The Origin of 5S

5S was developed in Japan. It was first heard of as one of the techniques that enabled what was then termed 'Just in Time Manufacturing'. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology's 5-year study into the future of the automobile in the late 1980s identified that the term was inappropriate since the Japanese success was built upon far more than components arriving only at the time of requirement. John Krafcik, a researcher on the project, ascribed Lean to the collective techniques being used in Japanese automobile manufacturing; it reflected the focus on waste in all its forms that was central to the Japanese approach. Minimised inventory was only one aspect of performance levels in companies such as Toyota and in itself only arose from progress in fields such as quality assurance and Andon boards to highlight problems for immediate action.


5S was developed by Hiroyuki Hirano within his overall approach to production systems. Many Western managers coming across the approach for the first time found the experience one of enlightenment. They had perhaps always known the role of housekeeping within optimised manufacturing performance and had always known the elements of best practice. However, Hirano provided a structure for improvement programs. He pointed out a series of identifiable steps, each building on its predecessor. Western managers, for example, had always recognised the need to decide upon locations for materials and tools and upon the flow of work through a work area; central to this (but perhaps implicit) is the principle that items not essential to the process should be removed – stored elsewhere or eliminated completely. By differentiating between Seiri and Seiton, Hirano made the distinction explicit. He taught his audience that any effort to consider layout and flow before the removal of the unnecessary items was likely to lead to a sub-optimal solution.

Equally the Seiso, or cleanliness, phase is a distinct element of the change program that can transform a process area. Hirano's view is that the definition of a cleaning methodology (Seiso) is a discrete activity, not to be confused with the organisation of the workplace, and this helps to structure any improvement program. It has to be recognised, however, that there is inevitably an overlap between Seiton and Seiso. Western managers understood that the opportunities for various cleanliness methodologies vary with the layout and storage mechanisms adopted. However, breaking down the improvement activity in this way clarifies that the requirements for the cleanliness regime must be understood as a factor in the design aspect of Seiton. As noted by John Bicheno, Toyota's adoption of the Hirano approach, is '4S', with Seiton and Seiso combined – presumably for this very reason. The improvement team must avoid the trap of designing the work area and then considering the cleanliness or tidiness mechanism.

Hirano also reminded the world of the Hawthorne effect. We can all introduce change and while people in the business consider the change program to be under management focus the benefits of the change will continue, but when this focus has moved (as is inevitably the case) performance once more slips. Western managers, in particular, may have benefited from the distinction between the procedural or mechanical elements, Seiketsu, of keeping these matters in focus and the culture change, Shitsuke, which is a distinct approach to bringing about a new way of working. A number of publications on the subject in the West have questioned whether this culture can really be tackled as part of an exercise of relatively limited scope. The broader kaizen, or continuous improvement, approach is built, among other things, upon the company's valuation of all members of the workforce. If employees don't feel valued within the overall company culture, perhaps the change required falls outside the limits of a housekeeping improvement program.