IPMA International Project Management Association
29 January 2018 / 8:13

5S (or 6S) Lean Management technique: Possible uses in project management

The quality of project management processes has a significant bearing on the output(s) and deliverables of any project. Despite the availability of a large variety of quality management tools and techniques in general, the number of such tools / techniques used for project management work remains somewhat limited.

Building inventories of quality management tools and techniques for project management work through cross-fertilization and integration from other engineering and management disciplines will have a positive spillover effect on the quality of project management work. Particularly, as the available tools / techniques have been and are being used in other disciplinary contexts, it will be easy to learn from their real work usage outside the project management discipline and then extrapolate that knowledge for use in project management.

One of the candidate techniques that has not been seriously considered for use in project management (at least, as much as one would like it to be) is 5S (or 6S).

5S (or 6S) is a lean diagnostic technique (developed as a quality management methodology in Japan) aimed at optimization of the workplace environment and efficiency of work performance.

5S (or 6S) technique explained

5S (or 6S) denotes 6 key steps in process improvement: Seiri, Seiton, Seiso, Seiketsu, Shitsuke and Safety (Tran, 2016). The steps are explained below.

Sort (Seiri): The 1st step in 5S (or 6S) improvement process is to sort out the workplace and identify necessary and unnecessary items. The idea is to have a workplace where all the necessary items are readily available for efficient working. The unnecessary items are either disposed of or kept off-site for future use.

The Sort step may not be limited to just clearing the space of clutter, but it could be considered in a wider context to sort from a 4M perspective i.e., Man, Machine, Method and Material.

Straighten (Seiton): This 2nd step in the process is putting, sequencing, organizing and arranging the necessary items in a manner that makes them easy to use them, thus adding to the overall efficiency of the workplace.

Shine or Scrub (Seiso): The 3rd step is a cleansing step where the workplace is thoroughly cleaned of debris, hindrances, stains / spots and roadblocks. The idea is to avoid injuries, and to create products or work outputs that do not get stained from the uncleanness of the environment.

Standardize / Systemize (Seiketsu): The 4th step involves developing processes to systematize the operation of the first three steps (Sort, Straighten and Shine). The idea here is to inculcate the first three steps’ processes in people’s habits and work routines. This is to avoid people partially or fully forgetting to do the earlier step(s) and engaging in old habits of inefficient working.

Sustain (Shitsuke): The 5th step is to sustain the new work processes and systems as enshrined in the first three steps and reap the benefits of overall work efficiencies. This step is about continuously doing good things and letting the routines become mature and ingrained in day-to-day project work.

Safety: In recent time, Safety has been added as the 6th S in the 6S model. The addition of this new S is fitting and a needed extension. This step involves ensuring that the operationalization of work and the work environment meet required safety standards.

Possible uses of 5S (or 6S) technique in Project Management

For illustration purposes we consider two different projects and describe use of 5S (or 6S) in each of them (listed actions and possibilities should not be considered complete or exhaustive and are merely for illustration purposes). The 5S (or 6S) cycle can be used separately at different stages of projects. In fact, it seems more reasonable to use 5S (or 6S) in a team context. For instance, the Planning, Design, Implementation, Quality Control, and Procurement teams can each use the 5S (or 6S) cycle on their own. However, for areas where there is an overlap, the use of 5S (or 6S) can be expanded within or across teams.

    1. Building Construction Project – Implementation focused example:

(1) Sort: The step will involve the people involved on site working to sort out the materials, machines, and manpower needed for the work. The removal of unnecessary elements from the site will provide more space for free movement, lessen possibilities of injuries, improve chances of task completion in time, to name a few.

At the implementation stage, Sort can also be used to identify and eliminate any unnecessary tasks or work that may not needed to be executed or any technical extras that may not be needed. This could also help eliminate or resolve any unnecessary work items that may have been added due to design errors or for some other reasons (e.g., to inflate time and costs).

(2) Straighten: With this step, staff can organize the materials, machines, equipment, work tools in a way that they are accessible, so enhancing the chances of work efficiencies.

Also, implementation tasks sequence if changed due to any reasons could be straightened at this step to get the most optimized task sequence that adds value to the work performance.

(3) Shine: Using this step, the site can be cleared of waste, debris, rubble, mud, pools of water or chemicals. Doing this regularly will help reduce the chances of injuries, and work can be completed with fewer hiccups.

(4) Standardize: Construction projects often have to comply with Site rules that include Workers Health and Safety / Occupational Health and Safety Rules and other compliance procedures. Construction projects typically being projects of a very standard work type with little variations, offer valuable opportunities to create guidelines and processes for Sort, Straighten and Shine steps for people to follow on the construction site. These guidelines can be used in most types of project, with subtle refinements given the special nature of construction project work.

(5) Sustain: The Project Manager and Site Supervisors can very easily ensure that the work enshrined in three steps of Sort, Straighten and Shine are used as required. The information captured as part of Work Performance measurements and Lessons Learned can then be fed into the Standardize step to continuously refine and improve the use of the 5S (or 6S) technique.

    2. Product Development Project – Design focused example:

(1) Sort: This step will involve the Design team to sort out the materials (e.g., software, stationery, drawing board), machines and equipment (e.g., computer hardware), and manpower (e.g., designers based on the skill set needed for the project, managerial and support staff) needed for the design work. The removal of unnecessary elements will facilitate availability of space, understanding of what tools will be used for design purposes and an environment that breeds creativity and innovative thinking to design the new product.

In Product Development projects, the Sort step could be value adding as it could help in product design re-engineering to remove over-engineering solutions and technical frill that the customer doesn’t value (Design to Market) (Bruschi, 2018).

(2) Straighten: At the step, staff can inventorize materials, machines, equipment, and tools. Once that is done, then these elements need to be organized, tested for safety and health (where needed), labelled and stocked / shelved for ease of access increased work efficiencies.

The step is also very crucial in Product development projects for product re-engineering to facilitate the production processes (Design to manufacturing and Design to Supply Chain) (Bruschi, 2018).

(3) Shine: Design work may involve using charts and sensitive materials, hence the workplace needs to be clean from waste, debris, rubble, dust and scrap. With this step, the space is cleaned and made ready for use. It will reduce chances of sensitive material getting wasted, reduce re-work and help in avoiding potential quality problems.

The Shine step could also be seen as product/packaging re-engineering step to facilitate internal/external logistics and packaging reuse/disposal (Design to material handling) (Bruschi, 2018).

(4) Standardize: It is important to have some ground rules on how to handle, use and stock design equipment and materials. This step can be very useful in setting the necessary processes and rules to ensure a safe and creative design process and work efficiency. Typically, a design process is very creative, and hence human involvement can vary in the process. So at this step, while setting up the processes for Sort, Straighten and Shine steps, it is important to chalk-out how entry and exit of human resources will be managed. These guidelines can be used in most projects with refinements as needed given the context of design work.

(5) Sustain: The Project Manager and Design Supervisors can lead the way to ensure that the work procedures enshrined in three steps of Sort, Straighten and Shine are being complied with. Similar to any other project, the information captured as part of Work Performance measurements and Lessons Learned can then be fed into the Standardize step to continuously refine and improve the use of 5S (or 6S) technique.

Concluding thoughts:

It is a timely need to design inbuilt mechanisms in project processes to improve overall work efficiencies. The availability of a large number of lean management and quality management tools and techniques offers opportunities to consider the integration of these tools and techniques into project management. 5S (or 6S) is a very logical technique that can be used in any context. It seems that project management could be significantly improved by using 5S (or 6S) for process improvements and project work efficiencies.


Bruschi, D (2018). Use of 6S at a firm in China

Tran, L. (2016). Continuous Improvement in Projects with the 5S Methodology, https://www.inloox.com/company/blog/articles/continuous-improvement-in-projects-with-the-5s-methodology/


Special thanks to post-write-up contributions by Roger Tagg.


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Author of this post

Jiwat is a Professor in Project Management. He has considerable experience of working internationally in diverse cultures and business environments.

Jiwat actively contributes to project management community. His work has been published in top scientific journals as well as industry outlets.