6S is often thought of as the foundation for continuous improvement. While traditionally considered only applicable to a manufacturing environment, it is highly relevant for non-manufacturing operations as well. In this article, we will define 6S, discuss its benefits, and consider its importance to an organization.

Overview: What is 6S? 

The concept of 6S was initially developed as 5S.  There is some debate as to the original developer, with some saying it was Hiroyuki Hirano who took the known correlation of good housekeeping with optimized production and developed a structure and sequence. Others say it was Takashi Osada, and some say it was Sakichi Toyoda and son Kiichiro as well as Toyota engineer Taiichi Ohno who developed the Toyota Production System and the 5S methodology.  

In any case, it was developed in Japan. The original Japanese terms for 5S are:

  1. Seiri
  2. Seiton
  3. Seiso
  4. Seiketsu
  5. Shitsuke

These were subsequently translated into English with the addition of Safety:

  1. Sort
  2. Set in Order (Straighten)
  3. Shine
  4. Standardize
  5. Sustain
  6. Safety

Here is a description of the terms:

  1. Sort: The goal of Sort is to separate the necessary and unnecessary items in the workplace. The items not currently needed and not being used should be removed from the work area. Some may be discarded totally or some put nearby for easy retrieval, and some might be Red Tagged and put in a disposition area for further evaluation.
  2. Set in Order: Set in order means to arrange the items that are needed in the area and identify them so that anyone can find them or put them away. The key phrase is “a place for everything and everything in its place.” Create borders or boundaries to keep items from creeping out of place with tape or painted lines. Create a home address for items so people will know where they go, and you can tell if something is missing at a glance. Labeling, signage, and item descriptions are important.
  3. Shine: Shine emphasizes the ongoing removal of  dirt, grime, and dust from the work area daily. This is an ongoing program of keeping the work area swept and clean of debris. It is often said that Cleaning is Inspection; Inspection is Detection; Detection is Correction.
  4. Standardize: Standardize means to develop and implement a procedure for doing the 6S, particularly the first three; Sort, Set in order and Shine.
  5. Sustain: Sustain means developing a mindset whereby the 6S program has a discipline that ensures its continued success and is ingrained in everyday work life and procedures.
  6. Safety: Safety was an additional “S” that was added to the original 5S. In addition to focusing on safety in the workplace, the 5S all have an impact on Safety. If the workplace is clean and organized, it will be less likely for someone to get hurt or something to get damaged.

3 benefits of 6S

It would seem intuitive that a clean and organized workplace would be beneficial for any organization. Here are three benefits that should encourage any organization to implement a 6S program. 

  1. Safety improvements: An organized workplace and established procedures will reduce accidents and damage.
  2. Quality improvements: By having an organized workplace, there will be fewer lost items, fewer damaged items, and less of an opportunity for delays of customer deliveries.
  3. Process improvements: If you are spending time looking for something that is not in its place, you are wasting time.  If something is put in an inconvenient location or is difficult to retrieve, that slows down the process. If you inadvertently misplace something and have to go purchase another one, only to find that you already have two that were hiding, you are losing money.

Why is 6S important to understand? 

It is important to not only understand what 6S is but also how to put it into place in your organization. 

Saves time

Having a disorganized workplace will cost you time, money, employee satisfaction, and likely create customer dissatisfaction. Implementing 6S is the easiest and most cost-efficient way of overcoming these barriers. 

Sets a foundation

6S is a foundation for continuous improvement. If you are disorganized, you don’t really know what your baseline condition is. Without that knowledge, it makes no sense to try improving your processes. Why buy new clothes if you don’t know what you already have because your closet is in disarray? You may already have two shirts of the same color and design.

Helps you steer clear of code violations

You may be in violation of OSHA or state and local health and safety rules. You may incur serious and costly fines for violation of national, state, or local ordinances. If you have blocked fire exits because you have no place to put a pallet, you may be fined for creating a fire hazard — or worse.

An industry example of 6S 

A small manufacturer finally decided to implement a 6S program after a number of negative occurrences. Customer parts were misplaced, causing significant delivery delays. Machines were broken down for months because of missing parts. Employees suffered eye injuries because they weren’t using eye protection when cutting steel parts.  

Multiple items were purchased because they couldn’t find the ones already on the shelves. Cash was tied up in inventory without knowing what exactly they had and whether there would be any future opportunity to use the material. Bins were not labeled or mislabeled so time was wasted looking for parts. There were trip hazards because of electrical wires on the ground.  Fork lifts were just parked anywhere at the end of the day blocking access to materials and exit doors.  

The Owner finally decided to seriously implement a 6S program. After training his people on 6S, they did an initial 6S audit of the plant. It became obvious to everyone that there were lots of opportunities for improvement. The Owner is now engaging everyone to help implement 6S in their own areas. There is great enthusiasm that their input is being sought and that there is accountability for all of them.

3 best practices when thinking about 6S 

There is no real technological challenge or capital expense to implementing a good 6S program. Here are a few tips and best practices.

  1. Make sure everyone understands the 6S and how it benefits them. Some basic training as to the definition of 6S is the first step. Establish the benefits and WIFM (what’s in it for me) so employees appreciate the potential impact on their workplace.
  2. Engage everyone in the deployment effort for 6S. Get everyone involved in coming up with ideas on how to 6S their personal area. Get their ideas and make them accountable for making the changes.
  3. Be sure that there is a plan for sustaining the changes. Sustaining the changes is important since it is human nature to revert back to old behaviors if there isn’t a defined plan to continue the changes. Having your employees conduct ongoing 6S audits is a good way to keep everyone accountable and engaged.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) about 6S

  1. What are the elements of 6S?

Sort, Set in Order, Shine, Standardize, Sustain and Safety. 

  1. Is 6S applicable to non-manufacturing operations?

Yes. In any organization, there are many opportunities to organize the workplace, whether it be the Finance Department, Maintenance, or Manufacturing.

  1. What is the difference between 5s and 6S? 

Safety was added to the original 5S because of the importance of Safety as part of the overall organization of the workplace. The other 5S also have an impact on the ability of an organization to provide a safe environment for its employees.

Wrap Up: 6S

6S is the structured activity of creating a safe and organized work environment. It is the foundation of any continuous improvement deployment.  

Getting buy-in and engagement from your employees is critical to establishing the mindset and accountability for implementing and sustaining any 6S deployment. Don’t attempt to do everything at one time. Logically lay out a planned and sequenced deployment across the organization. And don’t forget the non-manufacturing functions since there are also significant opportunities for deploying 6S various other functional areas.

About the Author