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Adopting 5S for Project Success

When travelling to a new destination for business, attending a ProjectSummit*BusinessAnalystWorld conference,

or vacationing with family, there is a sense of excitement about arriving in a new city and staying in a different hotel, while also the feeling of familiarity that a standard hotel room brings. The city may be different, and perhaps so is the hotel chain, but the hotel rooms themselves contain reassuring essential basics: a bed with sheets and a pillow, a washroom stocked with soap and towels, and a television with a remote. As travelers, we expect our hotel rooms to have these customary offerings and for the room to be clean and organized, while adhering to quality standards.

Similarly, we have developed comparable expectations with projects. A project is a temporary endeavor, like a short hotel stay. A project is undertaken to create an outcome that is a unique product, service, or results, such as travelling to a destination for a business trip, conference, or vacation. Just as we anticipate that projects adhere to best practices and methodologies, quality standards and procedures are equally applicable to hotel rooms too.

In a recent assignment, I was on-boarded on to a faltering project that experienced heavy turnover. It was like walking into a hotel room after a weekend party – furniture turned over, dirty towels and clothes thrown all over the floor – a mess that would take hours to clean up. Joining that faltering project generated a similar chaotic feeling. Excessive project time was spent unsuccessfully searching and hunting for information among the accumulated piles of project documents. There were multiple variations and versions of documentation but no standards. It reached a point where it was faster and easier to produce a new document than look for a previous one. The current project was unnecessarily complicated, with a trajectory of increasing disorganization and unsustainable work that was leading to a feeling of frustration, low morale, and project dismay among the team.

The path forward required documentation cleanup. Applying Lean’s 5S was the preferred appropriate approach, to sort, straighten, clean up this mess and bring the project back to sustainable quality standards, much like what it took to clean up that messy hotel room.

What is 5S?

The philosophy behind 5S is similar to good housekeeping, with the goal to create and maintain a clean, organized, and highly functioning environment. The 5S approach provides a sense of clarity between what is required and what is not. 5S lays a foundation for improving workplace efficiency by reducing effort, energy, and costs while setting up a path for future continuous improvement opportunities. 5S approach encourages team participation working towards improving the workplace, processes, and projects, while reducing clutter, waste, delays, and confusion.

Who Uses 5S?

5S origins came from the automotive industry, aimed at making the shop floor production line safe, clean, high performing, and cost efficient. With its practicality and efficiency, 5S continues to be adopted heavily in various other industries such as manufacturing and health care. Its simplicity and versatility makes the 5S approach highly adaptable to project management and business analysis practices too.

5S stands for the following sequential approach:

  1. Sort
  2. Straighten
  3. Shine 
  4. Standardize
  5. Sustain 

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Step 1: Sort

The first step in executing 5S for a project overflowing with information is sorting its documentation into two groups: group one for materials in use, and group two, which is everything else. A major challenge comes when team members think most documents might be important, needed or necessary. Be ruthless in your selection. If it is not being used, it is not needed now. This process of sorting is both physical and mental and becomes the foundation for the steps that follow.

Step 2: Straighten

Even when documents are sorted, one can still spend too much time trying to find the right document. Needing to hunt continuously for information, can be not only frustrating, it causes delays, wastes time, energy, money, and detracts from focusing on what is important. “Studies show that knowledge workers waste up to 50% of time hunting for data, identifying and correcting errors, and seeking confirmatory sources for data they do not trust” (Redman, 2013).

Now that your items are sorted by project relevance, they need to be organized. Not the type of organization where items are moved from one pile to another pile and back again. But are organized in a systematic and methodical format. This second step to straighten is to arrange project documentation in line with project workflow, and make them easy to locate and use.

One method to straighten is to arrange project documentation in line with project phases making them easier to locate, identify and use.

Step 3: Shine

Have you ever wondered how that project manager with mounds of papers scattered everywhere, stacks of used paper coffee cups, and piles of old food wrappers is able to keep their project in order and on track? When asked for information, their responses typically are, “I know that document is here somewhere…just give me a few minutes to find that…” as they rummage through their mounds of paper. There is a perception about a clean workspace. Those that keep a clean workspace are perceived in having the ability to manage their own environment; thus, portray the aptitude to manage projects and the work of others.

With documents sorted, and assigned to the right locations, now the focus is on cleaning up the environment in the shine step. Remove any unnecessary materials. A clean working environment allows you to focus on the task on hand. It reduces and eliminates distractions, clutter, and unnecessary paper.

Step 4: Standardize

The standardize step is about consistently repeating the previous three steps. Work to incorporate sort, straighten, and shine as daily activities. Document the guidelines and procedures. Project documentation should be standardized at a minimum with a common format, naming convention, and location. Thus, project management templates are a good example that outlines a format, highlighting what information is required in the document, allowing members to focus on the content of the documentation and not having to re-invent new document formatting. Such housekeeping standards ensure consistency is followed, quality standards maintained, and processes are efficient and effective. Standardizing is about doing the right things the right way, every time.

Step 5: Sustain (SHITSUKE)

Unless conscious effort is made to sustain, the previous work and progress in sorting, straightening, shining, and standardizing then old habits will creep back. A good way to commit to this practice is by consistently doing 5S yourself, and demonstrating the 5S practices to others. Recognizing that setbacks will happen, sustaining aims to help keep and maintain such positive improvements, and continue to build a framework that identifies potential issues, adjustments, and future improvements.

From managing projects, performing business analysis, to cleaning hotel rooms, adopting the 5S approach by sorting, straightening, shining, standardizing, and sustaining efficiently improves workplaces and transforms disorganized situations into organized, clean environments that are highly functional and maintainable. Therefore, what aspects of your project are going to benefit from the 5S – sort, straighten, shine, standardize, and sustain – approach, and let us hope your next hotel room uses the 5S method too!



Redman, T. C. (2013). Data’s Credibility Problem. Harvard Business Review, 91(12), 84–88

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