Improve Workplace Efficiency by Implementing the 5S Methodology


If you want to take your office productivity up a notch, you don’t necessarily have to make huge and difficult changes. Surprisingly, simple and small adjustments can go a long way for your productivity journey. The 5S methodology is a simple yet effective technique to improve the way your office functions. Let’s explore how implementing this methodology can establish discipline, order, and efficiency in your workplace.

History of 5S

5S is believed to have started as early as the 16th century with the Venetian shipbuilders in Venice, Italy. They used quality inspection techniques in an assembly line approach to manufacturing ships for the royal navy. Fast forward to post-World War II, the Japanese automotive manufacturing industry gave way to the formal birth of 5S. It became an organizational approach to workplace optimization and a tool for continuous improvement. 5S then became part of the Toyota Production System.

The 5S methodology equipped Toyota employees with the mindset that their contribution impacts the overall efficiency and quality of their products. With this implemented, waste was kept at a minimum and productivity maximized. The rest of the world caught up and began using the methodology. We now see this being applied not only in factories, but in offices, financial institutions, and even hospitals.

The 5S methodology visualized as a five-step repeating cycle.

5S Methodology

The 5S methodology derives from 5 Japanese words that start with “S.” Their English translations also start with “S” making it easy to remember them. Here are the 5 steps to 5S:

  • Seiri or Sort
  • Seiton or Set-in-Order / Straighten
  • Seiso or Shine
  • Seiketsu or Standardize
  • Shitsuke or Sustain

Think of it as improving your “housekeeping” skills that are designed to help you achieve efficiency in the workplace. Let’s explore each of the 5.

Seiri or Sort

Begin your 5S journey with sorting through the clutter. This step allows you to distinguish between what’s necessary and unnecessary. The purpose of this step is to discard what does not help in your day-to-day activities. A good question to ask yourself is, “How does this item help me in my day-to-day work?” You might be surprised to discover how much “junk” you’ve been holding on to.

It’s also a good practice to have a sorting area to perform the Sort step. If you think an item may not be of value to you but is being used by a colleague, place it in a temporary bin. This will allow your teammates to review it and help you decide whether the item is needed or can be discarded.

Seiton or Set-in-Order / Straighten

Once you’re able to emerge from the clutter, it’s time to set things in order. The goal of this step is to make it easy for you and your team to retrieve things. Here you will focus on designing for functional storage. It would make sense to store items you frequently use within your arms reach. Less frequently used items can go on a cabinet within your work area. Rarely used items can go on an office cabinet within your department floor. You can also label your storage areas for easy access. Remember to have a place for everything and to return items after use. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself back at step 1.

In this step, also evaluate your office layout. Is it designed for function? Think about storing items to lessen unnecessary motion from your team. Arrange desks to be more conducive and collaborative for your team. Is it easy to exchange documents from one team member to the next? Or do they have to travel from one end of the room to another?

Seiso or Shine

You’ve accomplished order. Now it’s time to keep it clean and tidy. We don’t mean that you’ll need to dust your desk or mop your office floor (although we won’t stop you if you want to do this!). What Shine refers to is maintaining the order you’ve created to keep the cog running smoothly.

One way is to conduct regular inspections and spot checks to ensure that things are where they’re supposed to be. When you keep things in order, it will be easier to identify irregularities and wastes. By being organized, you can quickly correct these issues. It’s also a good practice to have someone accountable or in-charge for inspection checks within your department.

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Seiketsu or Standardize

If you’ve made it through the first 3 steps, congratulations! You now have a more organized workplace. To really cultivate the 5S methodology in your organization, you will need to form habits. And when you’re just beginning your 5S journey, it’s easy to slide back to your old cluttered and disorganized habits. Don’t treat this as a once-a-year spring cleaning project. It needs to become your office lifestyle to be effective.

In the Standardize step, we introduce policies and guidelines to maintain the order that you’ve established. Create documentation and standard operating procedures when applicable. Create record retention policies. Define schedules for inspection and application of 5S as a routine. Reminders and other visual management tools can certainly help in standardization of 5S in the workplace.

In this step, we also take the time to review our current processes. Are there steps that can be removed? Are all levels of approvals necessary? Are we using necessary forms? Are there too many handoffs in our process? These types of questions are essential when you’re reviewing and documenting your processes and SOPs.

Shitsuke or Sustain

In order to sustain the implementation of the 5S methodology in your organization, everyone from the CEO and down needs to support and engage in the process. Implement regular communications about 5S activities in the company and reward those who are spearheading 5S initiatives.

Develop 5S manuals and perform regular reviews with your teams. Company leaders can hold regular genba walks to stay attuned with their processes. Make sure new hires are onboard the 5S program from day one. There should also be regular audits in place to ensure that everyone in the company is adhering to those standards. This is also to surface any areas for improvement.

The six benefits of applying the 5S methodology.

Importance of 5S in the Workplace

5S may seem to be a simple concept. But when implemented correctly and consistently, it can be a very effective tool in your productivity arsenal. One of the main benefits of using 5S in the workplace is the elimination of wastes or muda in Japanese. You can expect better quality coming out of your pipeline when things are orderly and you have standards in place for your teams. You lessen costs, unnecessary work, defects, inconsistencies, waiting, and overburden in your company.

When everything well organized, it’s easier for everyone to work efficiently. Therefore, you can expect greater satisfaction and happiness from your employees. This also creates a safer work environment for them.

Implementing 5S in Knowledge Work

If you think that 5S is only applicable to tangible work items, think again. As I mentioned earlier, this concept is a mindset. It can even be applied to knowledge work.

Let’s take a look at the following example:

Take a look at your files and software tools. You might be surprised by the number of folders you are keeping on your storage platforms. Review the software subscriptions or licenses you have. Are you using these tools? Is your team able to maximize the features of these tools? Take the time to discuss with your team what can be eliminated.

Once you’ve sorted that out, assess whether your files are easily accessible and recognizable for everyone on the team. Will categorizing them in digital folders help? Does everyone know what your software tools are for and how to access them? Is there documentation available for this? Take the time to ensure things are in order so that each file or tool is a few clicks away from being accessed.

Now that you’ve done that, it’s time to keep things tidy. Check digital folders regularly to ensure files haven’t multiplied to a hundred again. Look for duplicate files or items that can be purged. Perform regular malware scans on your Mac or Windows devices to make sure it’s in tip-top shape. Make sure your apps are updated regularly so that you can be sure you’re working on the version that has the latest features and bug fixes.

5S Methodology and Kanban

To standardize your work, it’s helpful to visualize your process. A kanban board like Kanban Zone can certainly come in handy here. You can even set up a kanban board for your 5S activities and manage your team’s assignments. Having a central place where you can find your tasks will make it easy for your teams to get on the work and collaborate with their teammates.

Sustaining your work is not dependent on any app or tool. It requires commitment from everyone in the company, most especially its leaders. The strategies we discussed previously apply here as well. Essentially, it takes dedication and a continuous improvement mindset to make 5S a habit in any organization.

5S is a simple yet effective tool to instill discipline in the workplace. Once it becomes a habit, performing the 5 steps becomes second nature and your employees will swarm to create better practices for themselves and the organization.

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Once you start visualizing your work in Kanban Zone, you will be surprised how much faster it gets done!

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About the Author: Lena Boiser

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Lena Boiser is an Agile enthusiast. Starting off her career as a Software Business Analyst in 2010, she eventually performed other roles including Project Manager and IT Business Manager. When she was immersed in Agile methodologies in 2014, Lena found her way through honing her craft and eventually became a Certified Scrum Product Owner. In 2017, after 7 years of working in the corporate world, Lena started her own remote consulting practice. Today, she provides project management and Scrum Product Ownership services to various businesses including software development companies, e-Commerce business owners, and small to medium sized companies. She believes that even teams working remotely can harness the benefits of Agile in order to deliver results for their companies. In her free time she likes to write. One day she could be writing about Agile, the next she could be writing anything about fashion or travel.