Using 5S in Your Warehouse

5S in the Warehouse

5S was initially developed in Japan by Hiroyuki Hirano. It was a part of the manufacturing method begun by the leaders at the Toyota Motor Company in the early to mid-20th century. It became known as the Toyota Production System. 5S was one of the techniques that included kaizen, kanbans, jidoka (intelligent automation), heijunka (production leveling and smoothing) , and poka-yoke (mistake proofing). It enabled what was termed ‘Just in Time Manufacturing’. It reflected a focus on eliminating waste in all its forms. Central to it was minimizing inventory.

Hirano’s 5S framework provided a structure for improvement programs.

He developed a series of identifiable steps, each building on its predecessor. Production managers had always recognized the need to decide upon locations for materials and tools for improved flow of work. Central to this was the principle that items not essential to the process should be removed. Instead, they should be stored elsewhere or eliminated completely. Hirano emphasized that any effort to consider production layout and flow before the removal of the unnecessary items was likely to lead to a suboptimal solution.

The Seiso, or cleanliness, phase of 5S is the element of the change program that can transform a process area.

Peter H. Christian Quote Graphic

Hirano’s view was that the definition of a cleaning methodology was a discrete activity. It was not to be confused with the organization of the workplace. It helps to structure any improvement program. Breaking down the improvement activity in this way clarifies the requirements for the cleanliness. And, it must be understood as a factor in the design aspect of a facility.

Hirano was also aware of the Hawthorne Effect (a type of reactivity in which individuals modify an aspect of their behavior in response to their awareness of being observed). He realized that while we can introduce change people consider the change program to be under management focus. If it is, the benefits of the change will continue. But when this focus has diminished, performance will slip. So maintaining focus is key to long-term success.

So what does 5S mean for warehousing?

Lean warehousing is the way of the future. In an April 2014 report, the Council of Supply Management Professionals identified Lean as a projected characteristic for the supply chain by 2025. According to the report:

The pressure to do more with less will not subside. Lean and Continuous Improvement practices will be essential.

And, implementing 5S is a key step in establishing a Lean warehouse.

5S’s basic objective is to make problems visible. Having a clean and organized warehouse is about more than looking great. It’s about having an efficient fulfillment warehousing operation. A warehouse should be able to identify issues quickly. Then, address their root causes thereby preventing recurrences. If replenishment is needed, if something is out of place, or if tasks are being done incorrectly, 5S can identify these issues and highlight them for quicker resolution.

The principles of 5S graphic

So what are the principles of 5S? They include the following:

5S Principle: Sort Graphic


As a first step in the 5S process, Sorting is key. Sorting out what’s not needed to operate the warehouse daily and to provide the team with a clean slate to organize. Dive into every corner, cabinet, pallet rack, or storage area in the warehouse. Look top-to-bottom and left-to-right. Leave no area unturned.

5S Principle: Set Graphic


This step is defined as straightening or streamlining. Traditional Lean practices encourage a streamlined warehouse setup. An optimal warehouse setup will have the shortest possible distance between movement and pick.

Warehouse managers often fall into the trap of using established categories when sorting, instead of thinking about a Lean warehouse. The warehouse can be organized by type of object, chronology of order cycle or most-to-least used. Lean warehousing requires a willingness to implement whatever system will result in the most efficient warehouse. Once you establish the right categories and sort criteria, it’s important to make sure that there is a place for everything. Everything should have an intentional place and a transaction, or a set method of use. This is part of the established process that must be followed.

5S Principle: Shine Graphic


When you walk into a Lean warehouse, the results of this step should be immediately visible. Warehouse operations suffer when cleanliness is considered an expendable element. A clean warehouse frees up space to be more productive and profitable and operates better. If warehouse managers skip this crucial step they will pay a price in efficiency, productivity and increased operating cost.

Cleanliness also contributes to an overall standard of behavior on the part of the employees. It signals that order is an expectation of the warehouse. Regular, daily, sweeping should be a part of this Lean warehouse process It should also include safety inspections (decreasing injury liability) and equipment maintenance checks (increasing equipment longevity).

Standardize principle Graphic


Standardizing is the hallmark of the Lean methodology. An example of this is the use of standardized labels. Labels that have all the information needed for any container or product in the warehouse will greatly increase storage and retrieval efficiencies. Eliminating waste is another Lean warehouse tenet. Standardized labels will get rid of wasteful or unnecessary information or clutter.

In Lean warehousing, standardization also applies to a values-driven culture. In it core values drive behavior. Top-down implementation of strong core values results in a consistent and model warehouse culture.

Sustain Principle Graphic


The final step to any successful organization methodology is the sustaining step. A successful Lean warehouse will have implemented an efficient process, taken ownership of the Lean warehouse practice and have a transparent and visible way to record and measure every 5S activity.

Sustaining is also where regular analysis and reassessment occurs. A Lean warehouse prioritizes Continuous Improvement. Metrics must show results or the system must be reassessed. Practice and measurement will set the warehouse operations up for current and long-term success.

5S is sometimes called 6S, highlighting Safety as the 6th S. Whether you call your program 5S or 6S, safety should always be an overarching theme. Whatever work is done must ensure worker safety and proper ergonomics. Otherwise, the program is flawed and must be corrected immediately.

Utilizing Lean practices in your warehouse, beginning with 5S, will yield great results.

Making 5S a part of your warehouse culture will create an environment where problems are immediately visible, and every employee is engaged in solving them, for their own, as well as for the company’s benefit.

Peter Christian

About the Author:

Peter H. Christian was a founding partner and president of espi, a business consulting firm in Northeastern PA. Previously he was an Executive at Crayola Corporation.

He has worked with 300+ clients in business development, profit improvement, operations, IS selection and implementation, and project management. He has 40+ years of experience in strategic and facility planning, CI, lean, and supply chain. He has helped companies to realize millions of dollars in cost reductions and profit improvements adding and retaining thousands of jobs.

He has authored the Amazon bestselling business book, “What About the Vermin Problem?” and is published in a variety of professional magazines.