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by Rene T. Domingo (email comments to

Among the world-class manufacturing technologies perhaps the most applicable to the service sector is the 5-S Housekeeping program. Originally conceived to create a clutter-free, well-organized, spic-and-span working environment in factories, 5S is now seen as a widely applicable concept regardless of industry and size of company. Some government agencies and hospitals have even tried it with promising results. The principle behind 5-S, which is often labeled as organized common-sense, is that in order to achieve high levels of quality, safety, and productivity, workers must have a conducive working environment. Conversely, a cluttered, disorganized workplace demotivates employees and hinders any attempt to improve their efficiencies. 5-S, as described, must necessarily be a company-wide program, requiring full management support. Its full benefits will not be realized if applied partially, or done only in some departments or units in the company. Moreover, 5-S application must be continuous and sustainable. It requires continuous monitoring for compliance. If treated merely as a project, with a beginning and an end, a 5-S program could fail, as it is too easy for employees to return to the original disorganized state. 5-S is not just about changing and improving the physical workplace, but also about molding new employee attitudes and behaviors, and instilling discipline in all of them. 5-S is supportive of, if not a pre-requisite to other company-wide improvement programs like total quality management (TQM), kaizen or continuous process improvement, and business process reengineering (BPR). The results and benefits of these programs could not be sustained if the workplace they are adapted in remains dirty and disorganized.

If the workplace is conspicuous to customers or extends to the customer service area, 5S could even enhance customer satisfaction and corporate image. Nowadays, back office operations are being merged with the front office operations, visually and physically. Customers are now allowed or even encouraged to see the “kitchen” so to speak. In fact the existence and level of 5-S housekeeping will be perceived by all of the company’s stakeholders, not only customers, but also suppliers, guests, and business partners. It not unusual for them to judge the quality of management and quality of products of a company based on the state of its comfort rooms and cafeterias.

5-S comes from the acronym of the Japanese words seiri, seiton, seiso, seiketsu, and shitsuke. Step 1 or seiri means clearing, or sorting the necessary from the unnecessary items in one’s workplace and removing the latter. Removal in seiri means returning things to owners, moving them to more distant and cheaper storage areas, selling them, donating them, or as a last option, disposing and simply throwing them away. Essentially, seiri is removing workplace clutter and freeing up valuable space, in preparation for the next step. Step 2, seiton, is organizing what was left after applying seiri, or the necessary items in the workplace. It means setting it such that there is a place for everything, and everything is in its place, like in a library. Seiton also involves properly labeling, layout, and storage of workplace items like tools, jigs, files, office equipment, and supplies. A clutter-free and organized workplace is now ready for the third step. Seiso means cleaning or removing dust, dirt, grime, and other foreign elements from the workspace to make it spic-and-span. It involves sweeping, painting, and other finishing activities. After the first 3S’s are implemented, the last two are applied to maintain the new set-up. Seiketsu means standardizing, or setting procedures for all employees to follow and comply with. It means, for example, setting rules on what, when and how to dispose while doing seiri. It sets rules on where and how to store or file items, how to borrow or retrieve them, and how to return them to their proper places. It specifies how and when to clean the workplace and who will do these chores, usually from among the employees themselves. One effective 5-S rule in many Japanese companies is that employees clean the toilets. The result is that they never really get dirty. The fifth and final step is shitsuke, or training and discipline. Employees, particularly new employees, are thoroughly trained on the 5-S principles and rules to facilitate implementation and compliance. Discipline is instilled such that they do not revert to the old ways and habits.

There are three reasons why 5-S should not be confused with the conventional concept of housekeeping, which we normally associate with seiso or cleaning. The first is that while traditional housekeeping is usually done to make a place look good to others, like guests, 5-S goes beyond impressing people and focuses more on helping workers achieve high levels of product and service quality and efficiency in the workplace. The second difference is that 5-S starts with clearing and organizing, while traditional housekeeping starts and ends with just cleaning the workplace. In fact the most important and most difficult steps are these first two, seiri and seiton. Clearing and organizing require political will and policy changes, while seiso, the easiest step, just requires brooms and hands to hold them. 5-S does not begin cleaning or seiso, until and unless the place is rid of unnecessary items with seiri, and organized properly with seiton. It is indeed pointless to organize clutter, and worse to clean them. The third difference is that traditional housekeeping requires an occasion or external reasons to initiate it, like guests are arriving, workers and customers are complaining, accidents are increasing, or the place has become a mess. The problem is that if none of these reasons exists, this type of housekeeping is not done at all. 5-S is a continuous program and requires no external reason to initiate it. 5-S is done whether the workplace is clean or dirty, whether guests are coming or not. A 5-S company or factory is always visitor-ready like a showroom and need not be forewarned with guest reservations or appointments.

A 5-S workplace or establishment is not only nice to look at or show to others. More importantly, it is a pleasant place to work in. 5-S enhances the employees’ quality of life, since they spend more of their waking hours in the company than in their homes. It develops employees’ pride and team spirit. It is also an easier place to manage and supervise since no clutter obscure the status of operations. Deviation, problems, and non-compliance are easily spotted since everybody knows, without asking, where things and items are supposed to be. Accidents and mistakes are minimized since there are dangerous clutter lying around, and items and places are properly labeled or marked.

How do you know if you are doing 5-S or how far you have gone in the program. There is a 5-S benchmark rule called the 30-second rule that says that you should be able to get any item, file, tool, report, document, within 30-seconds. Otherwise you’re workplace is cluttered and disorganized. Try this simple test and time your request.

5-S and the 30-second rule even apply in the electronic age. If you could not get an electronic file or document in 30-seconds, then your information system is cluttered and disorganized, and may require electronic “cleaning”. The service industry is becoming more competitive and wired. A service company may achieve its ultimate cost and competitive advantage by applying 5-S thoroughly in its physical as well as virtual workplaces.


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