Home > The Lean Post> 5S - The Way to Start Your Lean Journey…or Is It?
The Lean Post
Sharing how the world is making things better through lean.

5S - The Way to Start Your Lean Journey…or Is It?

by Dale Savage
September 12, 2017

5S - The Way to Start Your Lean Journey…or Is It?

by Dale Savage
September 12, 2017 | Comments (14)

Pick up almost any book on the topic of starting your lean journey and you’ll probably find the suggestion that the place to begin is implementing a 5S program. The reason for this is understandable. There are certain attitudes, mindsets, and habits that are required for employees to have if a company is to be successful in its lean implementation. The principle or tool of 5S is intended to help to develop those attitudes, mindsets, and habits. There’s no arguing that in order to be able to implement other tools such as TPM, visual management, and even kanban there needs to be good workplace organization, In addition, employees need to not just understand the concepts of standardized work and that everything has a place; but also make them a part of how they do their jobs daily.

So, I am not arguing with renowned and revered senseis who advocate 5S as a starting point because I get it. I get the fact that there is more to implementing 5S than just going in and throwing things away and laying down some lines on the floor or putting up shadow boards. The overarching lean principle of Respect for People also has to come into play. If that is missing, then starting with 5S can have disastrous results that may derail your efforts to implement any other tool or principle related to lean. A real life example will demonstrate what I mean. (Unfortunately, this example happens more than we may like to think.)

Company A

Company A decided that they needed to get on board the lean train. Their main customer was actively looking at implementing lean and their suppliers would be expected to follow suit. Having read the standard materials available about how to begin their lean journey, management decided to start with a 5S program. After all, 5S seemed relatively simple to put into place. All you needed was some peg board, hooks, and a black marker to draw outlines. What could be easier? And the books implied that the payback would be a change of mindset and habits of the employees in preparation for the next step on the journey.

So the peg board, hooks, and black markers were purchased and the shadow boards were prepared. When ready, they were taken to the production floor and hung up in various places. Of course this raised questions in the minds of the employees as to what the purpose of these boards was. Now was the opportunity for the manager to enlighten the employees and to take that first step in changing mindsets and habits. The conversation went something like this:

  • Employee: What are those boards with the pictures of our tools for?
  • Manager: Those are shadow boards. You are not going to be allowed to have tools at your workstations anymore. All your tools need to be put on that board when they aren’t being used.
  • Employee: But we have our individual tools that have been issued to us. Can’t we still have those at our workstations?
  • Manager: No, everything has to be kept on that shadow board. I guess you won’t be able to have your own tools anymore. You’ll have to share tools with the other employees.
  • Employee: Well that doesn’t seem very sanitary. So do we have to put them on the board when we go to breaks and lunch?
  • Manager: Whenever they are not in use they have to be on that board.
  • Employee: You mean I have to walk all the way over there to get my tools? Why are they so far away from our workstations? And what if more of us need to use the broom or other tools at the same time? There’s only one on each board.
  • Manager: They have to be centrally located so everyone can get to them. You’ll just have to learn to share.

After the manager walked away the conversation continued between employees. They weren’t buying into this new 5S idea. Instead they were plotting ways to make sure that they could keep their own tools. After all, it was stupid to have to walk so far to get what you needed. 

Obviously there were multiple components missing from this 5S implementation. A couple of them are:

  1. Lack of understanding by management of how the 5S tool is supposed to be used in supporting lean processes. 5S is not an end in itself. This manager simply didn’t understand how 5S was supposed to work. He saw it as more of a control mechanism than a way to help employees be more efficient in their daily work.
  2. Lack of the Respect for People principle. Employees were not involved in this implementation of 5S. They were not asked where the tool boards should be placed, how many tools would be needed, or what should be on the board. Management assumed that they knew best what was needed. In addition, there was not any explanation of the “whys” behind 5S so the employees would understand the principle.

So, do you think there was a change in the attitudes, mindsets, and habits of the employees? Yes, definitely. A few of them are:

  1. An attitude of distrust of management grew. Obviously managers did not have the best interest of the employees in mind. They must have an ulterior motive for what they were doing because this was not helping the employees at all.
  2. The mindset was developed that management was going to be doing things TO the employees, not FOR or WITH them. The lack of worker involvement solidified this mindset which made moving forward with other parts of the lean difficult. This, together with the distrust factor, practically derailed this company’s lean journey for a couple of years.
  3. The habit of hiding things became prevalent. Hoarding of supplies and tools, putting tools in personal lockers, and hiding whatever the employee thought may be thrown out next became commonplace. Again, this is the result of the attitude and mindset above. And not only were items hidden, but employees were resistant to standardized work when standard operating procedures (SOPs) were introduced. When being watched they were compliant, but when management was not around, they did as they wanted. Can you guess whether employees were involved with writing SOPs?

After a couple of years of not being able to move forward much on their lean journey, this company decided to hire someone full time to implement lean. 5S was again emphasized, but in a different manner. Audits were conducted, but they were used not to penalize individuals or departments, but as opportunities to teach why 5S is important.

After approximately a year or so, 5S began to improve and became a part of the language and habits of employees. They even began to point things out in audits that needed to be worked on to improve areas. Although some were still skeptical, the habits of the employees did improve although an underlying attitude of distrust still remains in some. This has created a challenge during kaizen events, VSM creation, and standard work. This could have been minimized if 5S was better understood and implemented in the beginning.

Is 5S the way to start your lean journey? That depends on how it is implemented and sustained from the employees’ perspective.

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
Search Posts:
Managing to Learn: The Use of the A3 Management Process
David Verble, Eric Ethington, Ernie Richardson, John Shook, Josh Howell, Karen Gaudet, Mark Reich & Tracey Richardson
The Work of Management
By Jim Lancaster
Was this post... Click all that apply
30 people say YES
33 people say YES
8 people say YES
25 people say YES
Related Posts
14 Comments | Post a Comment
Eric Gordon September 12, 2017
5 People AGREE with this comment

I appreciate this point of view.  Having started multiple lean implementations in office environments, I have had to explain why we were not starting with 5S as is "the norm".  I teach that 5S is a countermeasure, and that countermeasures are used to address issues.  If you can not define what issue you are attempting to address with a 5S program, perhaps you need not start with that countermeasure. 

Reply »

Ryan McCormack September 12, 2017
3 People AGREE with this comment

Great post. I've seen and heard many consultants teach that you "have to begin with 5S" and then watched a lean deployment rapidly deteriorate into a compliance exercise.  "Start with need" and teach principles.  

Reply »

Mark Graban September 15, 2017

"Always start with 5S" - the new production from the people who brought you "Always do what your consultant says."



Reply »

Mark Graban September 12, 2017
3 People AGREE with this comment

As Lean is being adopted and practiced in areas outside of manufacturing, some of the old dogma deserves to be challenged.

"Start with 5S" may or may not be good advice depending on the situation. We need to be engaging people to solve problems that matter.  There are too many stories from office settings or healthcare where "start with 5S" made Lean look silly, superficial, or worse.

"Overproduction is the worst form of waste" is another "truism" or piece of dogma that might also not be true in other settings. For example, I'd argue that the waste of defects is quite literally a "deadly form of waste" in healthcare... so that's the worst form?

There's no substitute for thinking. Lean should be more like TPS (as "The Thinking Production System") and less like the "Dogma Production System").


Reply »

Rick Hepp September 12, 2017
1 Person AGREES with this comment

Never ceases to amaze me on how Tools and Techniques are leveraged before the Problem/Opportunity is defined (by both Leaders AND the Associates involved) and an appropriate CI Methodology is identified to address followed by training & coaching of all involved. Then, tools & techniques, as appropriate, can be brought to the teams.

Years ago, one of my OpEx team was introducing 5S into a production facility. I had a chance to sit with teams over lunch after about a month of rollout of the program. Leadership had told me how great their managers were doing rolling out the 5S program. At one table, half the associates related how 5S deployment was the worse idea they have ever seen - critical tools were taken away and rigid approaches that just don't work were implemented. Literally, managers had come in the night before and "reset the workplace to a 5S approach". When I asked the other half of the table their experiences, they said it was fantastic - new shelving and tool kits that were asked for time and time in the past were bought & installed and the workers made the decisions on what to change with the Manager of the area and OpEx representative as coaches & supporters. The original frustrated workers then jumped into the discussion and said if they had been involved, they see what the benefits could have been. Not surprising, ideas and results started to be shared.

     The plant site Leadership took this feedback, did a stand-down and trained their managers as 5S coaches and moved to Team Empowerment and team decisions around 5S. Now this plant site is a MODEL of 5S Deployment and reaping significant results. And who owns 5S in the production areas? The workers.

Reply »

Bob MacPherson September 12, 2017
1 Person AGREES with this reply

Good article. Over the past twenty years, I have observed this same lesson being learned time and time again across a number of industries. Without leaders who are prepared to set the pace and tone of the implementation, the whole thing becomes mired in chaos. We do little to no analysis before we start which means we have no idea of the journey's ultimate destination, what roads to travel, or how to even get started.

Its not because people haven't tried to point this out along the way. I have watched some of the best practitioners in the world at work and seen some of the same issues at play. First is money. Second is time. Third is understanding. But all of these issues are effected by the principle one: Leadership. If the CEO and his power team say go and do, most often people will start the trip. If they then go back to their other real priorities (which they had before this whloe lean thing came along), the people taking the trip will always always always have problems. The Guiding Coalition needs to do more than just put the coin in the slot, they have to adjust their vision to include being an active player in the new expectations. Honest dialogue, honest expectations, honest feedback and managing the stockholders expectations are all part of this effort.

Once the vision has been burned into the hearts of the leaders, they must spread the vision with the same intrinsic passion as they started with. If everyone in the chain sees and knows that the leaders understand and expect success based on the right model, there will be enthusiastic participation. The minute the facade cracks, there will be a falling away of support. Once that happens and the compliance model kicks in, you may as well give all of your employees complimentary passes to Disney World rather than waste it on all of the boards, banners and consultants that will be thrown at the problem. You will have the exact same level of efficiency gains and happier employees.  All the tools in the world won't fix the engine of company excellence if no one knows how to use them, is inspired to use them or worse, puposely doesn't just to tick you off and teach you a lesson (kind of a reverse KATA)

Reply »

Geraint Williams September 13, 2017

You are so right.

5S can be a powerful motivator if it tackles one of the 7 wastes and solves problems for the team involved (e.g reduces the frequency of having to sweep up rubbish /leaves from the warehouse floor by fixing the strip curtain= wasted time and effort). Business and team benefit.

It also has a huge impact if it shows the team they can make things better themselves,  with their manager listening to their needs and helping / facilitating problem solving. (e.g buying a couple of new strip curtains to fix the hole.)

Where I have seen it go wrong is applying it without asking the questions "What is the problem I am solving,  and which of the 7 wastes am I reducing?" e.g. introducing an impressive looking shadow board with a space for a leaf vacuum and marked out space for bigger broom)

My pet hate is having a place on the desk marked out for pc that never moves, a wired mouse and a landline telephone. Pointless.

Great post. Geraint. EMS Cognito

Reply »

Mark Graban September 15, 2017

Then you'll enjoy this video, Geraint:



Reply »

Dale Savage September 15, 2017
1 Person AGREES with this reply

The situation I described in my post is so similar to this video it's almost scary, yet it actually happened. Again, I wonder how many times it's been repeated but some "expert consultants" still have not learned from the mistakes. 

Thank you for sharing this video. It truly adds to my post as an illustration. 

Reply »

Daniel Fisher September 18, 2017
3 People AGREE with this reply

Oh my goodness. WHenever I see the remnants of an old 5S program that had people label or tape monitors, or printers, or LIGHT SWITCHES I CRINGE! Where was this light switch going to run off too? Who does not know that is a light switch?!


Stop it!!!!

Reply »

Tim D September 15, 2017
4 People AGREE with this comment

5S is a tool.  Tools-based approaches to Lean journies fail nearly every single time.

Where you start is with low-threshold engagement.  "These are the 8 wastes, and here's what they look like.  Where do you see waste?"  Directly followed by, "OK, so you've identified waste, great!  Now, how do you think we could reduce or eliminate it?"  Directly followed by, "Hey, that's a great solution!  Now, what's next?"

Teach through application of concepts, not through implementation of tools.  The tools will be "pulled" by the people who work at the gemba.  It's a practitioner's job to recognize which tools are being pulled, and be competent enough with those tools to apply them correctly.

Reply »

David Visco September 21, 2017
3 People AGREE with this reply

Great input everyone. Whether 5S is implemented at the beginning of the Lean Journey isn't really the issue here. The lack of respect for the individual is alarming. I warn my clients often of the "don't do it to them" syndrome. Still boggles the mind this happens after all these years of practice.

Reply »

Heydar Mojahed December 10, 2018

We are practicing 5S in a science & technology park. I am working there as a consultant. I've learnt 5S in Japan. We implemented 5S steps with observeable resuts after 6 months. But now we are facing with criticisms mostly by some managers that not participated seriously during the 5S project. They say: Here is not like a school, these activities are very ordinary,we are expert people, we need to customize 5S for our park,...

They have more expectations of 5S. So I'm thinking and reviewing in the promotion committee that what is wrong with us to take appropriate actions...

Meanwhile if we want to go to the next level, I need your help for "Advanced 5S".What are the programs in action?

Thank you!


Reply »

Michael Hall January 19, 2020


I don't know if you can help, but have been working training and delivering lean methodology for several years in the UK and have reached a time in my life to try and work from a self employed point of view but have no idea where to get support and "real world" advice, any suggestions?


many thanks in advance,



Reply »

Search Posts:
Managing to Learn: The Use of the A3 Management Process
David Verble, Eric Ethington, Ernie Richardson, John Shook, Josh Howell, Karen Gaudet, Mark Reich & Tracey Richardson
The Work of Management
By Jim Lancaster
Change Management: Is it Necessary?
How Purpose Shapes Culture
Let's Celebrate Work
Please include links as plain text URLs only. Do not copy and paste directly from a web page or other document. Doing so may pick up additional HTML that will not function here.
URLs will be converted to functioning links when your comment is displayed on the site.
Here's an example:
See this article for more details: https://www.lean.org/whatslean