The 5S Methodology: A Workplace Organization Method to Boost Productivity

How often you dream about the following: “If I only had an extra 2 hours of free time a day. I could finally start my own side hustle and join the ranks of the restless entrepreneurs living the dream life.” But instead of free time, you’re most probably spread too thin between projects and chores: going to work, arranging your desk, driving your kids to school, cleaning the house, updating your Insta profile with pictures you took last summer, wondering which new show to watch when you supposedly have time, etc. It’s like the clock is always against you and leisure time is some sort of rare animal that’s only mentioned in fairytales. But what if I tell you that you CAN actually find spare time to do what you want… Would you believe me?

Getting shit done is a powerful concept. Is the act of working efficiently, achieving your set goals and being generally productive, while simultaneously looking as cool as a cucumber. But don’t get depressed thinking you can’t be any of the above. You too, can get things done. You too, can start your own side project and escape the 9 to 5 nightmare modern people loathe. Even if you have a couple of newborns waiting for you to feed them and nurture them.

How? Don’t worry, the concept I’m going to show you don’t require hiring a team of babysitters. Nor fleeing to another country every time you need to write an article or shoot a video for your YouTube channel. The concept we’re going to discuss today is a Japanese framework adopted by manufacturers to organize their workspace so they can increase their production.

The methodology I’m going to talk to you about is called 5S. And though it was created mainly to be used from large manufacturing companies and large corporations to increase their production, profits and improve quality, the techniques can also be applied by freelancers who’re trying to run a side hustle while going to work and raising their children.

What is 5s Methodology?

Developed in Japan, the 5S methodology was first introduced by Toyota in the 1970s.

The 5S Method is a standardized process mostly used by lean manufacturers that when properly implemented will eliminate waste, improve quality, and increase profits by creating value based on customer needs. At least that’s the definition for companies and businesses.

On a more personal level, 5S can be defined as a set of rules that will help you organize your surroundings to work in your favor, thus boost your productivity. In essence, 5S is a workplace organization life-hack. By arranging everything around, this means pens, papers, the position of your chair, kitchen supplies, down to measuring the incline of your laptop, you can utilize your time and energy in the best possible way.

The 5S methodology forces you to manipulate, arrange, and place everything with accuracy and focus in order to have every little thing in the right place. If it sounds like something applicable only by perfectionists who can’t stand a one degree deviation that’s because it’s invented from the Japanese. And as you probably know, these guys geek out when they hear the word detail.

What Does the 5S Stand For?

The reason it’s called 5S is simple. The term combines 5 Japanese words that start with the letter S. These words are: Seiri; Seiton; Seiso; Seiketsu; Shitsuke. Though the English translations may vary depending on the person reading them, these 5 words are often translated as:

  • Sort
  • Set in Order
  • Shine
  • Standardize
  • Sustain

Each of these S’s represents a part of a five-step process that can help you become more efficient, organized, productive. Basically a walking cyborg that optimizes itself. Or in other words, the 5S methodology is meant to help you improve the overall dynamics of both your life and business. Or, reach the work-life balance dream state everybody’s talking about.

The Main Benefits of Implementing 5S

Though the 5S methodology is mostly used in lean manufacturing, the Japanese principles can be reframed so they can help individuals like me and you become more productive – that’s what I’ll be doing below.

The main benefits of this program for individuals can be described as follows:

  • By eliminating distractions you’ll take control of your attention span and finally become more focused.
  • Your productivity will quadruple, allowing you to do more things in less time because your arranged work stations will help you find things faster.
  • By establishing procedures and keeping schedules you’ll more easily produce high-quality work that will allow you to make your dream business a reality.

So, if you’re still wondering how to start your own business while taking care of your children and cooking dinner for your spouse. Let’s go through all five stages.

Without further ado, let’s see how we can implement the 5S methodology in our lives so we can become more productive:

The 5S Methodology

As mentioned, the following are the 5 phases in the 5S methodology. We’ll go through them one by one and see how they’ll help us increase our productivity to a maximum.

Let’s go:

1. Sort (Seiri)

It all begins with soring. The first stage involves going through everything you currently have – like literally everything – and questioning its existence in your life. The main idea here is to remove all unnecessary things – tools, gadgets, furniture, even life-sucking bastards trying to sabotage you. You can also imagine this stage like decluttering. The word is equivalent to the act of throwing shit out of your apartment. The only difference is that you’re mindful about what you’re disposing of. The end result is pretty obvious: the less you have the less you’ll later have to maintain. It’s that simple.

Some questions that will help you decide whether or not you should keep something are:

  • What is the purpose of this item?
  • When was this item last used?
  • How frequently is it used?
  • Who uses it?
  • Does it really need to be here, in this the optimal spot?

The answers to these questions will help you to determine whether or not you should keep, move, replace, or immediately trash things around you. For instance, owning a bunch of clothes might sound super James Bondish, but probably you’re spending way too much time searching for your favorite blouse or your favorite blazer in the pile. In contrast, if you possess a handful of items it will probably take you seconds to prepare for work and go out to dinner.

The same approach should be applied to every other aspect of your life.

Do you really need decoration on top of your desk? I don’t think so. Getting a flower and placing it on top of your workstation might sound super eco-friendly and a good way to squeeze a couple of more pics for your Instagram account but in reality, it will only further disturb you – you’ll have to water it and take care of it.

Yes, it might sound a bit harsh but that’s what happens in real life. You get one little tiny plan, a couple of posters, a new keyboard and at the end of the day, you spend more time dusting off instead of doing actual work.

So, a couple of things to consider…

Actionable steps:

  • Go through all of your possessions and evaluate whether or not their presence and location is useful or necessary. If not, throw them away or rearrange them so they can serve you best.
  • Don’t wait for your spouse to get back home, throw away the things that are not serving any real purpose in your life.
  • After your workday is over, reset your desk and make sure everything is in place and ready for the next day.

You ready? Ok, let’s go to step two:

2. Set In Order (Seiton)

OK, a bunch of things are gone. Vanished. That’s good. Assuming you kept only the essentials, now you finally know what’s really valuable to you. Goodbye collection of print magazines! Hello, unclutter work station!

What’s next? Setting what’s left in order.

Now, the goal of this stage is quite simple: to arrange your workplace for optimal performance. How? By placing the most-used items near you – in arms reach. For instance, if you’re regularly using headphones while you sit on your desk to write, and if playing background music helps you concentrate, obviously, you need your pair of Bose somewhere near. Yep, it might sound like dump advice but people regularly fracture their working hours because they’re looking for their pen or because they can’t seem to find their favorite coaster. I know, it’s absurd. But as you’ll figure out at some point, this methodology is all about preparing for the worst and hoping for the best. And additionally, according to scientific studies, it can take up to 25 minutes to refocus and continue doing what you were doing.1

The aim here is to establish a smooth workflow that works for you, not against you. So, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What’s my workstation? Yep, define it and start organizing it.
  • Which items do I use most frequently?
  • What’s the best place to put these items?
  • Where should I place these items so I can cut down on unnecessary motion?

Besides the obvious physical things, also consider your digital workstation. Nowadays most of the things we use are online. So, consider the above mention steps also for the online services you’re using.

Or in other words: You have a couple of accounts for taking notes? Merge them into one.

Actionable steps:

  • Arrange everything and make sure the most frequently used tools are gravitating around.
  • Place things logically – depending on how and when you use them. The things that are used often should be really near.
  • Everything you use should be easily accessible.
  • The best tip is this: Assign locations for your items. Label stuff if you have to and once you use something put it back to its original place.

3. Shine (Seiso)

A while ago I wrote the following article: Everything Requires Maintenance. Why? Because it’s true. And the Seiso section supports what I wrote there.

You might think that getting a bigger house, a bigger car, a new laptop, and a new pair of sneakers will solve all of your problems. Think again. A bigger house means more rooms to clean and a bigger car will force you to get a new credit card to cover the extra expenses for gasoline. But there is even more to that.

Sorting all of your stuff doesn’t just happen once. “Oh, I’ve arranged my desk and I’m now ready to face the challenges that life will throw at me!” No. You need to do that regularly. Like, every-single-day kind of regularly.

Seiso is all about making sure the things you previously set in order are cleaned, and ready to be used again. Or in other words, cleaning, dusting, rearranging should be something you regularly do. And you need to make sure everything you need is in place, cleaned and ready.

In addition, this step is also responsible for the future maintenance of the things you use and own. Yes, this means regularly checking your car, your laptop, and your other equipment. But this doesn’t only apply for the physical stuff. This also means making sure the software you’re using to run your site or your mobile app is up to date.

You might think that since you’re a freelancer you shouldn’t worry about maintaining stuff but you’re probably wrong. If your laptop brakes at some point, you might lose important work. Work that pays your rent.

We don’ have questions for this section. You simply need to take care of your shit. Like, regularly. To clean them and to make sure they work. Yes, it’s not sexy. Actually it’s a quite boring thing to do. But you need to do it if you want a working system that earns you money.

Actionable steps:

  • Take care of your workstation and the equipment you’re using on a daily basis. Don’t neglect the details.
  • Plan for maintenance ahead of time to prevent possible problems.

4. Standardize (Seiketsu)

Half of your stuff is gone. Everything is arranged and your workstation is shining like Lil Wayne’s grillz. At this point, you might have a pretty good workstation and a decent looking office. But for how long?

After the initial hype about becoming more productive, things relatively soon get back to the old ways of doing stuff. You become lazy and careless of what’s going to happen next. About whether or not you’ll clean your desk. That’s why the Japanese folks though about the Standardize section. They’re fully aware that we’re lazy bastards who are always looking for ways to lay back and do nothing. But this won’t happen if you use Seiketsu card.

This powerful beast will help you systematize everything that just happened (the above stuff) and turn your one-time efforts into habits. Standardize phase is here to make sure you follow through and do things regularly. Also, it will force you to document what you’ve done so far so you can do it again in the future.

Think about the following things:

  • What tasks I should execute daily?
  • When should I sort, organize and clean my stuff?
  • Do I have a checklist about all of the things I need to execute? Consider creating one if you don’t.

Initially, you’ll need reminders. Set alarms. Probably even add sticky notes on your desk an on your forehead. But after a while and after many repetitions, you’ll finally have some sort of routines that you’ll execute automatically.

Actionable steps:

  • Create a schedule and a checklist that lists all important tasks;
  • Make sure the schedule is placed somewhere where you can see it.
  • Set a certain workflow and follow it.
  • Standardize your creative work. This will help you focus.
  • Review your processes regularly and make sure you update things here and there. This will help you keep a fresh perspective.

5. Sustain/Self-discipline (Shitsuke)

In the original manuscript, the Shitsuke phase is about making sure all employees are familiar with the procedures, the management keeps track of the progress and are also evaluating everyone’s work. In our case, it’s a bit different.

Yes, you too need to evaluate your work and make sure that what you’ve scheduled is done, but here the main focus should be self-discipline.

If you’re a freelancer, working alone at home or somewhere in the back of a co-working space, you can easily lose motivation and forget why you’ve started the thing you’re doing now.

When you’re at work you have bosses and colleagues who will constantly push you to do things. However, if you’re all by yourself you’ll surely enter a black hole of discouragement at some point. A place where everything’s dull and nothing really makes sense.

That’s why Sustain stage is really important. It’s something like a long-term pill that will constantly remind you what are your values and why you’ve started in the first place.

The main idea here, besides regularly checking your work and making sure what you’ve accomplished above is regularly executed, is to keep things interesting. To check what everyone else is doing and to implement every now and then new ideas. This freshness will keep you motivated for the long haul.

Actionable steps:

  • Regularly audit your work to make sure it meets your self-defined standards.
  • Always think about, in the back of your head, how you can improve your work.
  • Keep an eye at what others are doing from time to time. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel, you can simply steel good ides. The freshness will keep you engaged and still loving what you’re doing.

Some Closing Thoughts

5S can literally save a business from bankruptcy. Organizations who adopt this method relatively soon reap the benefits of this workplace organization system. Apart from saving hundreds of dollars in supplies, increasing their profits, improving the quality of their products, companies that adopt the 5S methodology also enjoy a better and healthier working space.

And as mentioned, though the framework was created for corporations, all of the principles shared above can be used from regular guys trying to juggle between work, family, and potential side business.

If you’re still not sure whether or not you should adopt the 5S methodology in your life ask yourself the following: “Do I have enough time in my life to do the things I really want to do?”

If the answer is no, then go through all the S’s mentioned above.

As you might have noticed, most of the things above are not hard to implement. Quite the opposite. All of the tasks in the 5S methodology suggest small changes. But a small change is often all that it takes to transform a messy life into an organized system that helps you create good work regularly.2


  1. This is according to Gloria Mark, professor at the University of California, Irvine.
  2. I’ve used content from the following sources to produce this article: LINK, LINK, LINK.
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