5S supports robust, stable, and reliable processes. Simply put, this tool consists of five steps that transform a workspace into one that is efficient, effective, and safe. Following those five steps, in order, is the most effective way to create order out of chaos, uncover process problems, and create a work environment that people want to work in. 5S is a simple tool that takes only minutes to learn but has a profound depth and power that will be appreciated forever.

As you’ve probably guessed, each of these steps starts with the letter S. 5S began in Japan, where each of these “S” words probably described each step perfectly. In English, they feel a bit clumsy, but at least they’re easy to remember.

I’m not a fan of using foreign words to describe something when an English equivalent would work just fine. If the Japanese origin intrigues you, details are available at……

If you’re ready to dive into a concise (English) explanation, keep reading. Before we get to the steps, you should know that this is another tool for groups. While it’s fine to have your own personal 5S event in the place where you (and you alone) work, a 5S effort requires participation from those who work in the area. Excluding those who work in the space leads to conflict, and undermines the intent. Before you start going through these five steps, be sure to gather the right people.


Just as the name describes, this step is for sorting all the items in a workspace. Those that are used regularly stay right where they are and those that are either not needed at all or used infrequently are “sorted” or removed.

There’s a method to this, though. It is simple, but not that simple. Items that aren’t needed are marked with a Red Tag (link). Ideally, this is a piece of thick paper (colored red, of course) that has a pre-printed space for the item description, the name of the person deciding to remove it, and a date. Print these up in advance. Everyone participating should have a stack of their own. They’ll need some tape, too. Masking tape works great, as long as you remove it before it becomes stuck permanently.

All Red Tag items are moved to a designated Red Tag Area, a place big enough to contain all of the sorted items. These are reviewed later to gain agreement from others who work in the area that they are not needed there. Be sure to designate someone responsible for these items, so they don’t languish in the way. Nothing annoys coworkers like a pile of red-tagged stuff left in their way, forgotten.

Set In Order

Setting in Order is just as it sounds. All items need a designated space, and that space must be clearly marked. Consider the following when setting things in order:

  • Frequency of use- Store items close to their point of use, and make the most commonly used items the easiest to reach.
  • Ergonomics – Place heavy or awkward items where they are safe to lift or move.
  • Visibility – Put things where people can find them, and create a system so that it is immediately apparent when they are gone.
  • Predictability – organize duplicate items in the same ways in each location so that employees know where to expect them. Make workstations the same where possible.
  • Safety – identify and fix hazards.
  • Lighting – is there enough light for everyone to see what they need to?


This is where an English word got shoehorned to fit the pattern. The Shine step is just cleaning. Admittedly, nobody says “Now, let’s go shine our work area!” but it’s easy to remember, and everybody knows how to clean. There is more to this step, however. Part of the Shine step is to pay attention to what needs to be cleaned, and why. Every space gets dirty eventually, but 5S is about making lasting changes to a workspace. To do that, you need to pay attention to what needs to be cleaned and eventually make changes so that there is less mess to clean up.

So, while you’re sweeping, mopping, polishing and wiping things down, think about how the area got this way, and how to keep it clean longer. What changes to the process or workspace would reduce the mess and make it easier to clean? (link to examples)


By this point, you’ve removed what wasn’t needed, organize what remained, and cleaned everything, so it looks fantastic. You’ve probably found some things you were missing, opened up some new workspace, and realized how much dirt and grime had accumulated. The space is starting to look better – perhaps better than it ever has. Now, it’s time to work on making changes that keep it this way.

In the Standardize step, we look back at what was sorted, set in order and shined, and make those steps “unbreakable.” The Standardize step is about making changes to the process to support the gains achieved in the first three steps. Standardizing is about slowing the slide back to the “way it was.” The Standardize step is about changing the process.

Unbreakable Sort

Look back at what you put in the Red Tag pile. What is all that stuff? How did it get there? What changes are needed to prevent those things from building up again? Consider some examples here.

Unbreakable Set In Order

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