Lean Six Sigma Improvement and Work Design, Part 9

This is the ninth post in a series taken from a lesson in Pyzdek Institute Lean Six Sigma Black Belt training. Future posts will continue the topic. You can find all of the articles in the series by searching this site for the title.

How can we keep the workplace safe, clean and organized? (5S)

The standardized approach to work is completely dependent upon maintaining discipline in the workplace. Procedures are useless if they are not maintained and followed. Change is not only inevitable, it is desirable and pursued continuously. When favorable change has been discovered it is made part of the standard.

The workplace itself is the physical manifestation of the standard. It includes the materials, equipment, and tools needed to do the work according to the standard. It does not include anything that is not needed. Just as the work cell is laid out to produce maximum efficiency, the details are also arranged to achieve this goal. The necessary tools are placed where they can be easily and immediately accessed when needed. Strict housekeeping is enforced to assure that clutter is non-existent; clutter is not needed to do the work, so it is to be eliminated. In Lean Six Sigma the system used to create and maintain an efficient, clutter-free and clean workplace is known as “5S.” 5S. 5S is the starting point for Lean deployment. 5S stands for Sort, Set in order, Shine, Standardize, and Sustain. These terms are defined as follows:

  • Sort. Clearly distinguish what is necessary to do the job from what is not. Eliminate the unnecessary.
  • Set in order. Put needed items in their correct place to allow for easy accessibility and retrieval.
  • Shine. Keep the workplace clean and clear of clutter. This promotes safety as well as efficiency.
  • Standardized cleanup. Develop an approach to maintaining a clean and orderly work environment that works.
  • Sustain. Make a habit of maintaining your workplace.


Earlier in the training we focused attention on process steps and operations activities that were non-value-added. The same search for waste occurs with 5S during the Sort phase. Sort means that you vigorously search for items in the work place that are not needed to perform the value-added work being done. This is much more difficult than it sounds. People tend to want to hold on to things “just in case” they are needed at a future time. This mentality is an artifact that results from the pre-lean era when unforeseen problems–for example equipment failures, quality defects, bottlenecks, etc.—created such needs. This hoarding behavior results in the accumulation of things that are not needed in the well designed lean work cell. They take up space which is needed for production and they get in the way of smooth movement within the work cell.


To deal with the “we may need this later” mentality, and the general uncertainty regarding what is and is not needed, it is best to proceed by placing an item in a holding area before discarding it completely. In Lean Six Sigma this is done by using red-tags. When a red-tag is placed on an item the team is asking three questions:

  1. Is this item needed in this work cell?
  2. If the answer to #1 is yes, is it needed in this quantity?
  3. Does this item need to be located here?

Items that are red-tagged are considered one-by-one and one of the following actions is taken:

  • They are left where they are.
  • They are moved to another location for storage.
  • They are held in a local red-tag holding area for a specified period of time to see if they are needed or not.
  • They are disposed of, i.e., thrown away, sold, used elsewhere in the company, or moved to a central red-tag holding area.

If large equipment is red-tagged it should be handled as described above if possible. If the equipment can’t be moved it can remain where it is for a while, but it should be removed when it is determined that it is not needed where it is.

The results of the red-tag effort should be documented to show the value of the effort. It is not uncommon for companies to postpone or scrap plans to add facility space after seeing the amount of floor space freed as a result of the red-tag program. This is the infamous “hidden factory” made visible.

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Author: Thomas Pyzdek

Consultant, author, owner of The Pyzdek Institute