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Improve your 5S culture by lowering your standards

In our company, we are working on improving our 5S culture at the moment. One of the focus areas is about setting, updating or improving standards for each of our areas. Over the time we have been doing this I have spent a lot of time thinking about how best to drive 5S improvement culture through the use of standards.

To make it clear, by ‘standard’ I mean some way of making it obvious what the standard for an area or workspace is. I’m not defining this as a specific method for making standards as this should be fairly open and suit the specific environment or needs of the area owner. It could be a photo, some bullet points, a checklist, or even a vision statement. What’s important is that the ideal state for the area is communicated in a way that is understood by the owner and the observer.

When setting a standard we need to be realistic about where we are in the 5S journey and set our standards accordingly. If we think about 5S as a long journey to perfection, it’s great to have a vision of what the end state might look like. Along the way, it’s a good idea to have many smaller milestones to reach for so we can experience a feeling of making progress. If we only focus on perfection, we are likely to miss celebrating the many incremental steps that were achieved along the way.

By setting a perfect standard we can sometimes make the standard impossible to realise. It’s much better to set a realistic standard that requires some improvement to achieve but doesn’t necessarily ask for perfection all at once. The other downside to focusing on perfection as a 5S standard is that we lose sight of the true purpose of 5S, which is to make problems obvious and to continuously improve.

For example, I recently reduced the physical size of my desk from 1800 mm x 800 mm to 1200 mm x 700 mm as part of my ongoing project to minimise the space I take up to do my work. This included eliminating my drawers and replacing them with a mobile office bag. Currently this bag sits on the floor as I don’t have a specific place for it. It’s OK on the floor, it’s not in the way, it has everything I need and it’s taking up much less space than the set of drawers that used to be on the floor. It’s just not as pretty. I keep the bag open so the items are accessible, which again doesn’t look as pretty but allows me to access everything I need quickly, without extra movements.  To make these deliberate choices clear my 5S standard has a specific bullet point that addresses my bag. It says ‘Items on floor as per standard” and shows the bag in the photo.

5S Desk

In an ideal world my bag would be mounted on the side of my desk for easy access, although it’s interesting how little I still use it (once or twice a day). In the long term I’d like to reduce reaching under the desk to access it and a key part of the 5S process is continuous improvement. When I do move it, my 5S standard will be updated to show the improvement and the future standard will show a higher level of 5S than before. If I was to show a 5S standard that said ‘no items on the floor’ or didn’t show the bag in the photo, I would constantly be below the required standard. Nobody likes to be below standard so it’s much better for me to set a realistic achievable standard that clearly states how things should be under normal conditions.

You might be wondering how you get around the possibility of people setting really low standards for their area and let’s face it, it’s tempting for people to do. In the end, it’s all about making the standard a stretch but not putting it out of reach. Below is a photo of my desk today. That’s what it looks like at the moment. I have an extra jacket due to the cold in the factory, my lunch is in a plastic bag on the floor (to stop it dripping on the carpet while it defrosts), I have paper and notes on my desk and a rolled up mat on the side that’s waiting for an owner. It’s not perfect and it doesn’t meet the standard right now, at this moment.


It’s close though and at the end of the working day, it will be restored to the level the standard requires, except for the mat. My challenge is to maintain the standard I have set for myself and improve on the standard over time. There are some key themes here that are important to note:

  1. I have set the standard for myself
  2. My standard is focused on a specific area and refers to specific areas to address
  3. You can’t see it but my standard is in line with what the company requires as a minimum standard.
  4. My standard is achievable

It’s important that we don’t set 5S standards too high along our journey. If a standard is unachievable, team members will become demotivated and frustrated with the program itself. “It’s impossible.’ ‘unrealistic’, ‘they just don’t get it’ and ‘waste of time, we’ll never get there so why bother’ will be phrases that are heard often.

As, a leader It’s easy to demand perfection. It’s just a few words after all for us. For our team members however it can be an unreasonable expectation with no hope of success on the horizon. If we start by demanding less than perfection, but more than now, our team members are set up to succeed from the beginning and the results will speak for themselves. 



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