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Lean Warehousing: The 5S Method

Landon Mumbower & Matt Adsit | 13 April 2022

Developing a Lean culture in your organization is a multi-step process and, in this article, we will discuss one step in particular: establishing a 5S program.  5S is sometimes referred to as “6S” with the sixth “S” referencing Safety.  However, since a robust safety program should be a top priority for any operation, we will focus on the more common 5S components.

5S is based on the “CANDO” system developed by Henry Ford in the early 20th century5S. It can be applied to any type of operation (manufacturing, distribution, office roles, etc.) but we will focus on the applications within a warehouse setting.

1. Sort

This is the process of objectively evaluating which things are necessary and getting rid of the things you do not need.  Some common strategies for sorting include:

  • Removing items in an area that you no longer use – examples include forms that are outdated and no longer need to be filled out, broken equipment, obsolete product, or boxes with old branding.
  • Complete a green tag/red tag event – this is where a team goes through a given area and applies green stickers to items that are used regularly and applies red tags to those that are not used frequently.  At the end of the event, all red-tagged items are removed from the area and reallocated to another area (if needed) or disposed of.
  • Establish a “holding” area for items that are difficult to classify – this “holding” area should be a regular stop on any Gemba Walk to maintain visibility of its contents.  Any contents that do not have a disposition after a set amount of time (a week, a month) should be removed and disposed of.

The goals of “sort” are to reduce time lost looking for an item, reduce the chance of distraction by unnecessary items, increase the amount of available, useable space and to eliminate obstacles in the work area.

2. Straighten

This is the practice of storing everything in an orderly manner so that it can be utilized efficiently for everyone.  A familiar phrase associated with straighten is “A Place for Everything and Everything in Its Place”.  Some common strategies for straighten include:

  • Identifying and designating a place for all materials required for the work in each area. Examples include:
    • Shadowboarding – for areas that require the use of different tools, make outlines of the tools required against a background so that it is visually easy to see if any required tools are missing or in the wrong place
    • Assign a fixed quantity to the materials stored (i.e. if you need 3 rolls of tape, have space for 3 rolls of tape – not 12 rolls of tape).  Develop a replenishment system for when you are using your last roll of tape.
    • Develop a procedure so that all employees (especially in shared work areas) understand the rules for how items should be stored.
  • Compact storage to help utilize the space efficiently.
  • Ergonomically safe storage – store heavy items closer to the floor to avoid lifting and store frequently used items close to waist or shoulder height to avoid excessive stretching or reaching.

The goals of “straighten” are to reduce excessive motions for the operators while maintaining a good procedure for the storage of materials required.  Anything that is out of place should be easily recognizable thus leading to a reduction in wasted time searching for those items.

3. Shine

This is the practice of creating a clean workspace without garbage, dirt, dust or debris; so any problems can be more easily identified.  Some common strategies for shine include:

  • Keep the floors cleaned of any debris and/or liquids – if your floors are kept clean and you find some motor fluid on the ground, you can conclude that one of the forklifts must have a leak.  If the forklifts are stored in a defined manner, you can quickly determine the culprit.  If the floors have not been cleaned regularly, you would not know how long the problem has been occurring.
  • Keep the machines in your work area clean – by cleaning all machines, you can prevent future downtime due to mechanical failures.

The goals of “shine” are to increase the safety and effectiveness for the employees in an area.  It should also allow for easy identification of any problems as they should be the exception as opposed to the norm (i.e. fluid on the floor).

4. Standardize

This is the practice of standardizing all the improvements made throughout the 5S process.  For there to be continuous improvement, there must first be a standard set.  These standards should apply throughout the facility.  Some common strategies for standardize include:

  • Implement as much “visual management” as possible – visual management refers to a lot of the concepts from the other 5S elements, but the methods of communicating them to the organization should be consistent. Examples include:
    • Lines on the floor to show where people should be walking
    • Pictures of a workspace to show exactly what it should look like at start/end of shift
    • Pictures of acceptable/not-acceptable finished packing techniques
    • Standard work which shows how the job function in that area is to be completed
  • Expectations should be easy to understand across all areas – this allows employees to move from area to area and still understand the requirements for that area.

The goals of “standardize” are to maintain a consistent level of expectation across all members of the organization for what is the “normal” for any given area.  Any variances from that normal should be readily apparent and lead to immediate correction.

5. Sustain

This is the practice of implementing behaviors and habits to maintain the established standards over the long term and making workplace organization the key to managing the process for success.  Some common strategies for sustain include:

  • Regular audits and reviews – examples include a rotating audit system that allows everyone to evaluate the success of the system, an audit system that allows for root-cause analysis and not just corrective action, or an audit system that involves management (i.e. daily by employee, weekly by supervisor, monthly by manager, etc.).
  • Continuous improvement – since sustaining is about making 5S part of the culture, it should be continuously improved.  Involving the employees in those improvement opportunities will lead to better solutions as well as improved buy-in from those on the floor.
  • Leadership commitment and proper resources are vital –sustaining the gains is often the most difficult phase of 5S and many have fallen short of this goal.  For a successful 5S program to flourish, leadership commitment and the investment of resources must occur.

A 5S program is a must for any organization as they begin or continue their “Lean Journey.” The long-term results (as well as daily benefits) from implementing these concepts are often tangible improvements and cost savings opportunities that not only benefit the organization but also result in the employees having a better environment in which to work.

Author: Landon Mumbower, Matt Adsit

Landon is a consulting engineer based in Indianapolis. Indiana. He has a Bachelor of Science degree in Industrial Engineering from Mississippi State University. Having spent almost ten years in different manufacturing environments, he has great insight on how to effectively address customer needs. His duties include data analysis, process improvement, design engineering and application engineering.

Matt is a Bastian Solutions consulting engineer. He has a Bachelor of Science degree in Mechanical Engineering from Purdue University. Bringing more than 10 years of engineering, and operation and project management experience, Matt has deep experience in operations planning, inventory planning, forecasts and more.  


Walter Rybczynski says:
4/15/2022 04:19 AM

The explanations are spot-on !

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