5S Still Gives Companies Fits


I am amazed that as long as we've talked about 5S, it still gives companies fits and trouble. Many companies start with 5S because it's simple. It may be simple, but that doesn't mean it's easy. This isn't a tool you can do half-way. Here one of many reasons why.


Recently while reviewing one of our operations in another country, we were highly impressed by the degree of clean lines and general workplace organization in the manufacturing operations. However, we debated among ourselves whether we would truly consider this a great example of a 5S plant. There were numerous violations of market limits per their signage in both lineside racks and in supermarkets. Pull systems did not exist but there was a very high degree of scrolling for material but again, violations existed in many places. There was an audit system and a reward/recognition system for the group deemed best each month by their scoring system. Machine cleanliness varied by department although none were in bad shape and many were outstanding. While impressed by their overall cleanliness and organization we all felt “something was missing” but found it difficult to pin it all down. What would truly determine if a plant could be considered to be a sustainable 5S facility?


It is very easy to confuse cleanliness with functionality. Because of how 5S is taught, it often focuses too much on cleanliness and organization. But what are we trying to accomplish? We are trying to make it easy to get what we need at the point of activity. And most of all, we are trying to make it easy to spot a small problem from an abnormal condition before it becomes a big problem.

Recently I was visiting a company that was spotless. You couldn't find one thing out of place. It was in part because of good 5S, but it was also because all the stuff was hidden. It was in drawers or behind doors. It was still organized and sustained, but the point is that it was away. It was not at the point of use. It was not easily accessible. It was not easy to see if something was abnormal.

Better would have been: No Doors, No Drawers! That might be a bit of an idealistic statement, but I think it's a good guideline and more realistic than we probably think. Why do we want things in drawers? So we don't have to look at them. Get them out of drawers and to the point of activity. Instead of leaving screwdrivers and wrenches in a drawer, put them on a hook on the tool(s) where it is used. Put it on a rack that you can move to the PM task. The goal is not to be “tour ready” (I once saw this on a set of slides on why to do 5S). The goal is to make the area functional. Test your 5S efforts against this filter, not just how things look.

Looking good is what we call “aisle lean.” But looking lean from an aisle tour isn't really lean. Genuine lean is practicing, application, and internalization. Some of the best lean organizations I've seen don't have “aisle lean.” If your first 15 minutes you would think they are very much not lean, but after you dig deeper and deeper, you see how genuine the efforts really are.


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Jamie Flinchbaugh
Jamie Flinchbaugh is an accomplished Entrepreneur, Senior Executive, and Board Member with more than 20 years of success spanning finance, manufacturing, automotive, and management consulting. Leveraging extensive operational experience, Jamie is an invaluable asset for a company seeking expert guidance with process improvements, lean strategies, and leadership coaching in order to transform operations, reduce costs, and drive profitability. His areas of expertise include continuous improvement, entrepreneurship, coaching and training, process transformation, business strategy, and organizational design.


  1. Good answer, Mark.

    I once observed an on-line discussion (back when “listserv’s” were the way this got done)as to whether work instructions written in pencil would pass an ISO audit or would they have to be in ink.

    That’s how the original question struck me. “Does the company really, really have 5S or not?” The answer, as you implied is, if it’s making workers jobs easier, it’s good 5S. If not, it’s not.

    Most of the organizations I do 5S in are pretty dingy places to begin with and they don’t end up looking like show places when we’re done. But tools, supplies, and equipment are readily accessible, equipment and tooling is accessible and well maintained, inventories of supplies, materials, WIP and finished product is low but adequate and the workplace is safe.

    BTW, I like that term “aisle clean”

  2. Thank you for sharing Rick. When we thought of the term “aisle lean” is was because we noticed that throughout our clients the very best were not necessarily masters at being spic-and-span, but they got their business right. They focused on functionality. They focused on problem solving. But they didn’t worry about whether they were clean for clean’s sake.

    Several companies make 5S and lean about looking good. I’ve even seen being “tour ready” listed at the top of reasons to do 5S.

  3. Great discussion. I just wanted to point out this was Jamie’s post… Not because I’d disown it, I wish it were my thoughts but Jamie has to get credit for this contribution.

  4. Oops…sorry Jamie. I missed your byline.

    I used to work at a steel maker back in the’80’s. We always knew a “corporate tour” was coming because there would be great cleaning and painting activities within the mill…but only along the anticipated tour route. So you’d have areas that were spotless and newly painted, while, immediately around the corner, the operations still looked like a hell hole.

    Now that’s “aisle clean” at its best…or worst, as the case may be.


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