5S is often a great way to start a Lean transformation of a value stream. Results come fast, they are tangible and visible, and people get engaged and involved early in improving their work areas and processes.
I always take care to position 5S with the larger context of the things a firm must do over and over again to become really great. While it is often a good starting point, 5S is but the entry point into other best practices, including coupled manufacturing, equipment reliability through TPM, zero monitor and zero defects manufacture, etc.
5S helps lay the foundation upon which these other best practices can be built. 5S helps establish basic process stability and a good 5S implementation requires that a firm define its processes, process owners and teams, thus establishing process ownership, responsibility and accountability.
Done well, 5S has tremendous depth which goes far beyond mere housekeeping and cleaning. Each step of 5S has natural transition points which allow one to move towards implementing other process best practices. For example, the fourth S, Standardize, opens up a natural entry portal to standardized work and the value analysis of operations.
Often overlooked is the creative aspect of 5S. 5S solutions to common process problems require workers to think and create ingenious solutions which improve workplace organization, productivity and safety. As these ideas are generated, management must take care to always keep this contributory stream of improvement evergreen by allowing workers to act quickly on implementation through good support and encouragement.
Too often, 5S is seen just a cleanup activity which is done once shop floor conditions deteriorate to a level that something needs to be done. 5S practice may be followed for a while, but then it tapers off because it quickly becomes viewed as an activity separate from the work, rather than becoming part of the work itself.
When visiting plants, I always look to see how well 5S practices have become integrated into the normal operating routine. Great shops not only have great 5S, they have transparent 5S, meaning that they have gotten beyond it to true process excellence.