The 5S Method

This Thursday, I took a short two-hour in-house course on the 5S method, a Japanese methodology aimed at eliminating waste and credited with making just in time manufacturing possible.  Wikipedia already has an article on it, but I’ll try to write something slightly more practical while keeping in mind what might interest those of my readers who I know are already trying out different approaches to organization in daily life.

The method is called 5S because all five steps of the method begin with an S syllable in Japanese.  Most translations try to keep the S in the translated terms; I’ll skip that for clarity.

1. Separate: separate what you need at your workspace from what you don’t need there.  One way of streamlining this process is to run around sticking colored post-its on things you find: red for what needs to go, green for what needs to stay, and yellow for checking after e.g. a week whether the item has been used in the meantime.  The yellow stickers help overcome indecision procrastination.

2. Arrange: remove the red stuff, and arrange what’s left so that everything has its home there where it is needed.  Prime real estate goes to what gets used most often.  If necessary, rearrange the room to shorten paths and avoid collisions.  Make sure that another person can find his way around your workplace in case you’re absent.  Label or color-code your storage, make sure that putting something in the wrong spot will look odd (e.g. draw outlines on the wall of what’s hanging there), where possible store like with like.

3. Swish and Swipe: keep your workplace clean, but more importantly, use the cleaning process as an inspection process.  Are your tools still in good shape?  Are they still the tools you need?  Are your markings for maintaining order still visible and legible?

4. Maintain: maintain and improve on the advances you’ve made in the first three steps.  Document your work in the first three steps and make rules visible.  Work on making it easy (shaping the path) for everyone to follow the rules.

5. Form habits: unless the four previous steps become habits, the method will remain a creaky machine running on the fumes of willpower.  The tiny habits approach might help in this regard.  If several people share the workplace, talk about how you might be able to “rally the herd” around these principles.

4 thoughts on “The 5S Method

  1. Janet

    As I digested this I realized one important step is missing, in that first you need to decide what the purpose of your space is. That might be easier in the workplace than in the home, where everything serves a multi-purpose.

    1. thduggie Post author

      Absolutely. That’s part of step 1, because sorting can’t reasonably happen until you’ve decided what to sort for. And it’s true that a kitchen, for instance, may serve multiple purposes: food preparation, food consumption, reading nook, discussion forum, etc. – so the first step will require determining which of those purposes are primary, which are secondary (or could be moved), and whether it makes sense to separate the tools for these disparate purposes into, say, different drawers or just lay them out so their location is amenable to all designated purposes.


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