5S is a well-known method. It is used in creating, standardizing and maintaining a well-organized workplace. The 5S’s thereby refer to the five steps in the method, i.e., sort out, set in order (or: straighten), shine (or: sweep), standardize and sustain (or: self-discipline). But sometimes you see discussions about whether it should be 3S, 4S, 5S or even 6S. A post about the number of S’s and what it may tell you.
Most Well-Known: 5S
Let’s first – briefly – discuss the most often used number of S’s, namely 5. I won’t go into the Japanese S’s and their exact meaning; there are more than enough sources on this on the web (see, for instance, writings from Torbjørn Netland, Michel Baudin or Christoph Roser).
For this blog post, I will use the 5 S’s as follows.
The first S in the method refers to “sort out”. Shortly, it comes down to creating a workplace where only the required items are present. And therefore, inversely, to take out all items not truly required.
The second S, for “set in order”, aims at putting all remaining items in their most appropriate location. “A place for everything, and everything in its place” is a very common slogan in this stage.
The third S is referred to as “shine” or “sweep”. A somewhat far-sought word to indicate that the remaining items in their proper location should be ready and appropriate for use. It involves inspecting, cleaning, repairing and sometimes even replacing items. The third S also very naturally leads into the autonomous maintenance pillar in TPM (Total Productive Maintenance).
The fourth S is typically referred to as “standardize”. Now that we have created a workplace with only required and proper items in their appropriate location, it’s time to “fix” this “version” of the workplace. We typically do so using zoning or floor markings, signage, pictures and other visuals enabling visual control.
The fifth S, for “sustain” or “self-discipline”, is about maintaining the standardized workplace using visual control in regular management routines at various levels. This then can again lead to improved “versions” of the workplace.
The Core: 3S
When carefully considering the 5S, one could argue that the real core of the method is in the first three steps. It is in these three steps that the actual, improved workplace is created. It is here where the benefit for the actual work is housed. And it is here where further improvements are made to better facilitate the work taking place in the area.
Improvements in visualization (without actually changing the workplace it visualizes) do not directly impact the work itself. They only may facilitate (self-)management. Of course, indirectly that may help to avoid problems in the actual work.
Standardization, visual control, and management routines can very easily be seen as an integral part of any initiative done to improve work. They are not specific to the workplace improvement. They are used everywhere and all the time in any Lean oriented production system to detect abnormalities, correct, and improve work.
One could even argue the first three S’s actually create the standard, and therefore, the fourth S cannot be thought of as “standardize”. I can agree with this, but I guess, for lack of a proper word for visualization starting with an S, I’ll stick to standardization for now.
In Japanese, the fourth S (cleanliness) is typically seen as the result of the first three S’s, and the fifth S (self-control) is seen as a state where it is like second nature to keep up the workplace.
Because of all of the above, one could very well argue that the 5S method should, in fact, be referred to as 3S.
Toyota’s Original: 4S
Apparently, Toyota once started off with only four S’s. The fifth S of “self-control” was considered very normal in the Toyota way of thinking and working. In the meantime, though, they did start referring to the approach as 5S as well. The fifth S highlights somewhat more than the original four, that there is a continual improvement aspect to workplace organization.
Too Much: 6S
Quite regularly, a sixth S is added to the 5S. Most often this sixth S refers to “safety”. This is typically done to emphasize the importance of safety in the workplace.
But when we see 5S as a method to develop (and standardize and maintain) a “well-organized” workplace, why wouldn’t safety be an aspect of this?
One could just as well add waste-free, productive, defect-free, reactive, fast, flexible, reliable, healthy, ergonomic, engaging and other adjectives to that. But maybe that will get us into the double-digit S’s. If we even can find an S for each one of these aspects.
Point is, 5S — well-executed — does not need the sixth S. The sixth S should be “inside”, like all other aspects we consider to be part of a “well-organized” workplace. They should be the logical consequence of a “well-organized” workplace. If not, the method was not very well executed.
And if you really do want to add a sixth S, add the sixth S used by Aisin Seiki. At Aisin Seiki this S refers to “shikkari-yarou”, meaning “let’s try hard”. It makes clear that every person in the organization should show initiative and make an effort in creating, maintaining and improving the workplace.
So, How Many S’s?
Personally, I don’t care too much about the number of S’s. I do care about the way people think about them though. Their explanations about why they speak of 3, 4, 5 or even 6 S’s may give you insights into the way the team or the person thinks. When asked, I often explain (and apply) the 5S as being, in fact, a continually revolving cycle of 3S+2S.
I also care about how the method is applied. Is it applied with rigor, eye for detail and discipline? Is it done with the work in mind, involving the operators and observing and evaluating their work methods including their means, parts and their work area? Do all levels acknowledge that organizational entropy will require all of them to continually invest in management routines? And do all use the visual control aspect to detect abnormalities in the work, and react swiftly and appropriately? I wrote about this in an earlier blog post in 2009: https://dumontis.com/2009/12/true-lean-christmas-trees/.
Or is it seen as just another one-off attempt at cleaning the workplace somewhat? Done by others that “clean out the mess” without bothering to look at the actual work that takes place in the area and the role the work area plays in the value stream?
How do you use 5S in your organization? And what does it tell you about the leadership and the level of thinking?