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  • 05.26.17

Why Designers Are Reviving This 30-Year-Old Japanese Productivity Theory

Toyota’s 5S principles, which ushered in lean manufacturing in the 1980s, are experiencing a renaissance.

Why Designers Are Reviving This 30-Year-Old Japanese Productivity Theory
[Photo: Filip_Krstic/iStock]

Decades before Marie Kondo became the go-to Japanese organizational guru—transforming her name into a verb and selling more than 6 million copies of her book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up—another declutter philosophy became one of Japan’s biggest exports.

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Called 5S after its alliterative core tenets—sort, set in order, shine,  standardize, and sustain—the methodology originated on the Toyota assembly line, then went on to become a foundational element of the lean manufacturing wave that swept the world in the 1980s. Its underpinning idea is as simple as its steps: Namely, that a well-organized workplace yields a safer, more efficient, and more productive system.

And while over the years 5S has mostly been used in regards to factory design, the principles have recently been applied to software development, housekeeping, and even architecture. What makes it exceptional is that it teaches not only how to visually organize for efficiency, but also how to maintain the system. So where did 5S come from? And how can it be useful off of the factory floor?

[Photo: Qilai Shen/Getty Images]

A Brief History Of 5S

5S originated with Japanese inventor Sakichi Toyoda–the founder of Toyota who is also known as the “father of the Japanese industrial revolution.”

In the wake of World War II, Japan was rebuilding the country’s infrastructure and bolstering its new manufacturing systems. Toyoda and his son Kiichiro, along with Toyota engineer Taiichi Ohno, spent the decades after the war exploring ways to trim the fat in Toyota’s manufacturing processes. By the ’70s, the English-speaking press had picked up on a production method they had been developing, called Just-In-Time manufacturing (also known as the Toyota Production System).

The Just-In-Time system seeks to cut costs, increase worker satisfaction, and cut down on waste by tightly managing and organizing every aspect of the production process—ultimately incorporating concepts like keeping tools visible and workspaces clean, and giving workers a sense of autonomy and involvement. The methodology spread throughout Japan, then hit the U.S. and spanned worldwide in the 1980s. (It’s considered a progenitor for lean manufacturing, another efficiency strategy that sprung out of the ’90s and is still practiced today.)

The Just-In-Time concept arose out of Toyoda and Ohno’s idea of 5S, whose steps are mainly concerned with creating a tidy work area, identifying and storing items that are most frequently used in production, and maintaining that orderly system. Here’s a summary:

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  • Seiri (sort): Sort out unneeded items.

The first step is essentially Kondo, condensed: Get rid of any waste and unnecessary items that aren’t regularly used. Basically anything that does not bring joy–or in this case, utility–to the factory floor. The steps following are what differentiate 5S and make it useful as a tool of a broader theory known as visual control, which essentially states that systems are more efficient if all of their elements are visible and easy to access.

  • Seiton (straighten): Have a place for everything.

With 5S, tools are arranged according to their uses, on a first-in-first-out basis.

  • Seiso (shine): Keep the area clean.
  • Seiketsu (standardize): Create rules and standard operating procedures.

Once everything is clean and in its right place, that becomes the standard–meant to be maintained every day.

  • Shitsuke (sustain): Maintain the system and continue to improve it.

The concept also relies on the self-discipline of employees to maintain the proper order systematically, without being told. In that way, tidying up becomes a routine—a series of tasks that are almost second nature. And those milliseconds saved in not searching for a tool or having to clean it before use turn into monetary gains.

[Photo: Tom Werner/Getty Images]

From The Factory Floor To Your Smartphone And Apartment

In broad strokes, 5S basically exemplifies the theory that production—and individual productivity—is much easier to maintain if all the tools of the trade are orderly and in plain sight. For example, a labeled storage container communicates what goes where, and what is missing when it’s empty. Visual control is the business management term for it. In The Toyota Way, the company’s 2001 book that sums up its production principles, it is known as mieruka. Either way, the main takeaway is that clear visual cues allow for people to ingest information quickly, with only a glance.

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For graphic and UX designers, this will sound familiar—these rules apply to any type of visual communication or instruction. In the same way that clear icons or labels allow for the smooth functioning of a factory’s assembly line, clear wayfinding allows for the efficient functioning of a city. Concise and clever identity design conveys a company’s mission, and simple icons on an iPhone home page allow users to find an app faster.

The 5S principles can also be applied to theories of user-friendly design—instead of clarity for the sake of factory workers dealing with heavy equipment and multiple tools, visual controls can be useful for anyone using a software program, or navigating a website. In fact, the book Clean Code, A Handbook of Agile Software Craftsmanship even proposes applying 5S to programming, keeping lines of code clean, orderly and well-maintained. 

5S apartment. 24sqm. The table can be stored away when not in use.

A post shared by Nicholas Gurney (@xs_sml) on

Likewise, it’s no leap to imagine 5S principles from the factory being applied to the home—and in fact, many interior blogs and housekeeping tips already suggest keeping the most used household things most accessible, without ascribing it to a 20th century Japanese industry technique. But what about designing an entire space around the 5S system?

That’s what Australian architect Nicholas Gurney did recently with his design of a micro-flat in Sydney. Working with a home that measures under 300 square feet and sleeps two, Gurney looked toward the five principles to design an open floor plan with a kitchenette, bathroom, and bedroom, all tucked away in different corners of the house, divided by a sliding door in the case of the bathroom, and a perforated wall for the bed. Gurney streamlined all appliances and household objects and organized them neatly in overhead storage, deep shelving, and multi-use furniture—in true 5S fashion, every object has a specific place. The clever safe-saving furniture allows for the apartment to look spare and decluttered, though everything can easily be found if you know where to look.

It’s a classic example of decluttering and then standardizing the system, so that the cleanliness and order is easy to maintain. Neatness can go a long way in a small apartment, and 5S is a valuable method for any tiny apartment owner. With more and more people moving to cities, architects and interior designers would do well to incorporate 5S in all small apartments or homes.

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But organizing your space so that everything is in its place, easily visible, and clearly labeled is beneficial for anyone, homeowner and designer alike. Go on–redecorate your place like a car factory.

About the author

Meg Miller is an associate editor at Co.Design covering art, technology, and design.

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