By Mike Loughrin, CEO of Transformance Advisors

Reader Beware

It’s time for straight talk about 5S failures.

The kind of discussion that will be uncomfortable for some.

The kind of discussion that will get some people angry.

I will be called a fool and told to take a long hike on a short pier.

Those with weak hearts should not read any further!

It’s time to challenge conventional wisdom about starting a lean transformation.

the truth about 5S

The Contrarian Strikes

I was listening to a lean charlatan the other day.

You the know type. They think they know it all and have all the answers.

And yes, it’s easy to have all the answers when you never think deeply about the questions.

The charlatan was seeking to dazzle me with his wisdom that 5S is a fundamental element of all lean programs and it needs to be the first thing everyone does.

Most of us know that The 5S System sounds very easy and powerful.

But, most of us that have tried to implement 5S have been disappointed and amazed at the challenges.

The old joke proclaims: “it’s fun and easy to do The 3S System.”

Yes, the first three steps – sort, stabilize, and shine – are fun and easy.

It looks like time for me to be a contrarian and proclaim: “The 5S System should not be the first thing you do.”

5S system failures

I’m A Believer

5S system works

Now don’t get me wrong.

I totally believe in The 5S System. But I have found that the last 2 steps – standardize and sustain – are a real bear to tackle.

During my journeys, I have found that a vast majority of organizations have failed initially.

For many, implementing the standardize and sustain steps is not something their skills and culture are able to achieve initially.

That’s just the way it works.

This is not a failure of the tool or the people.

Repeat: that’s just the way it works.

While I have not taken a statistically valid sample – I’m going to put out a hypothesis that “95% of people fail at their first attempt to implement The 5S System.”

What’s The Point

Back to the charlatan.

Why was he so sure that 5S needs to be the first thing everyone does?

I got to thinking about how I never recommend 5S as the first thing to do.

Yes, I admit, I was listening and I was wondering if I needed to change.

But then, I thought about my hypothesis that 95% of people fail at their first attempt.

Why would anyone recommend that you begin your lean transformation with a project that requires a big cultural shift and has a very small chance of success?

5S system fails

Go For A Win

first lean project

The better approach is to begin with a lean project that will provide hands-on experience and deliver results.

Focus on building a foundation that includes:

  • 5 Principles of Lean
  • 7 Types of Waste
  • Value Steam Management
  • Customers Specify Value
  • Continuous Improvement
  • Education
  • Employee Involvement

Achieving the above with your first lean project and also delivering results seems like a great goal.

Plus, the proven path to achieve this is through a standard value stream mapping project.

You are leveraging an approach that has a far higher chance of success.

That’s my recommendation on where to start.


The 5S System is a great lean tool. But, the last two steps require an organization to live and breathe standardization and sustainability.

Don’t be fooled by the lean charlatans that tell you 5S needs to be your first lean project.

You don’t want to start your lean transformation with a failure.

Go for a win and leverage a value stream mapping project that will provide a much higher chance of success and a much higher return on investment.

Plus, if your current state map identifies disorganization and chaos, then do the 3S – it’s fun and easy!

5S System Summary

Want More?

Read about why A3 problem solving efforts fail.

Learn how I was all wrong about 5S.

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