5s Erosion: What Is The Problem?

I had another opportunity today to discuss why I am not a big fan of “5S audits.” I fully realize that 5S audits are out there in a big way and are almost pro-forma as a “lean practice.” I have not run into any consultants who do not have some kind of 5S audit in their collection of tools, and the topic has pretty constant traffic on the Lean Enterprise Institute discussion forums – and just about anyone who offers one up gets a lot of requests for copies.

Before I go too far, though, let me explain what I mean when I say “5S audit.”

What I typically see is a single page with a 6×6 matrix of squares on it. Down the left hand side in column 1 are labels for whatever 5 “S words” are being used in this particular version. Across the top in the top row are points assignments from 1 to 5.

The grid is then filled with criteria in each “S” to get the specified number of points, maximum 5 in each category.

Auditor takes the checklist, looks at the area being audited, perhaps asks some questions, and assesses, for each “S” how many points are given.

It is typical to then make some kind of chart – spider diagrams are popular – and assign the area a score, perhaps an average, so they are, for example, at “Level 3” on their 5S efforts.

Does that about capture it? There are variations, but I do not care so much about the form as I do the function.

And what, exactly, is the function?

That is a question that does not get asked often enough, and if it does, the asker does not press hard enough on “exactly.”

Let’s keep in mind that this audit consumes time and resources and produces nothing. Therefore it had better be an effective countermeasure to some kind of problem.

What, exactly, is the problem?

How do you know? What have you observed?

Give that a little thought.

29 Replies to “5s Erosion: What Is The Problem?”

  1. This is an intriguing post today. I like to consider myself a Practical Lean leader. My 20 years in manufacturing has been in roles where I had to provide resources for the activities and have been responsible for the outcomes. So I don’t implement systems unless they will help hit the objectives. So when it comes to 5S, I am not one to do things just for appearance sake. With that in mind, my experience is that you will need to do the audits to measure progress until you get to the 5th S (Sustain) and will need to continue to audit to sustain the improvements. You will lose much of the improvements without systems in place to support the 5S initiative and the system will need to include audits. My recommendation is to find a realistic balance and frequency of auditing.

  2. I think this is a classic example of a tool looking for a problem. I just received my copy of “Toyota Kata” – haven’t started it yet but was flipping through the pages and came across a useful diagram on page 107. It shows the difference between “without a target condition” and “with a target condition.” Without a target condition we can only guess what to do – set-up reduction?, 5S?, kanban?, etc. With a target condition we can determine the best course of action. I do understand the argument that 5S has benefits in and of itself – better work environment, improved safety, etc. But do we really need a full-blown 5S audit performed by someone outside the work area? I would suggest putting some simple 5S checks into the leader standard work for the area.

  3. Let me be an irresponsible lean practitioner and say; 5S is only a cleaning exercise. Yes, that’s right. I said it. I know what 5S can be. And I know how deep the program can go. But 5S has never done anything for us, here where I work, except help us focus on cleaning. OK. So now that we are clean, we don’t need 5S anymore. Here where I work the cleaning lady is the most aggressive, self motivated, hardworking individual in the plant. She said, have your place cleaned up, your floors swept and your chairs and trash cans up off the floor Wednesday evening, or else! And she means it. So every Wednesday afternoon at the end of the shift everyone is busy as a bee cleaning up. (I need to put her in charge of Lean)

    So what’s all this stuff about “audits”? Oh, you mean inspections! Yeah, I remember that from boot camp. If the quarter didn’t bounce up off your bunk so that the DI could catch it, then your down on your hands and toes doing push-ups. So I get it, now we call them audits. It must be the new politically correct term for inspection.

    What, exactly, is the problem you ask?
    The problem is that our workers and supervisors are not engaged in recognizing and solving problems. Period, that simple! 5S may explain the concept of how to recognize a problem, but that in itself does not motivate any real thought, action or continuous improvement. 5S is simple. If I sort my “stuff” and then simplify my “stuff” I’m halfway home. Then I clean my area and make sure I write down what I do so it becomes the standard. Now all I have to do is wait for someone to audit my area and I’ll the best 5S’er in the world! Whether I get a score of 50% or 100% who cares, I’m doing my 5S.

    I’ve been through the 5S audit mine field. Team leaders would continually give their area very high scores. Team leaders would give other areas very high scores. All the scores were always between 90% and 100%. And there was no reward for a high score, except pride in their work area. It so happens my workers come to work to make money. They don’t come to work to improve their self esteem.

    In order to solve the exact (real) problem I’ve been working on our dead 5S program for several months. I’m starting a completely new type of program. If it works, I’ll let you know. But the idea of audits is an interesting topic. It made me re-think what I am measuring. And why I am measuring. In my new program I think I’ll post the number of improvements made instead of a score. Or, to be more precise, the number of improvements you’ve made is your score. Sure why not? It’s what I want to measure. And it tells me what I want to know. It tells me if my new program is working. Yeah, that’s it. Thank you for the inspiration.

    The cleaning lady says, “we don’t need no stinking 5S cleaning program!”

  4. All I can say is Amen to that, I have worked in production for 20 years and have had great success implementing 5s. That said, following up with audits quickly became a chore no one wanted to do and things fell off over time, except for the most disciplined managers. It was more of a check the box kind of thing. I liked the other posters idea of measuring new improvements once things are at a certain level.

  5. All,
    As a lean leader, I dedicate myself to removing barriers that rob the worker of his right to pride in worksmanship, and teaching leaders to remove them. Dirt, mess, unnecessary items, disorganised and disheveled workplaces rob workers of pride in their workplace.
    A way is needed to bring order out of disorder, and keep order. Order is the object and the way to it may have a name or be unnamed. The way is not the object.
    Order doesn’t rob the worker of his right to pride in his workplace, it contributes. Disorder robs.

  6. Mr. Fernandez,
    From your sample (“your workers”), what have you learned about the relationship between the worker’s self-esteem and the work? between the worker’s self-esteem and the workplace? Do you find a strong, weak or no correlation?

    1. I will chime in here and point out that nobody has asserted that a clean and orderly workplace is not desirable. The question is whether a “5S audit” is the most effective countermeasure to maintain it that way.

  7. Gerbuddy:

    I’m sorry if I sounded callous about the workers pride and self-esteem. The culture here where I work is very “clean” oriented. The owners have stressed cleanliness from day one, 40 years ago. We make aerospace parts and our factory is as clean as any hospital. Every Wednesday everyone cleans their area. With or without a 5S program. Workers here take a lot of pride in their work area. OK so maybe some of it is due to fear of the owners.

    Pride in a clean workspace is different than self-esteem. I think self esteem comes from a pat on the back from the supervisors. The plant manager is known for his great self-esteem building. So I guess I see very little correlation between self-esteem and the work or workplace. I see pride in both the work and workplace, but self-esteem comes from someone saying “you’ve done a good job.”

    This really is a great place to work. I was only pointing out that we have not yet gotten much traction from 5S. But I’m working on it.

  8. For me it is necessary to do audits. The reason is that systems tend to degrade over time. I do a lot with Job Instruction and audits are always recommended. If it is more than just training the JI process I get upfront agreement to do the audits. They are simple to do and do not require a lot of time. The job instruction is the audit.

  9. Certainly clean is part of any 5S program, but what about all the others. Clean or “Shine” does make the place look nicer and probably helps with workers pride in the work place and certainly can’t hurt. But I’ve found the biggest gains are in the sorting and stndardizing, particulary when it comes to Cycle time reduction, SMED and TPS. 5S is fundamental to so many aspects of Lean. It’s hard to immaign Lean without 5S. Like in Six Sigma, you can’t improve what you don’t measure. Audits are a way of measuring and assuring “Sustainment”. You don’t need to audit so frequent that it generates waste in manpower, but do think of it as a necessary “non value added activity” that creates value.

  10. Jim,
    Sounds like one of the hinderances to ‘5S’ is calling it that. If you clean every Wednesday, sounds like a reliable program. Remember the goal – a place where problems become apparent immediately. As far as audits, the best I have seen was where other department’s operators audited your workplace, and you audited theirs (on a rotating basis). I was told it was less ‘make us look good’ and more ‘friends helping friends’ – problems were idenfied and evaluated, rewards for improvements, no negative consequence (besides ‘special attention’ for particularly bad areas).

    I agree with ‘management audit’ being not a good idea, along the lines of ‘you don’t play the game you don’t get to make the rules.’ Let the jury be of peers.


  11. The main problem is 5S is mostly interpreted as cleaning activity. Cleaning is the tip of the iceberg as far as 5S is considered. And the problem becomes bigger when, in Heavy fabrication area where dust generated is high, workers clean several times a day and their production is affected & blame 5S for it. They don’t understand that you can reduce your cleaning by preventing dust accumulations.

    5S real benefits will be reaped only when it is understood that 5S is a tool to improve your productions.

    Cleaning comes in Housekeeping & 5S in Lean manufacturing

  12. I´ve been doing 5S audits before I knew about Lean, and when my knowlegde got better and I´ve been working for other companies, I´ve changed my vision from points to something else ! Reasently I visited a company who answered a couply questions with Yes/No instead of points. After audit they noted numbers of No in a diagram and then, the difference !!, they made improvement notes into PDCA för every No. That is for me, a good reason to make audits, call it a source of potential PDCA-improvements :-). (PS they aswell measure improvements/employee). I´m about to startup this audit-checklist at my place after summer. There is my reason.

    1. Interesting replies so far –
      But what is original the problem statement?
      What is the root cause that these audits are eliminating?

      Why is the audit necessary?
      What is its purpose?

      Reversing the question – why happens if you don’t do them?

  13. How about this. The problem is that the 5S system is degrading over time. So the audits are “supposed” to keep the area in it’s 5S condition.

    The problem is that the 5 S’s are not part of the standardized work procedure. I would say the more standardized 5S becomes, the less audits are needed.

    So if the Sort, Simplify and Shine become Standardized actions (every day, part of the daily routine) then the Sustain will take care of itself without audits.

    (In a PDCA cycle how long are we supposed to do the Check process? Forever? Is it possible to Adjust and standardize until at some point we no longer need to Check?)

  14. I think 5S audits are important as a means of keeping score. Its very easy to get lost in a maze of activities, and having an effective audit process helps ensure that actions are prioritized and that the required execution of action items happens.

    However, as Lean Leaders, we have to be mindful of not allowing the audit to become an end in itself. Posting the fancy charts often becomes the objective rather than focusing on and solving the real process issues and root causes. This often results in “short-termism”.

    I think that recognizing that the audit supports 5S rather than the converse is an important paradigm. However, the extent to which audits are used or necessary depends on the culture and maturity of the organization.

  15. Ask yourself this question, what do you think message is, to employees when you have audits?

    We know as lean thinkers one of the main principles of lean is “Repect People”

  16. -What happens if you don’t do audits?
    tools, consumables, etc are not maintained according to original plan (5S event)
    -Why are they not maintained according to plan?
    the plan did not address a root cause
    -Why did the plan not determine root cause?
    5S was taught as a solution.

    Through initial training, many are taught the “5S process” which they take to their company and begin to implement. Implementation is viewed as progress. Soon, this implementation fades, which creates the “need” to audit. Rather than looking at why it’s fading, we implement an audit for accountability. Unfortunately, we are simply ratcheting up the pressure for the operator to, for instance, return his tool to the tool board. Ideally, we would be turning our attention to why the tool is on the machine in the first place. This is how most audits are utilized. Since we can only “take one bite of the elephant at a time”, I don’t believe audits can be eliminated tomorrow, but i do believe they should change (and possibly be eliminated) as we eliminate problems.

    1. Sam –
      If audits are necessary in the early stages, what is their core purpose?
      What is actually being “checked?”

      How would you approach the initial “organize-your-stuff” phases in a way that would be more likely to sustain without an audit?

  17. mark, good questions…
    one possible answer to your first question might be we are checking against a target condition (as Mike Rother puts it). although, i must admit i struggle with proper target conditions. for example, is a 5S standard a target condition, or the takt time within the respective cell a target condition? takt time to me seems like a better target condition, and then using it to, for example, determine that the “wrench being out of place” is what caused the takt time deviation.

    regarding the second question, including more observation in the event comes to mind. during most 5S training, students are taught to go to work sorting immediately…and so on. i have found it useful to spend a great deal of time observing the processes prior to any implementation.

    not to back track, but part of the initial problem a company could be solving through 5S and 5S audits is culture. if a culture is new to lean, the 5th S is VERY challenging. no matter how thorough the solution, employees are just not used to adhering to any sort of plan. they may have spent decades doing things their way or keeping tools locked in tool boxes, etc. it’s human nature to revert back to old habits after the first problem arises. audits are a form of communication and measurement to ensure the cultural changes take hold.

  18. Sam,
    I think you are correct that takt time is a much better target condition than a 5S standard. For example, was “wrench being out of place” the reason takt was missed, or was “operator walking to get parts” a much bigger contributor? Shouldn’t we spend less time on 5S audits and more time investigating and correcting root cause of missed takt (or other target condition that is in-line with business goals).

  19. Why are 5S audits necessary and what is their purpose? Here are my two cents…

    I realize that, ideally, 5S audits should not be necessary because, if done correctly, 5S should be self-sustaining. After all, making a significant improvement to an area should make the team member’s work easier and more efficient, correct? If us, as Lean Leaders, have done our job right, all else should fall into place and compliance from team members should be easy. The reality, however, is that often, some team members who have worked a process for years have the process deep rooted in their behavior and so they will continue to pursue their old behavior even after agreeing to the new standard. And so, with this regard, 5S audits help with these slip backs, especially right after implementation, which typically the most venerable phase.

    Another purpose for 5S audits is to gain engagement from top management. One change I made when I started our new 5S program was to establish 5S Team Audits involving management as well as team members. Involving top management help show team members on the floor that 5S is important. I shouldn’t need an audit to get management involved (but this is another topic). However, the reality is that using audits does help get everyone involved. As a team, we can all discuss right then and there what is going well and what is not, as well as what needs to improve. A good way to have all the key decision makers in one place at one time is to have a regular team audit where we all evaluate the area as a team and decide our next move.

    Finally, just as in sports, in manufacturing, we also need metrics. Metrics are vital to continuous improvement. We need a way to measure our performance and one way to do this is through an audit. How else can determine our current performance level and what our goal is? An audit is a way to establish our current state obejectively and compare it to our ideal state, then ask the question what resources or what needs to happen so that we can go from point A to point B.

    1. You have seen some success with audits.

      What is the problem statement?
      What is the problem that audits are solving or preventing?

      What purpose is served by assigning a score to 5S?
      How is it used?
      I am wary of accepting “we need metrics” as a statement of universally applicable fact.
      Measurements are a way to verify the result of some kind of activity.
      What activity are we measuring?
      What result are we after?

  20. This is fairly simple in my eyes.

    What’s the purpose of the Audit?: What gets measured gets done.

    What happens if there is no audit? Fall back to old habits.

    Is your real question with the Audit itself or with 5S?

    I would suggest however, that many firms use the audit blindly without any though put into it, attempting to mimic use of tools used by Toyota and others. Doing so really defeats the purpose and as you suggest creates it’s own waste. We shouldn’t try to mimic what Toyota does, rather examine the various tools they use and put thought into how those tools, or adapted versions of them, can be effectively used in our own organizations.

    I’ve seen people take great efforts to 5S just prior to a known audit. Audit or not, 5S will not become culture in an organization like this if this is left to continue and does beg to question, is the audit really effective? I don’t think the issue is the audit itself, rather the implementation of the audit that’s the issue.

    I have seen more tangible audit score sheets than characterized above that do attempt to identify and quantify desired behaviors.

    “Isles and doors ways clear and unclutterd?”
    “Storage Locations organized, labled and stocked?”

    “Fire extinguishers marked and accessable?”

    “Score met or exceed previous score?”


    These typically have only a “Pass/Fail” score. Another key aspect is that non-compliant 5S items or activities can and should be acted upon imediately, not waiting for a monthly audit.

    I don’t have an issue with 5S audits, rather 5S audit implementations. But I think its fair and good to question them. Any time there’s a sacred cow (as some 5S audits often are), there’s typically waste.

  21. I spent six years working on lean or in any case world class manufacturing lean principles based… It’s not so much honestly speaking but I think it’s enough to motivate bad feelings with 5S. At the beginning of my journey I’ve been a passionated designer of audits and mega-scoreboard on the shopfloor… now I strongly encourage whoever is trying to help me to improve my organization’s standards, much more to anybody who’s proposing for an audit. As Bono Vox was singing “Is there a time …” we could even say the same … It was a waste auditing but a may be it was a necessary waste to understand a journey based on standardization widely and strongly agreed. And strongly supported by everybody, everyone for his/her own possibilities. This is the reason why I do not feel good now with audits … I perceived them as a cultural wall and an obstacle on a common understanding of the importance of standardization.

  22. Everybody think and feel that 5 s is a cleaning operation. Every one boast that they do house keeping meticulously and periodically and that take care better than 5s. 5s audits are just biased ones and any one can put any score to rank him high. Most of the people forget the fact that creating a culture , work standards, and consistent improvement is that 5s can give when implemented religiously. What I have seen is that by 5s, the creativity , innovation, improves. A bonding and togetherness work for team culture and organization growth. It do away with many unsafe issues and make room for betterment. One can do better with the techniques like six sigma, kaizen, pokayoke , lean management techniques to reap better harvest in productivity, with improved quality standards.

    Every other standards are for compliance and the requirements are specified but in 5s the sky is the limit for betterment. It saves lot of money and repeated effort putting systems to work. I really is an ardent lover of 5s concept.

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