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The organization of the work environment is perhaps the subject that generates less enthusiasm and one that is universally known as an absolute requirement as a baseline of any company that embraces Lean principles.

Few will deny the importance of having a clean and organized space, but many will underestimate the importance of visual management as a way to increase the capabilities of teams in managing their gemba, wherever it may be..

The way an organization presents itself says a lot about how they develop and execute their internal processes, and if they don't keep a "flawless" gemba they will rush into a cleaning campaign every time they expect a customer to be visiting and will regret not making a continued effort to maintain that ideal state.

It is from this awareness that organizations will strive to "cook” a cultural transformation (perhaps a bit too late) for which there is no other recipe than that suggested by the 5S methodology. Tempered with strong doses of perseverance, of course…


A Mea culpa is in order.....I hate this topic, in the same way as I hate any routine work. If I had not seen organizations at such different levels of accomplishment, I would also fail by dismissing this topic as a minor goal in itself.

An operational director or a factory director asking for the benefit of a 5S initiative is not much different from my daughters asking why they should make their bed every day. Both give that sense of impotence and frustration and my instinct is to close the door on it, literally….

But, there is no way to avoid the fact that we need to face this challenge and therefore, with an extreme effort try once again to explain. And here we are.

The Purpose

I had the privilege of having Mr. Yamada as my sensei. Amongst many, many, other things he taught me the cowboy metaphor:

"The reason it takes 2 cowboys to take a herd of cows from one side of the U.S. to the other is because there are two imaginary lines. Within those lines, the animals are free, and it is only imperative to deal only with those who cross those lines. That is the job of the two horsemen”

Metaphors aside, there is only a certain number of information that we can manage at any given moment and we need to define a criterion to know what requires our attention. Then we must know how to deal with these situations, of course, but if we do not identify them, we will not address them, no matter how capable we are. These issues, to make it worst, tend to grow and become huge so the sooner we see them, the better.

This is the real purpose of cleanliness and organization: to provide clarity so that abnormal situations can be spotted while they are yet innocuous. Moreover, it is to provide the teams at the gemba, with visual management and quick feedback systems.

Visual management

Humans have developed this great competence: that of being able to judge by the image he receives from reality. That drives our decisions, from what we eat, where we sail, how we dress.

From immemorial times, man (men and women, yes), like so many other animals, have invested on their appearance. Why not expand it to space we invest most of our lives: the workplace?

The term management assumes the optimization of resources against a given objective. For a manager, it is essential to have a clear sense of the objective, the resources available and feedback systems that allow him to evaluate its course.

Applied to the gemba, visual management should then offer

  • - a clear picture of the result expected or targeted.

  • - deviations at any time.

  • - what measures may bring things back in track

It is with these 3 objectives in mind that the shop floor jobs should be consequently designed. If this is made each worker will be empowered to manage his job, within the scope and the resources made available to him.

If we understand that empowering workers to manage their job is a valuable purpose, we will understand the relevance of these initiatives.

The 5Ss methodology

The methodology recommended by the 5Ss have absolutely nothing extraordinary, and that may explain why it's not as popular as it should. Yet it has a wide application and it has been applied endlessly in our personal fives in tidying up a room, a garage, a drawer....

What makes the 5Ss a methodology strongly associated with Lean Manufacturing is its clear formulation as a process and the engagement that is created through quick workshops at the shop floor.

Let's see then what are these process steps:

1st S- Sort

This first phase simply concerns identifying what should remain at the workplace and what should be completely destroyed. Between these extremes may be items that need to be reassigned to another, more or less distant, depending on the frequency at which it is used.

2nd S- Set in order

Following the preceding point, the objects identified will be assigned to different storage locations, in order of frequency of use, for example

1- in the prime area, within the reach of a hand, if required to execute the routined job

2- stored within the group area if used at multiple workstations and if used in each shift;

3- on the shop floor if used weekly, in a shared area.

4- in the factory if used monthly, who knows if in the warehouse.

5- In a warehouse abroad if used less frequently and still of such importance that it does not allow to dispense with it at all.

3rd S –Shine

Once de decision on the objects that will remain at each area is all others are removed and is the ideal opportunity to carry out a deep cleaning that may include painting and refurbishing the area to a level of excellence compatible with the standard that is to be observed and maintained; hereafter.

4th S - Standardize

Setting up the standards for the new area will require visual aids, whether signage, symbols or colour code, the exact location for each object is identified so that its relationship with the object is unambiguous.

The zones for each function are defined and identified in accordance with the standards in so that any deviation is clearly visible, allowing for the final step.

Additionally, these new rules are to be posted and assigned for the periodic update.

5th S - Sustain

The team is accountable for the maintenance of the new standards. Routines are to be scheduled and assigned. Team leaders will periodically assess adherence and schedule new workshops when needed so this newly developed and improved state that is kept.

The administration's commitment to this goal is reflected here by the follow up done at the gemba and assuring available valid resources (time, manpower, and materials) are there to allow for the needed workshops, and more importantly, to the sustainability of the results.

The tools

The workshop

The topic of visual management is often addressed initially through a set of 5Ss workshops.

These workshops are a great tool for engagement and awareness. They also show off the manager´s commitment. It is the best opportunity to communicate its of visual management and the importance of organization and cleanliness.

The results achieved by the teams at the gemba will be more easily sustained. This is what makes these workshops so powerful and required for a healthy launch.

A workshop allows model areas to be quickly developed that can serve as a reference to the rest of the area while they help make an impactful leap, so key at this point.

The workshop typically lasts for 2 days. The 1st day is usually used also for the awareness and ice-breaking with an agenda that may be as follows:

  1. Strengthening lean principles,

  2. The importance of visual management.

  3. Teams and teamwork at the gemba

  4. The 5Ss methodology

The tool Kit

It is recommended, both for the workshop itself, the sustainability routines and any improvements in the day-to-day, to provide the teams with a"5S kit". This kit is designed like a “first aid kit”, and includes materials to quickly implement effective 5Ss or visual aids, even if temporary while more definitive solutions are made available.

Its content is placed on a properly organized box, with, at least:

  • List of content, responsible, storage location and period between checks and materials for each of the phases of the 5Ss.

  • Sort- Post its 4 colours for daily, weekly, monthly, rare

  • Set in order- Plastic bags and labels, Label printing machine; Measuring tape, ruler, Permanent and non-permanent pens, Labels with elastic and stickers

  • Shine- Magic sponge, broom and cloths, gloves and masks, ribbons blue, green, red, yellow, white yellow/black; Colored corners for marking the floor; Roll for shadows or spray paint; Sponge for cavities; Alveolos for drawers or snap-on strips; Plastic strips for labels and sheets A5 and A4

  • Standardize- Standards in force in the premises, Scissors, X act, tape applicator

  • Sustain- Best practices in progress, Follow-up action plan, Banner 5Ss

The Red Tag

In this context, the "red tag" has gained a lot of notoriety, allowing any element to question, at any time to question the relevance of a particular object present on the location.

This label is available near the place where the program is tracked in each area. Any team member may question the need for an item or its condition by attaching one of these labels. Filling up this label will help communicate the question: Keeping a track of issued labels will help to make sure it gets addressed.

Managing the 5S program

The 5S program is structured to engage the shop floor team members. The workshops are normally the kick-off of the program, addressing specific pioneer areas of the factory. This is followed by the consolidation of results, the establishment and spread of standards.

A process for making sure the bar keeps being raised with be designed to promote the participation in workshops and the adherence to the new standards. An audit will be a considerable part of this program to allow a way to track and recognize improvements: A countermeasure needs to be in place wherever the progress is not to the expectations. Most often I would suggest scheduling workshops in the hope that it will eventually get the wide adherence the organization needs.

The Indicators

"You can’t improve what you can’t measure " may not be true it is true that it gives clarity to the progress made and allows recognition of the results achieved. It may help to encourage participants and facilitates the management by the program coordinators. It also allows a quantifiable link to the performance of the teams.

The 5S level achieved is a qualitative assessment made quantifiable through a 5S audit that compares the status against a set of expectations. It measures the gap and it sets the direction. These are the benefits an organization may want to have.

A layout of the facility will be broken into independent areas assigned to specific 5S leaders. Audits will be made by area so an individual indicator can be tracked identifying specific deviations in an area or team. This indicator will give a baseline for each team to grow from.

In response to the observed trend in the indicator, the team can be awarded for its progress or encouraged to make an additional effort, either through daily discipline or by conducting workshops.


The audit is mainly aimed at establishing a quantitative and transparent evaluation criterion. It is carried out by a certified auditor or, depending on the culture of the organization, by its own gemba members, either in their own area or not (better for benchmarking), provided that this promotes the exchange of ideas, the standardization of criteria and the teamwork across teams.

The items included in the audits are often organized by each of the 5 Ss and also include the verification of safety or ergonomic risks as a priority:

Sort- All available articles are used with frequency that justifies staying at the area? All materials at a good use condition?

Separate- Everyone has an assigned location that is properly identified; The 5S kit is available for each team?

Shine- The location, in its 3 dimensions, is impeccably clean and tidy and so are the materials and visual signs.

Standardize - Standards, are documented and fully met?

Sustain- The audit and the red tag is used regularly, and the team has demonstrated to maintain an upper trend

Each of these groups will have a multi-level criterion that allows quantifying the various levels, from non-existent to elementary, to acceptable and excellent.

The standards

The standards define the expectation for the implemented improvements across the facility so any member of the organization can effectively migrate for one area to another.

Often the creation of these standards starts at a workshop and it is recommended that it reflects the preferences of the area that generated them, but they have to be developed with the needs of the whole installation in mind.

The standards should also have a communication format that is made available to the teams for reference in workshops, audits or improvements implemented in any day. A good place to hold these standards is obviously, the 5S kit.

Standards should not be confused with best practices. Best practices can be feasible in a specific area while standards should be applicable in all locations.

Final reflections

There is nothing worse than not knowing how to distinguish normal from abnormal"- Sakichi Toyoda

The notion of workplace organization is anything but consensual. What some will see as the most basic level of hygiene others will see "preciousness". What some will understand as the most elementary communication others might call "visual pollution".

The focus should be not on cleaning (although this must be a given) or on the organisation (even if it is difficult to apply) but on the development and maintenance of visual management systems that allow the workers to identify deviations from the norm at the time they occur and, within his or her competences, fix issues before the damage is escalated.

Let us have no doubt that the application of visual management is a benefit for organizations, but it is also for their employees, as it increases safety and the overall environment and as it values their participation and promotes their skills and their autonomy,

Other Resources


5S Made Easy: A Step-by-Step Guide to Implementing and Sustaining your 5S Program – By David Visco

5S for Operators: 5 Pillars of Visual Workplace (For Your Organization – By Hiroyuki Hirano

5S for the Office: Organizing the Workplace to Eliminate Waste – By Thomas Fabrizio and Don Tapping

5pillars of the Visual Workplace: The Sourcebook for 5S Implementation

The Visual Factory: Building Participation Through Shared Information

Everyday application

Lean article

5ss kit and materials

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