The proceeding is a follow-up to “In Through the Out Door,” which appeared on Ideas to Action in February 2015. 


5S is a method for organizing an underfunctioning space. Each “S” signifies one of the following steps: sort, straighten, shine, standardize and sustain.

Sorting involves reducing the number of items by removing those that are unnecessary — shoes that are out of style or that no longer fit, for example, or duplicate items that have accumulated unnecessarily. Food in a refrigerator might be sorted into “good” and “bad,” and discarded accordingly.

Straightening involves arranging the remaining items so the most frequently used are more easily accessible and so that transport, motion and search time are minimized. Everyday shoes are stored in the front of the closet, for example, while infrequently used dress shoes are placed further back. The steps of sort and straighten, taken together, reduce clutter by first removing unwanted or unneeded items and then finding appropriate places for the items that remain.

Shining (or sweeping) a space is more than just cleaning up; it’s discovering how and why clutter or disorder have accumulated and taking corrective steps. The shining step sometimes requires adding new things rather than just the elimination that often occurs in the process of sorting and straightening. The next grocery list, for example, might contain some new foods to fill out the recently emptied space on the second shelf; a heavy closet cleaning might cause the wardrobe owner to realize the need for a new pair of black shoes that complements his dark suit collection; or, at a business, a new rack might be purchased to make a closet full of maintenance equipment more usable to the operator. The key is not to expect a large investment for infrastructure if the sorting step has been taken, because usually there is less need for storage space once unnecessary items have been removed.

Standardizing is a refinement step that makes the process so intuitive that a checklist is no longer needed. It is a precursor to the last step, sustain, which is the process of repeating or scaling up the system and maintaining it over time. Standardizing might mean creating a manual that defines a filing system, but sustaining means teaching the filing system to others and ensuring that the files are monitored and reviewed.

Sustaining is the process of maintaining the gains produced by the first four steps, and it is the step that achieves and creates the “new normal” — the new current state.

As Erika (see “In Through the Out Door”) performs a 5S analysis on several of her household functional areas, she keeps in mind the outcome or purpose of the spaces. Each location (kitchen and entry-exit hub) plays a critical role in Erika’s daily routines, which should in turn support Erika’s life goals. The set of processes (standard work) that Erika determines for using her spaces is not the same thing as the 5S process. The five steps in the 5S process are specifically used to optimize space, whereas standard work describes the processes that will take place within that space. These are distinct but related concepts. Being able to visualize the end result and knowing how each component of that end state adds value should influence the decisions she makes.

In the kitchen, Erika sorts and straightens by eliminating non-value-added objects and then categorizing what remains. She considers why her kitchen became problematic for her to use in the first place (the shinestep). She realizes that she can reduce the reaccumulation of non-value-added items in her kitchen by adding a new single-serve cup coffee maker and purchasing and storing her vitamin jars in easy reach of the coffee machine. She considers the ways she uses the space (standard work) and relates these to the physical organization and available equipment in the kitchen area. Erika then standardizes by keeping her kitchen clean and stocking her shelves with supplies. Finally, Erika sustains the process through practice. By this point, Erika should be able to simply hand over a simple manual to any new  household employee that explains the organization of the kitchen, the tasks that must be performed to maintain the space as is, and the reasons for the choices she has made.

In the new entry-exit hub, Erika sorts and straightens by eliminating items that clutter the space and organizing items that she does want. She creates places to sort mail, keep her keys and ID card, and store weather-related items such as coats and umbrellas and, of course, shoes! In the shine step, Erika will be sure that the area is clean, and that it retains its functionality.

As Erika uses the room, she may notice certain aspects of the way the space is organized that should be adjusted. This is the standardize portion of the 5S process. The standardize step is the result of the interaction between the standard work processes and the space that has been designed to support them. Perhaps she realizes that a few pairs of shoes she uses more often must be shifted downward, or that one shoe collection would be easier to select from if it were sorted by heel height or color. Erika standardizes when she works out the kinks and defines the process so that she would feel comfortable handing a manual about her mudroom to a new employee. Lastly, she sustains her improvements by keeping the room clean and remembering to empty the recycle bins so her junk mail doesn’t overflow the bin. One of the primary indications of a successful 5S implementation is minimizing the effort required to sustain it.


Kaizen is a Japanese term for “continuous process improvement” or CPI. The philosophy is that things can always be improved, as opposed to only fixing things when they are broken.

While kaizen is often thought of as a long-term,  holistic process, the same concepts can be used to improve an isolated process. In Erika’s case, she already has a very streamlined life, and she wants to use the kaizen model to reorganize her home and the routines that mark her transitions between one set of activities (inside the house) and another (outside the house). She is still using the kaizen model, however, by being proactive and finding ways to think critically about and improve a process before it is “broken.” We do not follow Erika’s life long enough to see what she does with the increase in energy that she might have after her new routines have been in effect for a while; it is likely that her smoother experiences of leaving and arriving home will free up time and attention that she can put to use elsewhere. While she may simply spend more time relaxing with friends or watching television, it’s also possible that Erika will use her “extra” time for some other productive activity. Similarly, as a company makes investments in streamlined, aligned processes and builds employee capability — and as the benefits from these projects begin to compound and become more noticeable — the company can also become more profitable.

Identifying and Removing Muda

Muda is a Japanese word that means waste, which is understood to be anything that does not add value. The eight categories of muda are as follows:

  • Transportation
  • Excess inventory
  • Motion
  • Waiting or queuing
  • Overproduction
  • Overprocessing
  • Mistakes (defects)
  • Untapped creativity or human potential

Erika has already streamlined much of her workday, wardrobe, household management and career. She is satisfied with her life but identifies areas to improve. Her new mail- and coat-room (entry-exit hub) eliminates excess motion, transportation and overprocessing; her kitchen organization eliminates excess motion and waiting; and her shoe closet, located in the entry-exit hub, eliminates the overprocessing of searching for the correct pair of shoes.

This post is excerpted from The Lean Anthology: A Practical Primer in Continual Improvement (Productivity Press), by Management Consultant Rebecca Goldberg (MBA ’03) and Darden Professor Elliott N. Weiss. In the book, the authors define Lean as “the relentless pursuit of creating value by strategically eliminating waste” and illustrate Lean principles in real-life settings. Please see this post’s companion piece, “In Through the Out Door,” for theories on organizing space, process improvement and eliminating waste.

For more concepts detailed in the book, please see Avoiding Martial-Arts Moves by ‘Pulling the Andon Cord’ and How Process Improvement Principles Can Save Time in Your Day in The Darden School of Business/Washington Post “Case in Point” series.

Professor Weiss teaches in the Executive Education program Management Essentials for Developing Leaders, which equips new managers and technical experts with the essential management skills and strategic perspectives needed to succeed in today’s business world.