5S is often described as a core building block of Lean work. Despite this, it is often taught as a stand alone technique that is related to de-cluttering a ward, office or other workplace. Taught like this, it can produce good results. In my own workplace, it frequently becomes part of a Kaizen, and seems to be well received by staff. This may, however, underplay the potential value of the approach.
5S is usually taken to refer to the Japanese terms seiri, seiton, seiso, seiketsu, and shitsuke. These are translated in various ways in English, with sometimes convoluted efforts made to find English equivalents that also begin with an ‘S’. Some variation of Sort, Set in Order, Shine, Standardise and Sustain is often used, although there are numerous alternatives to individual words. Other authors add additional ‘S’ words, such as Security or Satisfaction.
Several books and websites cite Hiroyuki Hirano as the developer of 5S. Hirano certainly wrote an important, and much read book on the subject, but the history of the approach pre-dates him. Rod Gapp and colleagues, of Griffith University in Australia, provides a very useful summary of the development of 5S. I cannot post a link to the paper, as it is behind a publisher’s pay wall, but the abstract can be read here.
Looking at the progression of 5S offers insights in to its wider importance. Gapp notes that 5S begins to be discussed in the Japanese literature about 1972, building on earlier versions of 2S and 4S. Gapp credits Takashi Osada with formalising the description of the application of 5S to businesses in the early 1980’s, considerably earlier than the Hirano book.
Does this matter? Well, it suggests a longer history than we sometimes assume, and also more development over time. Gapp and his colleagues go on to analyse the use of 5S in Japanese papers. They report that some terms consistently group together:
Orderliness – Seiri and Seiton
Cleanliness – Seiso and Seiketsu
Discipline – Shitsuke
Orderliness and cleanliness ideas were often linked with kaizen – improvement. Gapp provides a subtle and nuanced analysis of the association of the various concepts, and the context in which they are used by Japanese authors. It is apparent that they envisage a way of doing things, a way or being and working, that applies as much to management processes and approaches as it does to organising an office.
James van Patten provides an insightful analysis of the implications of this in practice. van Patten’s work is well worth reading. I particularly enjoy his argument that Sort can be equally applied to sorting all work in to necessary and unnecessary – or perhaps in to value added and non-value added. He also suggests that the key point of the Sweep stage (also called Shine or Scrub by some authors) is identifying what has caused the problems you identify, and working out how to prevent them happening again.
The importance of this is that it is not precisely how you translate each word that matters, nor exactly how many ‘S’ you choose to use. The key is in seeing it as not only a way of tidying up, but also as a way of considering how you work, what adds value, and how you communicate that.