5S is a "tool" from Lean Thinking that covers workplace organisation in order to facilitate reducing waste. This is mainly because everything has it place and the most commonly used items are closest in reach. Simply put, whatever you need is always available in a certain designated spot, so you don’t have to waste time looking for it.

5S comes from the Japanese names of the 5 stages for implementing such an effort. But we can also translate those to 5 English words that begin with an "S" (note that these are not literal translations):

  1. Seiri or Sort: sort your stuff, determine what you need often and what you hardly ever use
  2. Seiton or Straighten: organise it in some logical fashion, so that the most used items are closest to you
  3. Seiso or Shine: put some additional effort in making this organisation structure as perfect as possible
  4. Seiketsu or Standardise: once your have the proper organisation structure, make it a standard
  5. Shitsuke or Sustain: make sure you keep working on improving this effort and don’t slip back into old habits

Most of these concepts or actions are probably logical when you look at them from a manufacturing or physical workplace point of view. You can find a clear example of 5S in the picture on the right. Everything has its own pace and if you look closely, you’ll even notice some shape drawings behing the tools, so it is clear which tool should belong where on the board. Another example would be the foam-cut toolboxes where you can’t put pliers in the spot of a screwdriver.

The biggest problem to apply this to software development is that our workplace in the IT industry is often a virtual workplace. How do you organise your virtual workplace using the principles of 5S?

1. Seiri or Sort

While you could and should also strive for a clean workstation in IT, let’s just focus on the software here and say that sorting refers to finding old items on your computer or servers. Make a difference in the latest version of the software and its previous versions. Which ones do you actively need for installation or for updating and which ones can be archived?

2. Seiton or Straighten

Once you’ve identified items that could be cleaned up, do so! And while doing so, make sure that you use a logical structure for organising different kinds of resources. In the virtual desktop environment that could be as simple as creating a logical file structure or separating servers for different purposes. Create a system where everyone knows where they can find the information they need and especially make sure it is easily accessible if you need it often.

3. Seiso or Shine

Now you’re on the right way, but your initial system probably needs some improving in order to work properly. Perhaps your file structure wasn’t all that good and needs some refinement. People might complain that things are too complicated because not everyone sees things the same way. Or perhaps you can make your effort shine by throwing out the default file structure and set up a sharepoint system, where everything can be found in the same manner, you have search capabilities, metadata etc. All of these changes are for the good of the system en help you create the perfect setup.

4. Seiketsu or Standardise

Finally, you’ve done a lot of hard work, but it’s only you or a small team that has done that up until now. So now is the time to make it a standard. For example, you can do this by creating SOPs or Standard Operating Procedures, but that’s not enough. People have to know they exists and it is also best that you give them an initial training on the changes, because then you are absolutely sure they are up-to-date and aware of the changes.

Keeping your software up-to-date and making sure everyone is working with the same version is also a very important item to tackle. I’ve worked at a place where only the managers and business analysts had Microsoft Office installed. En even then, I had version 2007, other had 2010. And the developers, who had to read the analysts documents, had to work with LibreOffice. Needless to say this caused for a lot of frustration, because layouts appeared different and documents could sometimes not even be opened by everyone. Getting people to all work in the same way, with the same software is also really important!

5. Shitsuke or Sustain

The hardest part of a 5S effort is the final step. When you reach the point where you have implemented the change and trained everyone on the new way of working, for the first couple of days your efforts are paying off and people actually start working more efficiently. All is right with the world. :-) But then disaster strikes and people are falling back into their old habits: shortcuts are taken for installations, people start working with their own tools they found somewhere online etc.

This is a time for vigilance. Make sure people continue to work in the same fashion and the new procedures should be enforced. Sometimes this can be achieved by implementing another piece of software, restricting access to certain key users or regular training. And it’s ok for people to use a new piece of software. If it really brings something new and improved to the workflow, you should adopt it and make it a new standard, give training if necessary etc.

5S is not simply a type of project. It is a state of continuous vigilance and of continuous improvement. Nothing is ever perfect and the world is changing so fast that it is hard to keep up. So, scrutinise your efforts and way of working over and over again, end every time you discover a possible improvement, go for it and make it the new standard. This way you’ll become more and more efficient and that can give you the edge over your competition!