Meeting the challenge of 5S Workplace Organisation - Disciples versus Discipline


Of the foundational tools and approaches associated with Lean implementation, 5S Workplace Organisation is probably the most widely “known” and arguably the most commonly mis-applied. In the course of my work as a Lean practitioner I have observed a substantial number of 5S implementations in a range of environments with varied approaches and differing levels of success.

By and large, in the companies I have engaged with who had already attempted a 5S implementation, a very significant majority had not really succeeded in gaining sustained traction or provided a solid foundation for future development, and many had failed completely.  At its worst many of the efforts I’ve observed had deteriorated into an imposed process the real objective of which is about housekeeping, with an almost exclusive  emphasis on audits to maintain standards.

The true intent of Workplace Organisation must include

  • Building a solid base for all continuous improvement activity
  • Enabling Visual Management
  • Placing work-teams in control of their own areas and establishing pride in those workplaces
  • Helping to focus on causes and elimination of waste
  • Establishing standards of storage, housekeeping and visual communication
  • Engaging the workforce

With a proper approach, a full understanding of the process and real engagement of the workforce, the opportunities can be enormous.

Obviously understanding why so many efforts fail is really important before even thinking about “Sorting” anything. So what’s the key thing to bringing about success? I believe this has to do with how we sow the seeds of true engagement. With monotonous regularity I observe the following 4 primary reasons for falling short:

  • People do not understand the real purpose and benefits
  • The process is imposed by management without real appreciation of what is required to sustain it
  • It is almost exclusively and very narrowly focused on housekeeping
  • It is almost exclusively sustained by imposing discipline through audits by people external to the work area

How do we begin to change this and get back to the true purpose? For a start we must realise that management can’t impose this and auditors alone can’t sustain it – the only people who will make this successful are the workforce themselves. The word I have come to use in this regard is “Disciple” as opposed to “Discipline” – words which are closely linked etymologically but which have very different emphases.

Disciples are people who follow something because they deeply believe in it. It is essentially self-discipline as opposed to imposed discipline. To be successful you really need to create disciples by engaging people properly and fully at the outset and explaining the true purpose, benefits and opportunities associated with 5S (incidentally, you may need to start by being crystal clear on this yourself!). You won’t create disciples by talking about housekeeping – you need to sell them the full vision of 5S and what it can mean for them.
If you do this well, the rest can follow.

I’ve recently engaged with a couple of organisations taking their first steps in Workplace Organisation and we’ve focused on 3 things which I believe are critical to success:

  1. A huge emphasis has been put on leadership awareness, understanding and behaviour at the outset; If leadership do not really understand and live and breathe 5S their teams can’t be expected to embrace it.
  2. Through an investment of time in education, training and inclusion we’ve focused on creating disciples in the workplace before we started. Already in the early stages we’re finding that the focus is on identifying problems and improving the process; more importantly we are finding that the teams are taking ownership of their work areas and of the 5S process.
  3. In this spirit of ownership & self-discipline audits are being employed but crucially they are being conducted by the teams themselves. And we’re finding that the self-audits are being even more demanding of standards than typical external audits; they also have a focus on process and continuous improvement as opposed to merely tidiness and housekeeping. (Independent audits will be employed periodically in the future but only as a support to the teams themselves e.g. to validate the improvements).

It’s still very early days for these organisations and there are many challenges on the road ahead but from my experience, I believe these teams have now a real chance of sustained success in driving the culture of continuous improvement which is what Lean is really all about.

So if you’re starting or restarting a workplace organisation programme, my advice is to be honest with yourself and ask if you are certain that you have created disciples before you set out. Don’t start until you’ve achieved this step otherwise it’s likely that you will struggle, fight the tide, waste resources trying to prop up the system, and certainly never realise the true potential of 5S.


Eddie is a Lean and Six Sigma Practitioner, Coach, and leader in the provision of Lean and Continuous improvement training & education with LBS Partners. LBS Partners is a provider to ManagementWorks on our Lean Business programme.