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The Five S's Uncovered
By David Straker

One of the most copied systems to come out of Japan is known as ‘The 5 Ss’. At first, it can easily seem like a rather simple system. After all it is just about being tidy and stuff. So why has it spread so far? Why have so many companies implemented it?

What can easily be missed is that the simplicity of the 5 Ss is actually a key strength. Too many companies seek complex systems, possibly to justify the consultant’s fee and possibly to excuse their past negligence. The price of complexity can easily be failure as people struggle not only with the change but also making sense of the new approaches. A critical value of simple systems is that they are relatively easy to understand and implement. Of course, the change management aspects of any new approach can be complex and difficult, and implementing the 5 Ss can have its difficulties, but this is at least minimised by the basic simplicity of the system.

The 5 Ss are described briefly:

Name Interpretation Description
Seiri organisation Separate out all the things that are not necessary and eliminate them or tidy them away.
Seiton neatness Arrange the essential things in order so that they can be quickly and easily accessed and put away.
Seiso cleaning
Keep machines and working environment clean.
Seiketsu standardisation Make cleaning and checking a routine practice; maintain a pleasant environment.
Shitsuke discipline Standardise the previous four steps and constantly improve them.

A number of authors have found s-words for the five Japanese words. You can use these if you like, and especially if the Japanese S-words sound too ‘technical’ for your workforce, although beware of confusion (note how Seiketsu and Shitsuke both get called ‘standardise’). These are:

Seiri = sort, structurise, sort out
Seiton = straighten, systematise, systematic arrangement
Seiso = scrub, sanitise, spic and span
Seiketsu = systematise, standardise
Shitsuke = standardise, self-discipline

The 5 Ss are about doing the basics. They provide a foundation on which to build other quality activities. With a tidy, disciplined environment, you can see many of the things which need further attention. Companies that live in chaos, no matter how fashionable it is these days, spend a lot of time in unproductive activities. This is not to say that chaos does not have its place—in creative situations where you want to think out of the box, chaos can be a welcome friend. But the truth of most companies is that a very large proportion of activities could benefit from more control rather than more chaos.

Implementing the 5 Ss requires full cooperation of all involved. This in itself is an amazingly powerful activity. When people realise that these simple activities have such power, and that by implementing them well, the workplace becomes a more pleasant place, the principles will get more enthusiastically embraced.

Although the 5 Ss originated in the manufacturing environment, they translate perfectly well to other work situations, from R&D laboratories to the Managing Director’s office. They are every bit as useful for manager as they are for the shop-floor workers. Even at home, life can be made easier and less frustrating, giving the time and space to do all of the other things you wanted to do.

Let's leave the last word to Hiroyuki Hirano, author of 5S: Five Pillars of the Visual Workplace:

"A company that cannot successfully implement the 5 Ss cannot expect to effectively integrate JIT, re-engineering, or any other large-scale change. Good workplaces develop beginning with the 5S's. Bad workplaces fall apart beginning with the 5 Ss."

Next: Seiri (Organisation)






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