Continuous Improvement in Projects with the 5S Methodology

Linh Tran, Friday 29 July 2016 | Reading time: 7 min.

It’s unwise to strive for perfection, as you can always improve something. A method that helps organizations and projects improve continuously by eliminating waste and optimizing processes, is the 5S methodology.

“Strive for continuous improvement, instead of perfection.”
Kim Collins

As circumstances change, even the most efficient processes can be improved with newer methods and standards.

What is the 5S methodology?

Just like Kaizen or Lean, the 5S methodology was developed in Japan with the focus on optimizing the organization of the workplace. The methodology is called ‘5S’ because it comprises of 5 steps: Seiri, Seiton, Seiso, Seiketsu and Shitsuke. Translated into English: Sort, Set in Order, Shine, Standardize and Sustain. By implementing the 5S methodology and its standards, organizations can increase their efficiency and effectiveness by re-organizing the workplace and eliminating waste. The key aspect is to introduce a standardized workplace organization process. If implemented correctly, this method can also help project managers and project teams save time, budget and effort.

The 5S: Sort, Set in order, Shine, Standardize, Sustain

Let’s take a look at the 5S and how you can use them to increase your projects’ efficiency and avoid delays or even project failures:

Step 1: Sort (Seiri)

The first step is to clean up your workplace and sort everything into groups or types of objects. The goal is to identify unnecessary or little used items. You should dispose of the first and move the latter to an area or storage with other less frequently used objects. The benefit of the first step is that you can get rid of waste, literally and figuratively, and free your workplace from clutter so that you won’t have to waste time searching for the things you need. This will significantly increase your efficiency and productivity.

How to implement it in project management

Think of all the software tools your organization is using. How many of them are really in use? If you’re like the average US organization, probably not that many. Unused software does not only cause substantial costs - $259 per desktop to be precise – but also takes up a lot of storage space. But even if the software is in use, do all team members and departments use the same software, or does every team use a different one. This can make collaboration and communication extremely inefficient. Applying the first step of the 5S methodology, identify unused and unnecessary software tools, only leave the ones that are actively in use and which really support your project work. There will never be one tool that can do it all, but make sure that the software you’re using can be integrated into other systems.

Step 2: Set in order (Seiton)

After you have cleaned and sort out your workplace, it’s time to set things in order. Part of this step has already been done in step 1 where you have classified the objects into specific categories. These categorized items should now be clearly labeled and assigned their place in the workplace. Store tools and items you use often in close proximity, while less used ones should be stored farther away (but still readily available if needed). This will help you optimize your workflow and save time. 

How to implement it in project management

Documentation is an important part of project management and a lot of files can accumulate during the process of a project. It’s easy to lose track of the various documents and files after a while, which is why you should develop an efficient and effective documentation system. Create distinguishable folders and sort documents into the respective folders immediately. This will make it easier for team members to find the documents they’re looking for. A project management software with a documentation feature can enhance this process even more. InLoox, for example, enables you to manage your files in the document view, you can link documents to tasks and projects so they’re always traceable.

Step 3: Shine (Seiso)

The third step, after sorting and bringing order to the workplace, is to clean it thoroughly. This step is not a once-in-a-while task, but should be done every day or at least very regularly. Team members should always leave their workplace clean and ordered at the end of the workday. When everything is clean, it’s easier to spot tear and wear of tools and machines that might go unnoticed otherwise. Not maintaining your tools means that they might fail on you in the middle of a project. That can lead to a decrease in productivity, or even worse, to a failure of the whole project.

How to implement it in project management

A project management software might not show physical signs of tear and wear, but it still needs regular maintenance. Make sure that you always use the latest version by always getting the newest updates. Updates often include bug fixes and also close potential security holes. Failing to do so will expose your organization to various dangers, such as data loss and hacking attacks. Most often your IT systems administrator will be responsible for that, but you could also choose to sign up for a software maintenance plan for your PM tool.

Step 4: Standardize (Seiketsu)

Establish standardized processes for steps 1-3. Having an official standard guide will also make sure that your team doesn’t fall back into bad habits. Instead they will slowly develop new, more efficient habits that enable them to work more productively. Standards also eliminate uncertainty and confusion, as they serve as best practice instructions to the team members. It’s important to clearly communicate the new standards to the team, ideally in written form. In order to help them sticking to the new processes, create checklists to ensure that they perform all the steps of the 5S method correctly.

How to implement it in project management

This step will sound very familiar to project managers as project management always strives to make processes more efficient by standardizing them. Not only work processes can be standardized, but also communication processes. Having a clear communication process in place is the key to project success. Decide what the main communication method of the team should be (e.g. email, chat, skype, telephone…) and make it the standard.

Step 5: Sustain (Shitsuke)

The last step of the 5S methodology is to maintain and sustain the new processes and standards. Do not let the team revert back to familiar, but inefficient habits. One way to ensure this is to include the implementation of the 5S in the performance evaluation. However, the established standards are not set in stone, you need to adapt them to new circumstances and modify them as needed. Of course, this will also require that you to communicate the changes to your team, and offer them the necessary training to keep them up to date on the standard procedures. The 5S method is an ongoing process that can evolve with time, but the goal remains: to make the workplace more efficient and effective.

How to implement it in project management

In order to continually improve, project managers need to regularly communicate best practice processes and standards to the team. Review or sprint meetings are good opportunities to assess the team’s adherence to the set standards and processes, and also to give and get feedback. Measuring data and metrics can also help you assess the success of the 5S process, but also to identify areas that can be improved. This will ensure that the project work remains efficient and productive, and as a result, produce high quality deliverables.


Implementing the 5S method into projects is not that difficult, but it can require additional time, effort, and capital in the beginning. However, the return will be worth it, as it will help the project team to work more efficiently, decrease the risks of delays, and reduce the time to completion. 

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