5S Methodology: Increasing workplace productivity

Far too often, bad workplace conditions prohibit us from achieving the best possible results. It’s disorganized, equipment is not readily available, and resources are even unnecessarily wasted. Many businesses regard isolated clean-ups in the style of a spring cleaning as the solution. This might help in the short term – but slowly and surely the old routines will creep back in.

In the long term, a better method is required – a mindset that is taken onboard by management and every single employee. That’s where the Japanese 5s methodology comes in, which in the western world is also becoming increasingly popular (often also called the 5A methodology). The “5” refers to five individual steps through which a work environment can be continuously improved. What’s special about the 5S methodology is that once the standard has been achieved, it is continuously examined and improved. In the following, you’ll find out more about 5S and the background of its methodology.

5S Kaizen and continuous improvement

The 5S methodology is based on the Japanese concept of “Kaizen,” a Japanese living and working philosophy. The term is made up of the words “Kai” (meaning “change”) and “zen” (which roughly translates to “for the better.” In other words, it’s about the pursuit of sustainable change. Here, we are also talking about a continuous improvement process (CIP for short). The term not only relates to concrete methods and guidelines, but is more of a special way of looking at living conditions, the workplace, and work processes. Beyond this, it’s based on the desire to continuously develop oneself and one’s environment to improve its quality.

With Kaizen, improvements can start with small steps – for example by organizing your desk better. Generally, it’s about looking for improvements every day, to never be satisfied with new developments, and to strive to constantly improve standards. In this way, not only do work processes become more efficient, resources are also saved, or used in a more sustainable way. This kind of mentality is only possible, however, if management is inclined to involve its employees, and if the direct supervisor is also ready to accept and implement suggestions for improvement.

The 5S methodology is one of many concepts with which the above-mentioned Kaizen approach can be realized.


In the western world, the term “lean management” is often used to refer to the optimization of work processes and product cycles. Lean management has the same goal as the Kaizen concept: to create an efficient and process-oriented work environment. It orients itself strongly around the principles of Kaizen.

What does 5S or 5A stand for?

The 5S methodology was originally created by the car manufacturer Toyota’s production manager, Taiichi Ōno. Due to a lack of resources, Toyota had arrived at a crossroads in the mid-20th century, but due to the 5S methodology, was able to again become highly successful despite poor conditions. Ever since, the 5S concept has garnered worldwide attention. Even if companies don’t consciously apply the 5S method, they still follow the goal of having an efficient work environment and, without knowing it, apply a trick or two from this management method. But what does 5S or 5A stand for?

Seiri or sort (separating)

Often the workplace is filled with way too many items which are never or very rarely used. You can easily lose oversight and things start to get messy. That’s why you need to keep things tidy and sort through your items. To do this, these questions should be asked: Which items or work materials are never used and can be entirely removed? Which items are only rarely used and can be stored away in an appropriate place? Sorting out everything also lets you gain an overview of resources. This diminishes the risk of work materials being reordered when they’re actually still at hand.

Seiton or straighten (organizing)

Organizing directly follows the sorting process. The question at the heart of this is, based on what system should work materials be organized? Everything requires its own place. What is used by whom and how often? How can the routes to these materials be cut short? The created organizational structure should be clearly logged. Signs or other markers can help make the structure visible and comprehensible to everyone. Photos and graphs of the desired organization will let any discrepancies stand out.

Seiso or shine (cleaning the workplace)

There’s not much point organizing things if the working area isn’t tidy. Cleaning the workplace also refers to all machines and equipment that are inspected or under maintenance. If excessive dirt or unusually high levels of wear are found, those responsible should analyze the reasons for this. The cleaning process is definitely not the most popular part of the 5S methodology, but its results do lead to an improved work environment. If customers regularly visit the workplace, then the new state of cleanliness will probably also improve customer relations.

Seiketsu or standardize (standardizing the workplace)

With the term “standardize” the 5S methodology covers two points: For one, the acquired organization and cleanliness should be made standard, one that you commit to. On the other hand, it covers how this standard was reached. Markings or signs can help make the sorting of tools and materials the new normal. You can also plan how often certain machines are cleaned and maintained. In addition, responsible individuals can be put in charge of individual tasks or areas. Lists can be created for this so that employees can orient themselves.

Shitsuke or self-discipline (complying with and improving all points)

To keep new-found standards in the long term, self-discipline is required. Any negligence must be dealt with in a timely manner. As such, regular checkups and employee commitment are required. The entire 5S cycle should be regularly repeated to achieve further improvements. Shitsuke is the fifth step, which – like a repetitive cycle – leads back to the first step. It’s not uncommon for self-discipline to be the basic principle, which means it can also be placed at the center of the 5S Kaizen cycle, while the other four steps move around it.

Application and benefits of the 5S and 5A methodology

At first, it might seem like the individual steps can be easily achieved, but problems can arise when put to practice. To implement the principle of a 5S lean management model, all employees must be on the same page. However, this is not always the case, as these methods certainly require a heightened amount of effort, which can be perceived as an unwanted attack on their work environment.

It’s the responsibility of the person in charge to inform everyone about 5S and Kaizen, and to clearly emphasize their benefits. These can be summarized as follows:

  • Organization and cleanliness improve well-being
  • Resources are saved and can be used in more useful areas
  • Work processes become more efficient and productive
  • Handing over a workplace is less complicated
  • The risk of workplace accidents is reduced
  • Extra space is created, and with that, new possibilities

Once these points have been presented and explained, employees will be a lot more inclined to commit to the change. Management must make clear that it’s not only the company but every individual that will profit from the 5S methodology. To get this message across, training should be given high importance. Internalizing the 5S methodology will take time, but with a little discipline and enough repetition the positive developments will soon be felt. In any case, superiors should lead by example. Only in this way is long-term success possible.

The key points summarized

The 5S methodology is made up of five steps:

  • Sort
  • Straighten
  • Shine
  • Standardize
  • Self-discipline

While these principles were originally developed for the production industry, they can be universally applied in every field of work. The goal is to create an organized and productive work environment. To make this happen, superiors must set a good example, but also convince their employees of the benefits before they are implemented.

How strictly you choose to follow the guidelines should always be made in agreement with all staff. For management to go at it alone is not recommended. It will take a significant amount of time until the individual steps are safely anchored into daily working life, but the effort will be worth it. For good reason, the 5S are applied in companies worldwide after their success in Japan.

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