5S is a methodology for organizing a workplace that centers on 5 concepts:

  • Sorting: Eliminate all unnecessary tools, parts, and instructions. Anything that is not required for the current work should be stored in a designated area or discarded.
  • Stabilizing / Straightening: Everything should have a place. The location for each item should be clearly labeled. Most used equipment should be most accessible. Equipment should be kept close to where it is used.
  • Sweeping / Shining: Keep the workspace and equipmnt clean, tidy, and organized. Cleaning should happen on a regular (daily) basis, if not more frequently in a "Clean as You Go" approach.
  • Standardizing: All work stations for a particular job should be identical. All employees doing the same job should be able to work in any station with the same tols that are in the smae location in every station.
  • Sustaining: Main focus on the previous 4 S's.

To me, all of these make sense in shared workspaces - labs are a good example. In a lab, you might have several people using the same workspace at various times. People might also use different workspaces throughout the day, depending on the task. All 5 of the S's make sense here, to make it easy for people to effectively use these spaces.

However, I don't expect anyone else to use my cube or office for as long as I have it. The first three S's make sense, to some extent. I think that labeling everything might be a bit overkill, and Shining might not be as big of an issue in an office as it is in a lab.

Does applying a full 5S policy make sense in an office? Are there variations on 5S that make more sense in the office?

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    5S sounds great for fully "interchangable" people (e.g. factory assembly line), but what happens when one of your office workers needs a different chair for his bad back, another needs a different resolution on the monitor to see, and a third is left-handed and needs to invert everything? Apr 30, 2012 at 19:28
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    I'm not so sure about sorting and straightening as described here. Most days I work on several things in parallel, e.g. while waiting for that build to finish I can be updating this doc or reading that background material etc. The notion that I should only have out the things I need right now seems like an impediment. It totally makes sense if your job is "assemble that part all day long". Apr 30, 2012 at 19:35
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    All this reminds me of "deskless workspaces" which some companies like UBS have recently started to experiment with. When you have an office where ~50% of the staff is offsite at any given time, you're wasting space if everyone has their own assigned desk. If the desks can be de-personalized and standardized so that anyone can use any desk then it is possible to use far less space (eg 50% fewer desks). Here's a good Tom Ashbrook podcast that covers this in detail: onpoint.wbur.org/2012/04/18/to-build-a-better-workspace
    – Angelo
    Apr 30, 2012 at 22:27
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    A lab not sure id agree with that labs tend to do a lot of one off things - Labs tend to be organized chaos Idividual things may be very structured eg how you store your radiation sources. This sounds like some one is trying to blindly misaply production line techniques to a role that it is not appropriate for.
    – Neuro
    Dec 20, 2012 at 16:19
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    @DeerHunter I'm not required to accept an answer, and I don't intend to on this question. There are several good answers, all helpful that have received an up vote from me. But none deserves to be accepted over the others, in my opinion, as each is helpful in its own way. Feb 18, 2014 at 11:26

8 Answers 8


Before I was a software developer I worked in aviation. 5s type rules are golden for any aviation production or maintenance organization. Keeping every tool and part in exactly the right place is not just for looks, it's a manner of life and death.

I almost lost a friend when a wrench left in an airplane caused a crash on takeoff. That's why every tool must be controlled and accounted for at all times.

Aircraft maintenance is typically done in shifts. It is a matter of life and death that each incoming shift has no doubt as to the state of the work left by the prior shift. If shortcuts are taken between shifts then it is very possible that people could die.

Creativity is needed in the design process, but not in maintenance or line production.

The one thing you don't want in production and maintenance shops is creativity. Everything must standardized, carefully designed procedures must be followed be, rules must be strictly enforced. Authority must be respected. Or people die.

Software development isn't like that. Rules that are very appropriate in manufacturing or maintenance organizations are not appropriate in a software development organizations in which individual creativity, out-of-the-box thinking, and experimentation are keys to success. Nobody dies if my monitor and desktop are different than that of another developer. If the other dev and I are forced to use some kind of authority dictated 'standard' then both of us lose productivity.

Attempts to enforce the factory floor regime suggested by this question will drive away all the best software developers and result in only mediocre software products.

This 5S system is a recipe for disaster if imposed on a software development team.

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    "This 5S system is a recipe for disaster if imposed on a software development team." Oh yes, it sounds truly awful! I want my workplace like I'm used to, not as some "standard" says it should be
    – Fredrik
    Dec 20, 2012 at 21:23
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    @Fredrik - for physical space I agree, but what about the real work environments in software development like: IDE, version control, file folders, etc? Shouldn't they be clean, maintained, and have some consistency?
    – user8365
    Aug 13, 2013 at 13:11
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    @JeffO Forcing people to use a specific IDE just reeks of fascism. Let people chose their tools so long as they are productive.
    – MrFox
    Aug 13, 2013 at 18:35
  • @JeffO Version control will generally be dictated as that is a shared resource as well as IDE since many languages or compiled binaries are tied to a specific IDE/Toolchain (C++ Run Time for example).
    – user8588
    Aug 15, 2013 at 20:24
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    @Lohoris if you can be more productive in a way that isn't detrimental to the team or project, more power to you, but no one wants to hear your excuses when your system crashes. You're on your own.
    – user8365
    Jul 23, 2015 at 3:00

Yes, it does - however the implementation is different. An interesting phenomenon in salaried (and even contractors doing work similar to salaried) work is although your time is actually often more valuable than hourly employees, it is nearly never measured in the same way.

What this means practically is that while in many companies you can justify lots of process change for saving 5 minutes a day of each assembly line worker's time, trying to make a similar argument for saving 5 minutes of a salaried workers time is almost always more difficult.

Some specific examples more relevant to office work:

  • Sorting: How many hours are wasted trying to track down files in network folders which are labeled poorly or otherwise unsorted? What about looking for information on intranet sites? A lack of proper information organization at the electronic level is a HUGE source of waste for most companies and increases exponentially with size and company lifetime.

  • Stabilizing / Straightening: Someone else mentioned a stapler. How much time gets wasted looking for supplies? Where do you find the department digital camera? How about replacement supplies? What if you have to ask someone else to help, now you've set two people looking? What about walking across the office to pick up things you printed 10 times a day?

  • Sweeping / Shining: It is hard to accomplish the above two with any physical items without keeping things cleaned up. Piles of papers, reports, parts, toys, etc on a desk invite more stuff to accumulate. This causes a buildup of STUFF on/in desks and makes it even harder to answer "now where is file XXXX?" or "where did I put the stapler?" types of questions. This doesn't necessarily mean 100% polished, but means you avoid having piles of unrelated and outdated stuff cluttering the workspace and causing inefficiencies in finding things/etc.

  • Standardizing: Consider the time required for new/transfer employees or visitors to figure out where stuff is and how things work. If you have a completely different file system electronically than a different facility in the same company (assuming you even have a coherent system to begin with...), anyone transferring is going to spend much time trying to understand how it works. Asking regular employees, etc. All this is complete wasted time - no value is gained in relearning a file system (this is in effect difficult to really realize this savings because almost all companies have completely broken file systems, network drives, etc). Same with office layouts and even job responsibilities to some extent.

  • Sustaining: None of this is easy to retroactively implement within office environments. Unfortunately, most of these inefficiencies are taken as part of the job. However, if the same level of inefficiency was ever allowed on a production floor - where 5S is more commonly implemented - heads would be rolling and there would be significant outcry.

The main takeaways are:

  1. Salaried time is never viewed the same as traditional 5S time (manufacturing, service, etc)
  2. The same principles absolutely can be applied in an office environment

Just because you are salaried doesn't mean that the 5 minutes you waste searching for some file because you or your company never bothered to put together a cohesive organizational structure is not wasted time. It's just as salaried employees, those inefficiencies are just taken orders of magnitude less seriously than for manufacturing hourly employees.


I would think it might make sense if there are shared workstations. Some offices might have these for contractors that are only on-site for a short period, or when departments are moving and some employees need to be seated there temporarily. I remember once being in an IBM building and they had common workstations all set up alike for the IBM contractors that spent 90% of their time at their client's site but would occasionally need a "homebase" in this facility, and for rarely more a few days. If 5S is followed on these shared workstations, anyone who uses one will be able to use them all without have to re-find the stapler, the phone, the sticky notes, etc... They will all have the same familiar feel no matter what floor it's on or what building it's in.

If an office has private workstations, these rules should probably only apply if the primary user of them wants them to.

Common areas, such as meeting rooms and kitchens, should try to follow these rules when applicable. For example: we have labels on the drawers in the kitchens on every floor, the layout and storage of common items (tea, coffee, sugar, etc...) is as consistent as possible (one or two kitchens are weirder owing to architectural features, such as a pillar in the middle), and every user of the kitchen is expected to help maintain the state of it. At our own personal desks, anything goes!

  • Indeed. Even in what were considered "permanently-assigned" workstations in our IBM location, we were required to keep the workstation desk clear even of non-sensitive material and no personalization of the workspace was allowed.
    – Magellan
    Apr 12, 2012 at 18:42
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    @Adrian: Really? Wow. I understand the part about sensitive materials, but no personalization? Why did they have that policy on "permanent" workstations, or were they not really that permanent? It sounds almost Dilbertian. Apr 12, 2012 at 18:43
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    Yeah, I think the plan was for them to not really be that permanent considering that the location was primarily a place for acquisition teams to be moved to while they're still in the 36-month integration phase before the remaining staff ended up working at home.
    – Magellan
    Apr 12, 2012 at 19:51

The 5S's are a commonly used practice in "lean manufacturing" and apply to workcells that perform highly specified but limited functions in large volumes.

Literally moving these concepts outside of the factory floor and into developer's physical offices seems like it could be problematic. As a developer, you're [hopefully] doing different things all the time. Your work is more plastic than any manufacturing operation.

To put it another way, does it really matter if the red swingline stapler is on the upper left drawer or behind the monitor? Only if the success of your job depends on stapling efficiency.

Certainly, however, one could apply the 5 S's to the software environment: file structure, code conventions, deployment procedures, etc. I think applying it to physical cubicles would really piss people off.


5S does make sense in an office environment - if you understand what the true purpose of 5S is... It is a tool used to help eliminate/reduce waste. That's it. If you try to apply it rigidly to an office environment, it won't work. That is because it came from a factory environment and offices are obviously different!

5S should be used to help people think about how they organise the things they need, and the work they do. If your staff are constantly searching through cabinets and cupboards looking for work or equipment, and having to ask others where things are kept, that is a serious waste of time - and can be very frustrating for people who let's face it, just want to get on with their jobs.

With reference to Thomas Owens & Monica Cellio's discussions about the systemise/standardise part of 5S, I have been involved in implementing 5S in an office, and from my research, this is where most people slip up.

  • The whole team have not been involved in sorting, straightening and shining the office, and so they see it as a chore when we have an audit. The systemise/standardise part is the most important as it maintains the first 3Ss. The system could be that once a week the team (on a rota system) check that the things their team need for the week are available, in the places they should be. This makes the maintainence part of 5S the team's 'business as usual' and also ensures everyone is responsible for keeping their workplace neat and tidy - and a better place to work.

The most important part of getting 5S successfully implemented in an office is to engage your staff. Management can only do so much, but the staff must see the benefits, and be involved in deciding what systems they want to employ to help them organise their office.

At home, it may be fine to let things get messy because you know you will have a massive tidy up on a Monday. If you live in shared accommodation, this may not work so well as you have other people to consider, and leaving an area how you found it becomes much more important. It's the same principle in a shared work environment. - A place for everything and everything in it's place (and a system to maintain this) Simples.

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    problem is it's often implemented not to reduce waste but to dehumanise the workforce, make them appear as identical, mutually exchangable, pieces of machinery. To enable the organisation to swap out a piece of human flesh for another piece of human flesh more easily. Effectively it's the human being that's subjected to 5S, standardisation, not his work environment. And that's detrimental.
    – jwenting
    Aug 14, 2013 at 9:14

I disagree entirely with the idea. When I do creative work, that's inherently messy and a requirement to keep everything spit-polished is not only ridiculous, it is counterproductive. I file visually, I can always find something in the stack on my desk but if it goes into a file folder it is lost forever. It is wasteful of time to be forever cleaning when I could be working. Not everyone works well in neat conditions. I find them distracting and uncomfortable and I can't find what I need.

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    Your answer is based off of your anecdote and threat to quit. There is no real content here that can be reasonably be expected to be helpful to future users. I do admit you have valid points against it and if the answer were cleaned up and expressed that way I would reverse. Apr 12, 2012 at 14:36
  • @HGLEM - One suggestion is to talk more about your work environment. What makes 5s a bad policy in your situation? Is it a personal choice or is it dependent on the type of work you do? Would other "creatives" feel the same way you do if they worked in your office environment? How would someone balance the 5s policy with the people who have their own routine? Hope these ideas help.
    – jmort253
    Feb 14, 2014 at 8:14

5S makes sense for spaces/materials/data files which are work relevant. 5S does not make sense for the personal touches I add to show my individuality. My personal touches do not affect anyone else's work, nor anyone else's performance. Unless those people have so little to do that focusing on my stuff affects their ability to produce work. In which case, they need to work somewhere else, where such teeny little minds/attention spans would be useful. I don't care about their stuff. It is a reasonable expectation that they keep their nose out of my stuff. As the 5S professional above says about saving 5 minutes on the shop floor vs. saving 5 minutes in the office... save a couple of hours a month of highly-paid salaried individuals from walking around the office, looking at every long-term cubicle, making unnecessary judgements over other people's stuff.

That is precisely what happens in my office, and is the most obvious waste of money and energy. Besides, me making comments about the 5S, which is, as the 5D professional above states, really only 3S. Sort Straighten Shine is all that needs to be done. The other two are superfluous.
In my mind, the entire concept is a big to do about nothing. Anyone with a scrap of value does this without being told. It is a natural effect of proper mindset, upbringing, maturation, and asset growth. It is what is done as a natural extension of work in a healthy environment, with supportive management and teamwork.

Please, I can't wait for the next 10,000 fancy acronyms, abbreviations, anything-but-novel ideas which actually boil down to: Do your job, do it efficiently. Don't waste time, money, or energy, or anyone else's time, money or energy, doing it. And stop trying to avoid work. For god's sake, you're a professional. Why do you need to go to another damned seminar to explain how to do what you know you should be doing?
I'll be so happy when I'm too senile to realize what these buzzword machines are actually doing, over and over and over and over and over and over again, ad nauseum, to get companies to part with their money. Talk about an obvious savings!!

Troy Bushong


In an office environment I wouldn't go to these extremes in the physical space, but mainly in the virtual spaces:

  • document management systems and wikis
  • shared network drives and folders should all be labeled appropriately
  • computer setups They don't perfectly match but they're close in many corporate environments for support reasons.

In the office, common areas should have a higher standard. Cleanliness and keeping things where they belong are the biggest problems.

  • Exactly! The rules apply, just in the IT virtual world instead of physical, e.g. I keep all my docs on dropbox, all code in github, etc. I also keep my 'dotfiles' on github so I can set up a new machine with my preferences, aliases, etc. Nov 9, 2013 at 17:46

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