The truth about 5S

Workplace organization is not housekeeping — it’s the key to mission-readiness in 2017. 

By Dave Hogg. 

Modern workplace organization methodology — or 5S — can be traced back to Henry Ford’s CAN-DO thinking in the early 1900s. The idiom stood for cleaning up, arranging, neatness, discipline, and ongoing improvement. From there, half a century later, the Japanese derived the popular 5S system used globally today: Sort, set in order, shine, standardize, and sustain.

Ford entrenched this philosophy as common practice with every member of his staff. It was an expected responsibility of both managers and shop floor personnel. He was careful never to call it housekeeping (you should avoid doing so, too!), as that particular word implies it is perhaps someone else’s job. Actually, it’s part of yours.


Workplace organization is a sign of professionalism. It means being able to put your hands on whatever you need without wasting time. It means not having to break your concentration when solving a problem. And, it means protecting an image with customers that are about to place their trust in you by purchasing a product or service.

Above all: It means being mission-ready in 2017. If you are not ready when opportunity knocks, there may soon be no mission.

I recall a visit to the former Orenda Engines F-18 rebuild plant many moons ago. Visually speaking, their 5S program was immaculate, with every tool and fixture not on the shadow board in use. Work areas were spotless and thoughtfully organized — and they were kept so without the help of janitors, since keeping the workplace organized was ‘just part of everyone’s job.’ It was impressive.

When the tour leader commended the operator for ‘one of the best 5S examples’ he had ever seen, the operator chuckled and replied, “You just don’t know how angry a pilot gets if I leave a wrench in his engine!”

This environment is not contrarian from how a hospital operating room must be organized — and for many of the same reasons. If your chest cavity is ratcheted wide open on the operating table, the right instruments must be present, in the right sequence, with the right orientation, and must enter and leave the surgeon’s hands without error. In both settings, failure equals death. Strict discipline is mission-critical.

Earlier this fall, it was a joy to see first-hand New Flyer Industries’ OPEX system in place on their production floor in Winnipeg. To facilitate the right thinking amongst their workforce, the company trains using a dentist’s office to drive home how a world-class plant floor should be organized, clean, and professional.

The time is now

We are in threatening and uncertain times. Margins are shrinking and changes abound. The election south of the border and recent signing of the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, or CETA, with the European Union are two major disruptors.

Business performance will start with a refreshed vision — a change in thinking — and by embracing lean and workplace organization as mission-critical.

Lean practitioners know workplace organization is just the beginning. To adapt to the realities of Manufacturing 4.0 and the ‘Internet of things,’ continuous improvement and lean thinking must serve as your organizational bedrock. It must be rooted in a commitment from leadership and a respect for your people.

Everyone across the organization must be open to and contribute to change. If you change the way you think, your inefficient processes will naturally change with you.

Dave Hogg is one of Canada’s premier thought leaders on lean manufacturing, and previously served as long-time editor of the distinguished Accelerate the Journey newsletter.