5S – A Japanese Culture

The hall of the PCB (Pietermaritzburg Chamber of Business) was filled to the brim on Tuesday evening (17/02/15) as people squeezed in to watch keynote speaker Rick McCarthy, MD of Training Leadership Consulting, share his discoveries from a Learning Expedition that took place in Japan last year. The topic was 5S.

5S stands for Seiri, Seiton, Shine, Seiketsu and Shitsuke which is translated into Sort, Set, Shine, Stansardise and Sustain.

 5S does not contain an on or off switch and it is either lived or left. 5 S is an enabler. An enabler of efficiency, and it can be a great tool for personal productivity as well as a tool to achieve large scale organisational efficiency.


Rick McCarthy, Lean Expert facilitating at the PCB Lean Forum

The primary purpose of the Japanese Lean study tour was for Rick to deepen his understanding about the principles of 5S. Even though Rick is a Lean Expert in the disciplines of Lean and Six Sigma, as the MD of a learning organisation his company must keep improving and adapting its knowledge.

From the moment the plane’s wheels screeched down onto the tarmac of Haneda Airport in Tokyo, Rick’s widened eyes revealed how much of a culture shock he was already experiencing. He had come to Japan to learn about the principles of Lean thinking, little did he know how much more he was to gain from this particular expedition.


Cleaning crew waiting for the passengers to disembark the aeroplane

As Rick turned his head to look outside of the comfortable window seat in which he was sitting, he saw a group of cleaning crew members neatly organised in a perfect triangular formation. They seemed to be more organised than a world class Formula One team, and more proud too! Rick had seen this kind of team organisation before when watching his home team, the Denver Broncos, play in the American SuperBowl.



Rick discovered that in Japanese schools, there are no janitors. The school children had to clean their own mess and each day there was ‘time of Soji’ where children were responsible for cleaning their own school.


Time of Soji

This shows that when a problem becomes a shared one, where each individual is accountable, then it is in each individual’s best interest to take care of their own environment. They do not throw crunched paper onto the street and expect it to become someone else’s duty to clean up.



These early lessons in discipline and accountability are the reason why some regard Japan as a near Utopian Society where each citizen is a microcosm of their organization.

Rick’s trip included tours of some major world class manufacturers such as Toyota, Anzai Production, Meiji Cheese Factory, Toyo Printing and Oji Paper to name a few.

The benefit of 5S is clear and no one can deny its usefulness. A dirty and cluttered work environment leads to procrastination and is incredibly inefficient. In the words of Jim Rohn “Time is our most valuable asset, yet we tend to waste it, kill it, and spend it rather than invest it.”

Some readers, however, may be questioning whether it is practical or possible to implement 5S in a culturally diverse environment like South Africa. They may understand that it works in a homogeneous society like Japan but then, rightfully, they may contest with the fact that we live in a heterogeneous society where the seeds containing the required principles and disciplines are not planted from a young age within our people.

This leads me to recite a Chinese proverb which I learnt at TLC:

“the best time to plant a tree? 25 years ago. The next best time to plant a tree? Right now.”

It is important to note that 5S is not the silver bullet to fix an organisation’s efficiency problems. It is, however, a solid foundation onto which a strong organisation must be built. 5S is a prerequisite for any company as it paves the way for Lean and Six Sigma tools to be effectively utilised.


Desk of President Mr. Sumi was certified into a Model Desk in last June.


Time is the most valuable asset we have, so protect your time and implement 5S to organise your workspace.




By Kyle Jackson

Kyle is a Business Analyst at Training Leadership Consulting

About Training Leadership Consulting

Training Leadership Consulting (TLC) is a leading Business Improvement Service Provider. Founded in 2001, TLC provides Training and Management Consulting services focused on Process Management and Performance Improvement. Your company will benefit from TLC's years of International and local experience in Change Management, Process, Lean and Six Sigma. View their website www.tlc-global.com
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