standards, the requirement for total engagement, where the stapler should go and why. If you can’t do 5S, you can’t do lean.

2) It will force the organization to confront metrics, identify short-term savings and how they will be realized through 5S (such as less searching > higher productivity > less overtime)

3) It will force senior management involvement, unless you pilot 5S in a limited area or define its focus as factory only. The 5S activity in each zone should be delegated but the audits will by definition involve the executives, unless we are defining 5S very narrowly as clean up and put in place.

No matter where else you start, you will have these same problems. No lean tool fulfills all three requirements without effort. No single approach fits all situations.

I agree that it’s too simplistic to say “start with 5S” but many do. If they acknowledged that they are experimenting and learning it would be OK. Too many think they are “implementing” when they are only learning through struggle.

I guess “start whatever you will finish” is the best advice I can give.

5 Rick Foreman May 4, 2010 at 1:49 pm

Jon; I agree that wherever you start, the same problems/opportunities will exist. It is unrealistic to expect organizations new to lean methodology to gracefully and openly accept and understand the tools. For us, it might be more of starting what we will continuously pursue to finish. The opportunity to gain disciplined thinking and some sort of standards is an honorable one that has at least established a baseline for implementation.

6 Jim Fernandez May 4, 2010 at 4:56 pm

“start whatever you will finish”. Yeah, I like that one. Very good.!!!

So far we started 5S two times. It’s dead again. However, we cleaned up the place twice now and it shows. People come here just to see how nice and neat our place looks. So 5S was useful for us. But we could have called it “spring cleaning day”.

Our workers think that lean comes and goes like the flavor of the month. It’s not the fault of 5S. But 5S is the scapegoat.

7 Jamie Flinchbaugh May 4, 2010 at 6:57 pm

Thanks all for your comments. It’s interesting that I received even more emails than comments; I’m not sure what to read into that. I can’t comment on every point made, so I’ll just stick to some of the majors.

1. More for some of the email complaints, unless you decided to not actually read the post but just the title, I’m not saying don’t start with 5S. I’m not saying that at all. I’m saying start with 5S after you’ve carefully considered that this is the right method or tool to get you going – then, and only then. Don’t start there just because it’s conventional wisdom or everyone does it.

2. Both in email and in Jon’s point above, there is and always has been an argument that 5S builds discipline. I agree with this. 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?

3. To the various versions of questions of where do we start, I think the very premise of deciding on tool-roll out sequences is exactly what is wrong with lean today. Lean should not be about tools. It should not be about what tools to start with. It should be about what problems to solve, what ideal state to pursue, what behaviors to adopt. Tools solve problems. Tools are not lean.

4. Jon makes a very valid point about management involvement. 5S does force at least the following: time commitment, go to the point of activity (you can’t audit from the office), and support for standardization and high agreement. However, I think sometimes involvement is too low a standard. We aren’t really solving a problem that the manager owns. We aren’t really changing their own behavior. Again, the involvement is good. My question: is that the best we can do for management’s first involvement?

5. Don’t think 5S is a box that must be checked. Some of the best lean-thinking and performing companies I’ve seen stink at 5S. They’ve done some basics. But they had enough underlying discipline that 5S wasn’t solving a critical path problem for them. They are laser-focused on other problems, behaviors, and goals.

To recap, I’m in favor of 5S. Go ahead and start with it. But do so with purpose. Know why you are doing so. Do so because it closes your gap, solves a problem, or forces the right behavior change. 5S is not a right of passage for lean companies. It’s a tool. It helps.

Do it thoughtfully. Do it all thoughtfully.

8 Simon Ellberger May 4, 2010 at 7:43 pm

Jamie: Great post. I appreciate your courage. Lean practitioners usually ask “non-believers” to challenge their assumptions, but often forget they must be prepared to challenge their own assumptions as well.

I’ll go a step further than you. NEVER start with 5S. Transformation to a lean culture needs to begin with senior leadership, and only senior leadership. They need to understand what they are leading, before they begin the leading. As you say, these leaders must become engaged, not just give support to others. Genuine leadership engagement is just impossible without leadership’s understanding of what they are to be engaged in. Period. What rational leader is going to commit to something before understanding it???

5S is aimed primarily at the worker on the floor. Leaders will learn little, and be restricted to a supporting role, if the journey begins with 5S. 5S should come much later, when the organization is mature enough to recognize its benefits, and when employees feel committed enough to do it without being forced to.

So let’s get the senior leadership team engaged right up front, by getting them engaged together as an “action learning” team to do problem identification and problem solving using a structured problem solving method (my preference is Toyota’s 8-step problem solving process). Let them experience continuous improvement and respect for people first hand. Let them discover and learn from experimentation. Let them see visible benefits wrought by their own hands and brains. That’s the best way to start. Seriously.

9 Justin Tomac May 4, 2010 at 10:48 pm

Way to stir the pot and stimulate the brain….which the latter should be the more apropriate title of the article.
@Jim, In my opinion, it all depends. I wish a secret formula or test was applicable to all, unfortunately this is the trap most consultants fall into….one size fits all.
Like Jamie, I have encountered similar mindsets and questions revolving 5S, Visual Management and Lean…i.e. Won’t these conflict with one another?….The main point I am taking away is the reinforcement that where ever one begins, they must think and apply or the corner they paint themselves in may be messy.

10 Peter Stevens (TowardsLean) May 5, 2010 at 6:21 am

I absolutely agree with Jamie: a lean “foundation” building block such as 5S shouldn’t be your first intervention when starting a lean journey.

What do you think about my statement: 5S is not a solution that is implemented, but a practice that naturally develops over time as we fix today’s problems in a structured way.

The great thing about lean is that it is an ‘integrated management system’. Every building block has its own purpose. However, let’s not forget that these building blocks (solutions) have been developed (over time!) to address the problems occurring at that time. Consequently, a building block as 5S may not be the ‘solution’ for a company’s current problems.

How could 5S fit in a lean transformation ? Let’s briefly apply Kotter’s 8 step leading change model*. In line with the arguments given in the blog discussion we need to start with leadership ‘involvement’: 1) establishing a sense of urgency and 2) creating a leading coalition. Then we’ll define a 3) shared vision, 4+5) communicate it broadly and empower others. Finally it’s time for real action: 6) creating short term wins. Where do we start? What about: an urgent, important, visible, fairly easy to fix problem? While solving this current problem, surely we’ll address workspace related causes and take (5S like) countermeasures. Here the value of 5S will reveals itself to all involved: making problems visible, solving them and maintaining the workspace standards agreed.

Having demonstrated impact by fixing problems, we’ll 7) consolidate improvements and produce still more change. This means we are moving on to tackling the next important problem and the next, each time implementing workplace related (5S like) countermeasures and methods for sustaining them.

Eventually we’ll have implemented a critical mass of ‘5S like’ countermeasures and practices throughout the organisation. In my belief, this is the point where 5S could be institutionalised as a best-practice solution. Kotter defines this last step as 8) institutionalise the new approaches.

In sum: 5S is not a solution that is implemented, but a practice that naturally develops over time as we fix today’s problems in a structured way.


11 Mike McAteer May 5, 2010 at 8:48 am

A different approach would be to build 5S into standardized work and start with standardized work. This works well as people will see the benefit of standardized work quickly, if done right and 5S being a part of the standardized work will become the norm. Doing it this way does not ask the employees to focus on more than one concept so we do not cause confusion with too many different directions. The journey to lean is long and needs to have a solid foundation and clear direction. Standardized work supports improvements in safety, people, quality, production and of course 5S.

12 Matt Wrye May 5, 2010 at 9:15 am

I really like this post. It gets you thinking and I believe in 5S but don’t necessarily believe it is the first thing to start with. I have done 5S with 3 companies in the last 8 years and each time for a different reason. When in the auto industry we did it because that was the “formula” for starting lean and we were trying to become a supplier to Toyota. We did it and did it well, but Toyota still saw our true inefficiencies. We didn’t get awarded any business from Toyota until we started to fix those inefficiencies.

A few years later, I became a believer in solving problems and not implementing tools. When I went to work for an HVAC company, our first step was to implement 5S, but in this instance it felt right because you couldn’t see the from one production line to the next and they were only 20-30 feet apart. Our problem to solve was how do we start to even see the waste……answer: 5S.

Now working for a consumer goods company and having facilities that are fairly clean and organized, I don’t see the need to do a blanket 5S approach. We have pulled the tool out when doing changeover reduction and tools weren’t close by or missing. We have pulled the tool out when we wanted to create visual flow of our material. So we are getting there by solving problems and applying it when necessary. I have even advised against a blanket approach to implement 5S just because we should. Our culture is trying to get employees engaged in solving problems and not mandating actions.

I think with the economy the way it is today, it is even more imperative that we solve problems first and use the appropriate tools to do so. If not, the company may not be around long enough to 5S implemented.

13 Bob MacPherson May 6, 2010 at 6:56 am

As one of the people who sent a personal email about the article, I have to tell you that my blood was a bit warm when I first read this article. I kept looking for the satirical turning point where we would all sit back and have a good chuckle. It was like we were trapped in a Monty Python movie where the writer says: “and now for something completely different!” But, alas, it never came. I will admit to being a neophyte in lean since I only have about 13 years as a practitioner and have only spent a few precious hours with people like Jeff Liker. But most of that 13 years has been on one plant floor or another trying to build a consensus around the right path to bring lean to a world that sorely needs it. The single greatest struggle is to keep the focus of the people we are trying to help. 5S has always been a visible way to do that and frankly, it is hard. But just because something is hard doesn’t make it the wrong place to start. Speaking of Monty Python, here is a quote from the Holy Grail that really captures the essence of 5S (note the intentional reference to another Holy Grail)
“King of Swamp Castle: When I first came here, this was all swamp. Everyone said I was daft to build a castle on a swamp, but I built in all the same, just to show them. It sank into the swamp. So I built a second one. That sank into the swamp. So I built a third. That burned down, fell over, then sank into the swamp. But the fourth one stayed up. And that’s what you’re going to get, Lad, the strongest castle in all of England.”
Having said all that, I still recommend Jamie’s blog to all of my team. I just wish he would have gone after Takt time instead.

14 Jamie Flinchbaugh May 6, 2010 at 5:05 pm

Monty Python rarely makes it into my blog, so I appreciate the neat connection. And I thank everyone for their great comments. We have the same topic being discussed as well in the Lean Learning Center Group on LinkedIn, so you can join us there or continue here.

15 Sunil Pantoji May 8, 2010 at 10:00 am

I think we should definitely start with the 1S/ 2S as start of our lean journey.
This makes us see the waste and one of the long term objective of lean is waste elimination and 1S/2S is good start point for the same.

However going further to 3S to 5S , I agree with Jamie that this should be done with purpose and if you want to inflict the discipline in the organization.

Sunil Pantoji

16 Joseph May 13, 2010 at 5:43 pm

Jamie. Can you see what you have started with the comments from Sunil. Solving problems is a noble thing to do but do not confuse people that are just starting their Lean journey.
Many graduates that pass Black Belt in 6 weeks are not comfortable coaching 5S on shop floors. They can however solve problems with the help of a good statistics package. I have no problem with this.
That does not mean that 5S and the 7 Wastes are not the best place to start to launch Lean in a factory that has no knowledge of the subject. This is indeed trying to follow Toyota. Building your future on a solid base.
I launched Lean in a hostile place. Believe me. To quote old gangster movies, “The names are changed to protect the innocent”.
Having coached 5S and 7W along with Value Added and None Value Added the operators gave enough Kaizen ideas to fund the removal of one operator from their area. It was the start of the journey. It was the right tool in the right place.
What you are describing is a process that will solve High Level Problems and save money. It is not Launching Lean. You are confusing people and undermining how to launch Lean on a shop floor.
There is a case for doing VSM early in the launch process as you may put a lot of training and funding into an area that could be remove after VSM.
You are talking about problem solving and saying “Don’t Do 5S” these two things are different. Using the correct tool in the right place would be better.

17 Jamie Flinchbaugh May 13, 2010 at 9:11 pm

Joseph, it doesn’t seem that you actually read the post, since I make it very clear that you should use the correct tool in the right place. I’m not sure where you think problem solving is just black belts running around with special projects. Absolutely start with the right tool, but 5S isn’t the right tool every time and every company, which is my only assertion. And since Toyota didn’t start with 5S, I’m not sure how you’re pitching it as the the way to truly follow Toyota.

18 Subbarao Gunnam May 15, 2010 at 2:45 pm

I believe, basic stability should be the starting point before we initiate any improvement. 5S will perhaps ensure visibility of the basic stability in the system, to begin a journey in lean. Just my thoughts..

19 Pete February 6, 2012 at 9:47 am

I know this is an old thread but I find it particularly relevant to our situation. Our implementation is challenged by a lack of change management, policy deployment, and poor leadership in the “CIP” function. The implementation has three levels of management and two of them are halfway across the country! The cart is in front of the horse.
They didn’t even _consider_ 5S. And we have a significant Customer issue over conditions in our factory that need to get fixed PDQ. We can shine the place up pretty well, but the rest of them are going to take awhile. So by default we didn’t begin with 5S since it wasn’t even “on the radar”.
So now, six months down the road, with a still-dirty factory floor, we’re just beginning.
Go figure.

20 kopstar February 16, 2012 at 12:44 pm

I agree with you Jamie, 5s is often used as a dip check to guage appetite for Lean particularly by consultants. Why would you risk 5s becoming a casualty in the early stages of a Lean journey and then having to re deploy the activity when its outcome is better understood?

The major problem with 5s as a start point is that it doesn’t solve your problems it only makes them visible. So if you make problems visible and don’t have the wherewithal to solve them it just creates more frustration. Only when people understand the value of that are you in a position to use it.

21 Autoverzekering Vergelijken April 29, 2012 at 7:47 pm

hello there and thank you for your info – I’ve definitely picked up something new from right here. I did however expertise several technical points using this site, since I experienced to reload the website a lot of times previous to I could get it to load properly. I had been wondering if your web hosting is OK? Not that I am complaining, but sluggish loading instances times will very frequently affect your placement in google and can damage your high quality score if ads and marketing with Adwords. Anyway I’m adding this RSS to my e-mail and can look out for a lot more of your respective exciting content. Make sure you update this again soon..

22 David Visco July 10, 2013 at 9:37 am

Intriguing post Jamie. I agree with some others that the first step for a Lean transformation starts with Senior Leadership’s desire and fortitude to change the culture. We all know without this true buy-in a Lean transformation is doomed to fail. I do however believe that once the decision has truly been made to move forward with Lean, that 5S is in fact a great place to start. If implemented properly, your issue of leadership engagement should be nullified. Of course, leaders need to be involved including back at their own workspace. Your point about people thinking they understand Lean simply by doing 5S would mean the message from the beginning was wrong. You also state that 5S doesn’t exactly move the performance needle. I disagree. The key result from 5S is helping problems float to the surface so they’re visible and can be addressed. Again, assuming Leadership is on board and real root cause and corrective action takes place how does this not improve performance? Lastly, I’m a firm believer that if you can’t sustain a 5S program, you’re going to have a very difficult time sustaining the other tools. Why not start with the simplest and most visible tool of them all and learn lessons about such change along the way? Thank you.

23 Rick Foreman July 10, 2013 at 9:46 am

I would agree with Dave’s perspective and especially where manufacturing is involved. For us the greatest value from 5S comes from developing the disciplined thinking needed for a CI/Lean transformation. The disciplined thinking far outweighs the great results from not having to hunt for things. In addition, we also find that if 5S can’t be executed well, then being able to identify waste and engage in problem solving, within the entire organizational culture can be more difficult. At the end of the day, we have to identify the current state of our organizational culture and engage, connect and influence change with our team members using the applicable tools.

Previous post:

Next post: