Understanding the first S's of Lean Manufacturing
I hope you have had the opportunity to get a copy of “The 5S Pocket Guide,” by Jim Peterson and Roland Smith, Ph.D. from Productivity Press. It is a great guide for you and all of your staff in how to apply the foundational tool of lean workplace organization, or the 5Ss – Sort, Set-in-Order, Shine, Standardize, and Sustain.
Every journey begins with the first step and the lean journey is no different. The first step should be introducing the entire staff to the lean business philosophy so they are familiar with the changes that will be taking place around them and the expectation for their participation in the continuous improvement process. I suggest the initial training be facilitated by a seasoned professional. In today’s world of media applications, there are a number of different means for delivering training to your staff. If you are interested in discussing some of the options, email me.


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Workplace organization is an individual activity, which is where I begin the lean journey. It is also a team activity, and a corporate activity, which is the “extreme” phase of this series. It is important to point out that the Ss noted above are English translations of the original Japanese terms – Seiri, Seiton, Seiso, Seiketsu, and Shitsuke. There are a number of different translations of the 5Ss so you will undoubtedly see other synonyms for the five words that are generally used. Although the words may be different the process of achieving the desired results are the same.


Separate the necessary stuff from the unnecessary stuff and dispose of the latter. This first step is as simple as it sounds. However, it can be a challenging task. Most of us, by nature, are pack rats. We don’t throw things away. If you don’t believe that, look in your desk drawer, your clothes closet, or your wallet. How many things in those areas are no longer needed? Is it easy to part with them? To make the task less challenging, turn it into a fun task that involves everyone who works in the area being sorted. If this is an individual area, make sure the process is facilitated by someone else to ensure continuity and consistency across the organization. If it’s an area shared by a number of people, involve everyone and let the team leader or manager facilitate the process.
Start by gathering everything together that isn’t too heavy to move or isn’t bolted to the floor. You can exclude work-in-process from the sort step; we’ll focus on that later. Collect everything in a central location and then hold a mock auction. Hold up each item and ask a series of questions – What is this? – Where is it used? – Who uses it? – How often is it used? – and – How many of them are needed? Responses to those questions will define if the item is needed or not, where it should be located, how close it should be to the person using it, and how many of them should be in the area. Items that are not claimed or deemed necessary are set aside for further disposition.


Arrange the necessary items so they can be easily obtained and put away. The question – Where is it used? – determines an approximate location for the item in the work area. The question – How often is it used? – defines where the item should be placed. The more often something is used, the closer it should be to the point of use. Locations for each item should be labeled so the item always has a home and everyone knows where home is. It is also helpful to label the item so that it can be distinguished from other similar items. For instance, labeling the handle of a ¼-inch wrench makes it easy to discern from a 3/16-inch wrench from a distance.
Why is this important? Having only what is needed in the area and having all of those items easily distinguishable eliminates the waste of looking for a tool, fixture, instruction, or anything else used in the process. The less time a person wastes looking for something means more time for that person to perform the tasks s/he is paid for.
I’ll touch on the first two steps again next time before going into the most widely misunderstood S – Shine. The first two steps should keep you busy for a while. Don’t rush through them. Don’t worry about getting it perfect the first time, you will be revisiting the 5Ss on a periodic basis.

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About the author
Jim Lewis

Jim Lewis has worked in the furniture industry for 40 years with a special emphasis on facilitating the transformation process for businesses embracing the Lean Business Model.  Jim’s company, The Center for Lean Learning, is headquartered in Grand Rapids, MI, with an office in St. Thomas, ON, Canada.  He is a consultant, author, and writer.  Jim’s books include, “The Journey to Excellence – Successfully Applying Lean Thinking in Your Business,” “A Testament to Lean Thinking – Cases for Change,” and a series of ebooklets under the main title “Applying Lean Thinking.”  The books are in ebook format and are available through all major ebook retailers and through smashwords.com.