This is the first of a series written by John Bicheno that will appear in every issue. The aim is to foster discussion on lean-related topics where, it is felt, reexamination is called for.

Why so? Because, although lean and its predecessors have been around for over 100 years, many uncertainties with regard to implementation remain. Also, the scope of lean is widening horizontally into (for example) health care, public service, ‘green’ and sustainability, customer service, construction, and less repetitive operations, and vertically into accounting, design, HR, and IT. In these areas, conventional TPS-type lean may need adaptation. And, of course, the world moves on and new insights develop.

Future topics include standardised work, variation, six sigma, value, capacity, kaizen events, pull and push, PDSA, OEE, lean audits, strategy deployment, rewards, systems thinking and measures.

Readers are encouraged to submit their comments in advance on these topics, but also on any other topic considered relevant. General acknowledgement will be given in the form of “contributions have been received from”. The ‘Letters and comment’ section can be used for comments in arrears.

This issue contains a superb article that relates to the assumed benefits of a 5S-type housekeeping exercise. It should give pause for consideration.

5S has become a widely accepted foundation for lean implementation. It appears at the base in many ‘House of Lean’ illustrations. But, like ‘obvious’ things to do there should be caution. Consider:

  • The much publicised 5S implementation at HMRC. ‘The £7m tidy desk’ said The Times. ‘Ah, yes’, said an employee, ‘Lean is about not allowing a banana on your desk.’
  • How many times have you done 5S? Quite a few? You are not alone!
  • Is 5S 5S or is it 2S?
  • The experience of one company where, after much effort had gone into launching 5S, a cell layout exercise took place negating much of the earlier work, and drawing workforce criticism of the consultants who were paid ‘for nothing’.
  • One company that continues to make good profits, even exporting to China, but where there is no 5S programme. The parent company in Switzerland has hospital-like appearance, but makes a loss.
  • Several well known companies have ‘tidy desk’ policies. But take a look in drawers and cupboards, and at computer file organisation…
  • The story of Sir Alexander Fleming, whose notoriously untidy lab led to a petri dish with fungus. Penicillin resulted from Sir Alexander’s questioning culture (literally!). By contrast, Don Dennis’ fanatical attention to cleanliness and detail certainly has been instrumental in McLaren’s F1 success.
  • 5S Corporate Japan style: Daily at 5 p.m. a bell rings and an announcement comes over the tannoy to remind office workers to leave their desk tidy. On Friday, at 4:30 a bell rings, and the tannoy announces the half hour for office clean up. There are no cleaners. Now that’s what I call sustainability! Or not.


  • 5S sustainability can be a problem when it is seen as just ‘housekeeping’. Do the real benefits come in the earlier stages of Sort and Simplify or the later stages of Scan and Standardize?
  • Is 5S pushed or pulled? Pulling 5S means that a specific gap is recognised that 5S aims at closing. Perhaps the gap is high variation, or productivity, or safety.
  • Conversely, pushing 5S means (typically) a big announcement because 5S is ‘obviously’ a good thing to do.
  • Many 5S programmes are called 6S – adding on safety. Think about this one. Should safety be the sixth S or should safety be integral to the other S’s?
  • If the place is a mess, should you begin with a ‘cleanup’ programme, not calling it 5S?
  • In TWI Job Instruction (JI), workstation layout is integral to the JI process. Thus, 5S becomes the natural way of working, and may not even be called 5S. So, what can be learned from the vast TWI experience? Should 5S be extended alongside JI?
  • What about multiple shift responsibilities for 5S?
  • A big one for 5S is flow. Should 5S be delayed until flow is thought through (and then implemented simultaneously)? In other words, runner routes, cells, inventory presentation, kanban, tools and dies, are all part of 5S.
  • Should 5S be part of Leader Standard Work?
  • Is 5S required in offices? Should you begin with tidying the desk or the computer files?
  • What about 5S with your suppliers? Should they be sorted, simplified, scanned, standardised, and sustained?
  • You may have an audit process for 5S. If so, does it encourage ticking the boxes at the expense of continuous improvement? And, do you audit once per week, like a Queen’s visit? And, putting yourself in the shoes of those that are audited, have you asked ‘What’s in it for me?’
  • So, the bottom line is, is the need clearly articulated and understood?

Please note: The Fifth Column does not advocate. It aims to provoke.