What does the 5S methodology really mean?

"5S relates to workplace organisation and forms a solid foundation upon which many organisations base their drive for continuous improvement." Kaizen Institute

All organisations want to be more efficient and to reduce waste; they want to streamline their operations and increase their revenue. But, often, the question is: where do you start?

The 5S methodology developed in Japan, enables businesses to achieve these objectives through the implementation of five key steps. 5S is derived from the philosophy of "kaizen", which simply means "continuous improvement".

Japanese automotive manufacturer, Toyota, states that the philosophy of "kaizen" is one of its core values. This philosophy is supported by three key principles, one of which is 5S. At Toyota, 5S is practised across the whole organisation, including in sales and marketing, administration, product development and management. 

So, let's take a deeper look.

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What is 5S?

5S comes under the lean manufacturing umbrella – it is a simple tool aimed at the elimination of waste within a manufacturing operation. Each "s" stands for a Japanese word, which, when transliterated into Roman script, also starts with an "s". The five steps are as follows:

  1. Seiri - sort
  2. Seiton - straighten/ set in order
  3. Seiso - shine
  4. Seiketsu - standardise
  5. Shitsuke - sustain

The Kaizen Institute, a lean management consultancy, elaborates as follows:

  1. Sort - sort out and separate that which is needed and not needed in the area.
  2. Straighten - arrange items that are needed so that they are ready and easy to use. Clearly identify locations for all items so that anyone can find them and return them once the task is completed.
  3. Shine - clean the workplace and equipment on a regular basis, in order to maintain standards and identify defects.
  4. Standardise - revisit the first three of the 5Ss on a frequent basis and confirm the condition of the Gemba (the factory floor) using standard procedures.
  5. Sustain - keep to the rules to maintain the standard and continue to improve every day.

Once step five has been reached, the process effectively starts again, thereby leading to continuous improvement. 

We'll take a closer look at each of these steps later on.

The benefits of 5S implementation in manufacturing

There are several advantages to be reaped by utilising 5S in manufacturing organisations, from simply achieving a more orderly manufacturing environment, to driving higher profits. While aesthetics is certainly at play here, what's more important is the increased efficiency and excellence that results.

As Lean Manufacturing Tools explains:

"One of the biggest benefits of 5S is that problems within your processes become immediately obvious. Components that begin to stack up in areas that they should not be in, or empty racks and other visual aspects of your 5S implementation quickly show you exactly where problems are occurring. The challenge then is to do something about it!"

For instance, if you identify and then remove unnecessary items from your manufacturing operation, your productivity will directly increase. In turn, this will boost morale and employee motivation. Each of these outcomes combine to improve your manufacturing operation – and, consequently, your bottom line.

Ultimately, 5S empowers manufacturers to achieve quality consistency and delivery (QCD); to consistently produce high-quality products that are delivered to their customers' needs, in the timescales that they require. 

5S in focus: Toyota Production System

5S operates as part of a wider manufacturing system, which is often associated with Toyota. The Toyota Production System (TPS) is: "a way of 'making things' that is sometimes referred to as a 'lean manufacturing system' or a 'Just-in-time (JIT) system'."

Within TPS, "kaizen" is just one of 13 pillars that support the entire system.

The Japanese automotive manufacturer states: "The Toyota Production System (TPS) was established based on two concepts:

  • The first is called 'jidoka' (which can be loosely translated as 'automation with a human touch'), which means that when a problem occurs, the equipment stops immediately, preventing defective products from being produced.
  • The second is the concept of 'Just-in-time', in which each process produces only what is needed by the next process in a continuous flow.

"Based on the basic philosophies of jidoka and Just-in-time, the TPS can efficiently and quickly produce vehicles of sound quality, one at a time, that fully satisfy customer requirements."

Given that Toyota is the world's largest car manufacturer (with some stiff competition from others), it's really impossible to argue with their logic!

What's the difference between 5S and Lean Six Sigma?

But 5S isn't the only lean manufacturing methodology. 

While the 5S method focuses on organising and optimising processes, Lean Six Sigma is a broader methodology that combines Lean principles and Six Sigma methodologies to improve processes, reduce waste, and enhance quality.

In some cases, manufacturers may choose to combine elements of both methodologies, using a 5S program as a foundational step before applying Lean Six Sigma for deeper process analysis and improvement.

The 5S methodology - step by step

We briefly summarised earlier what the 5 steps are. Here we consider what they involve in more detail:

Step 1: Sort

The first step involves sorting through all the tools, furniture, materials and equipment in a work area to identify what needs to be present and what can be removed. For every item, you should ask: What is its purpose? When was it last used? How often is it used, and by who? And does it really need to be here? These questions will help determine the value of each item.

When removing any items, consider if they can be used elsewhere in the workplace, or if not needed, whether they can be recycled. You may also create an overflow area outside of the workspace for duplicate materials, tools and parts to avoid clutter in the main work environment. 

Step 2: Straighten / Set in order

The next step involves thoroughly organising the items that remain after sorting. The most frequently used items should be easily accessible and every item should have a clear and easy-to-find home. 

Storage containers may be required to keep things organised. There may be items that can be grouped together by type, how frequently they are used, or who they are most used by. 

Finding the most logical solution will require thinking through the steps that workers take to complete each task. However, it's natural for some potential improvements to be overlooked, so be sure to meet with your team to check in and allow for continuous improvement.

Step 3: Shine

The Shine step involves cleaning and inspecting tools, equipment and ensuring they are put away in the distinct homes. It can also involve routine maintenance of equipment and machinery. Planning for maintenance ahead of time will allow you to catch problems and prevent breakdowns, resulting in less wasted time and loss of profits should a problem arise.

In a 5S system, everyone takes responsibility for cleaning up the workspace. It's up to the whole team to keep an eye on the condition of equipment and flag if it needs updating, maintenance or repair.

Step 4: Standardise

Once the first three steps have been implemented, your manufacturing processes will be in a pretty good place. But you need to standardise the best practices for 5S for your team to make it repeatable.

This means documenting your 5S process in one place so that anyone can refer to it at any time. Write down your 5S practices, create checklists, and build a schedule for tasks so that nothing gets missed.

Step 5: Sustain

Once your 5S practices have been standardised, this next step involves ensuring 5S is applied on an ongoing basis so that you lock in the gains. 5S is about creating a long-term program that becomes part of the organisation's culture. Only when 5S is sustained over time will you start to see positive results.

All employees should receive training on 5S practices for their work area. They should also be encouraged to continually look for and communicate any further potential improvements on an ongoing basis.

The 6th "s"...

Over the years, there has been some debate over whether or not a 6th "s" should be introduced - safety. Some argue that safety is an inherent part of the 5S methodology. Others suggest it warrants a much greater focus.

This step includes things like setting up the work environment so it's more ergonomic, adding signs to intersections where equipment (e.g. forklifts) and people cross paths, and labelling store cupboards containing cleaning chemicals so workers are aware of any potential hazards.


Regardless of whether you practice 5S or 6S, it remains a methodology that promotes continuous improvement within a manufacturing environment by eliminating waste and enabling organisations to achieve QCD.

These five (or six) simple steps are just one aspect of a larger set of principles guiding manufacturers in today's competitive market.

This blog post was originally published in 2017 and 2021, and has been updated in June 2023 for accuracy and relevance.New Call-to-action

Written by Neil Sharp

Neil has over 25 years’ experience in Electronics Manufacturing Services and Component Distribution. During his career, Neil has held a range of leadership positions in sales, marketing, and customer service. Neil is currently part of the ESCATEC Senior Management Team and is responsible for setting and delivering the overall Group Marketing strategy. Neil heads up the marketing department and is responsible for both the strategy and the implementation of innovative marketing campaigns designed to deliver high quality content to those seeking outsourcing solutions.