The other day I had a friend of mine ask how someone began “getting Lean”.  My answer was 5S.  5S is the starting point of any Lean deployment I’ve ever been a part of.  5S not only focuses on cleaning and organizing the area but, also begins to establishthe mindset in a Lean deployment.  It is the first step in transforming any operation into a Lean operation.  

5S is an acronym for the following sustained elimination of waste, organization of an area, and way of managing its sustained existence.  5S is comprised of the 5 Japanese words/phrases that describe the practice of 5S: 

·         Seiri  整理 (Sort)
·         Seiton 整頓 (Systematic Arrangement)
·         Seiso 清掃 (Shine)
·         Seiketsu 清潔 (Standardize)
·         Shitsuki 躾 (Sustain)

I explained to him that Lean is just a term that actually refers to the Toyota Production System (TPS) created by Toyota in Japan and thus many of the terms in Lean are Japanese.  Anyway, I received a quizzical look of non-comprehension.  Chuckling a bit, I went on to explain the intricacies of each of the 5 stages and to do so we decided to use his tool box to demonstrate.


In this first stage we were looking to get rid of anything that didn’t belong, was unnecessary or just “fluff”.  We put a couple of card tables up and cleared off his work bench, we were going to need some room.  Then, we emptied his entire tool box.  Mind you, he’s a mechanic so this was a pretty sizable tool box.  The purpose was to see what tools he had and what tools he needed.  What tools were unnecessary or just taking up space?  As we went through we set aside the four extra 10mm sockets and the three extra pairs of pliers, the rusted pair of channel-locks and the un-countable number of regular screwdrivers lying in every drawer.  All the remaining tools were left on the table and I then had him pull out the tools he never used.  After our purging of unnecessary tools was completed we were left with still a great number of tools but, had eliminated nearly a drawers’ worth of tools from the box.


Now that we only had the tools he used and would need and nothing extra we went through and sorted the tools by function and use.  We spent time discussing where in the toolbox they would best be housed.  Obviously his larger tools like impact guns and larger pneumatics’ would be placed in the bottom drawer as it was the only drawer capable of holding the larger tools.  The remainder were strategically placed in the box based on how the tools were used.  This took into account frequency of use, type of tool and space the tool type would consume within a drawer.  We mapped out on a large sheet of paper where best he tools could be placed within the box and made several changes along the way based on his workflow.  Once satisfied we moved on to the third stage.


We cleaned the toolbox and every tool going back into it.  We went and got new rubber matting to place in the bottom of each drawer, removing the old and worn out mating that had been in there.  We cleaned the area he worked in and made the entire area shine.  We then put each of the tools back into the toolbox just as we had mapped out.  Everything looked perfect when we were done and he stood back and admired the work.  I commented about not being done.  He gave me a scowl and hinted that he felt things were pretty good and that perhaps it was enough for one day.  I told him we hadn’t even gotten to the most important stage of 5S and then asked him to turn his back to his tool box.

When he turned back around I laid a $5 bill on the bench and told him it was his if he could find which tool I removed from his tool box.  He spent several minutes looking and once satisfied gave me his answer.  He was wrong.  I had made some minor changes to his box and gave the appearance that several different tools could have been removed but, .  I told him we were moving on the fourth stage.


We needed to standardize the drawer.  I went and got a label maker and labeled the drawers.  We went a step further and created a shadow board within each drawer contrasting the light rubber matting with a black “shadow’ of each tool that went into the drawer.  It was a bit time consuming but, afterwards he knew immediately what was out of place and/or missing from his box.  I showed him the organizational wonder called kaizen foam that could turn his drawers into a custom setting for his tools, snuggly placed into a bed of perfectly cut out foam.  One basically takes a piece of thick foam, typically a little less than the height of the drawer and cuts out the shape of each tool as it sits within the drawer.  The foam is placed into the drawer and the tools within their respective cutouts.  The foam is normally black and so contrasting the bottom of the drawer in a light color is ideal to really make a missing tool’s open space “pop”.


After all the shadows were created and all the tools placed back into the toolbox I explained the final stage, sustaining the work we had done.  He had already been thinking of this as we were working to clean the tools up and get them in order.  He came up with a weekly routine that allowed him to go through his box and note anything that may be out of place as well as any changes he may want to put into place going forward.  I explained to him in a Lean environment standard work would be written and in place on the box describing how the tools should be and how to keep them in order.  As this was his personal box we opted to forgo standard work.  The term made him lift his eyebrow and inquire, “What is Standard Work?”  I asked him if he was hungry…we could discuss it over lunch.

That is just a brief example of what 5S is and the impact it can have on something as minor as a personal toolbox.  5S can be applied to nearly everything.  I have implemented 5S in the kitchen, offices, obviously manufacturing plant floors, distribution centers, hospitals, weld shops and garages.  5S helps establish a nice “flow” to the area and helps to increase productivity in that area.  It aids in eliminating the need to think about where something is or if there is enough for the work day.  Standards are in place to keep things where they should be and maintain necessary levels on replenished materials (kanban).  5S is one of the best ways to begin a Lean deployment / journey.  It helps brighten and clean the area, organize,  create flow and prepare for the rest of the various tools that make up a Lean deployment.