5S : Continuously Improving your living space

Maybe you’re new here. Maybe I just haven’t talked much about work. ( why would I? after all I am here to try and escape it) yet with my avid distaste for corporate schedules and time restrictions even I have to admit I’ve learned quite a bit. Welcome to Lean.

My trade for most of my working career was in Lean Manufacturing, also known as Industrial Engineering, or Continuous Improvement. Maybe you’ve heard of it, maybe you haven’t. In a nutshell my job was to analyze processes and remove waste. Removing waste is very important in a business. Its what keeps you profitable. Yet what really amazed me as I learned more was how these philosophies and their application were so widely applicable. Even at home.

I’ve read finance blogs and I’ve heard that J.D. Roth said you should run your finances like a business. And I completely agree. But you can apply so much more then just how businesses balance their books. Lean is one of those things. When I learned different tools in lean I couldn’t stop them from permeating into my home life.

If I sound a little starstruck its because I am. The ideals and job title had so much potential. It was the lack of commitment from the company to the tools that was dragging me down. But I digress.

5S A foundational tool in lean

So today I want to introduce you to 5S one of lean’s foundational tools.

The purpose of 5S is multiple fold.  Strip away waste, asses the area. Improve. Implement controls, and plan for sustainability.

How will this help you at home? Well minimalism is picking up steam and this is a great technique to use. But even if you have no desire to be a minimalist lots of us still suffer from random stuff accumulation.

There is a whole thriving industry dedicated to our feeling of being overwhelmed with stuff. But instead of removing it from our lives we just remove it from our homes. Keeping everything and paying a premium for the privilege. Ahh how the mighty have fallen and how the storage unit reigns supreme.

Now in a community of financially minded people most of us would rather drown in our stuff then pay someone else to keep it. We know we have too much, we know its clutter. We know its a nuisance. But going through it is extremely overwhelming. So we pick stuff out here and there and really don’t feel like we are making much progress. Sporadic, unorganized, unplanned events though great in an adventure situation rarely yield amazing results in the home improvement front.

So here they are the 5S’s

  • Sort
  • Straighten
  • Shine
  • Standardize
  • Sustain

There you see 5S.

Now let’s dig in a little deeper


Sort is the first step and here you are taking inventory of everything in the area. If you pick your closet like I just did, then what you want to do is pull everything out. I mean everything.

Its too confusing to try and organize stuff around other stuff. Unless your putting go, no go sticker on everything you touch there is high chance that you are going to miss something. Only when your closet is bare-boned will you know that you are addressing every item that is going back in.

Here you identify if something is needed and kept, or not needed and thrown out (donated?). Well that’s easier said then done right?

You’re right, deciding on stuff can be very difficult when we don’t know what we are measuring for. Here ( and in most things actually) we are measuring usage. So ask yourself these questions.

  • Why am I keeping this here?
  • When was the last time I used it?
  • How often do I use it?
  • Is it working? Functional right now?

Lots of times we have things were they don’t belong. Then we have things we never use. Then we have things mixed between stuff we use everyday and stuff we use once a year. Finally we keep things that are broken, or just not functional in some other way. Like a deck of cards with just one card missing… Wanna play solitaire… Good luck with that deck.

Now you’ll have stuff in piles. To make sure you don’t get side tracked make sure you have an empty box handy to place all the items that don’t belong. Don’t take walks to return stuff to their proper place as you find them. Just place them in the box, and return after you finish the sort phase.


A place for everything and everything in its place. The focus here is the actual organization process. This is when you decide where you are going to keep what you decided is needed.

You really want to address the frequency question up above as it will guide you in your straightening effort. You see you want to organize by usage. With the most used items easiest to access and your least use items organized a little further away. In other words the prime real estate in any area is for the highest used items. For example in our kitchen the easiest cabinets to access should contain our dishes. We use those everyday. But our cake pan is stored somewhere more out of reach because we use it less frequently. Doesn’t it make you smile to realize you do practice 5S already :)… The thing is we don’t practice that in all parts of our home. So that is what we are going to do.  Apply it everywhere we can.

At this point I’d like to point out that these are not just 5 steps. They are 5 consecutive steps. Where you must do the previous one to really benefit and move on tho the next.

This is where most of us go wrong. We feel our home is a mess. So what do we do. We fix it. Pick up, fold, rearrange. And if we are tight on space we buy organizational kits. Bins, shelving, and cute little boxes.

In 5S you never, and I mean NEVER organize ( straighten) before you sort. Never….

Can any of you tell me why?


Shine this is where we make everything look and work as good as new.

You see we naturally respond to our surroundings. It causes us to behave differently. Have you ever gone into a bathroom that is a disaster.  You shoot your paper towel to the trash can and miss. What do you do if there is a pile of paper towels on the floor already. Sometimes you might go pick it up but your also likely to just walk away, and sometimes I do too. But if I’m at the Hilton with cloth towels and I happen to miss the basket well… that towel is screaming in my face. Its clearly out of place and has broken the harmony of the space, the wrongness prompts me into action.

That is exactly what you want to create. We become desensitized to things we see everyday. If there is always one article on clothing on the floor all day everyday you are less likely to notice when there are 2 or 3. It won’t be until its ground zero of some laundry explosion that you act. If we really do get accustomed to our surroundings get accustomed to pristine. Then you’ll be catapulted into action when something breaks the harmony of the space.

In shine you want to deep clean the area, get it to the ideal state.


Here you need to be honest with yourself. Why? because its on the 4th and 5th S where you make it or break it. Doing these next steps correctly will help you maintain your improvement or see it slip back into the chasm of chaos.  I’ve seen it all too often at work. Its not pretty, and its frustrating as hell.

Round 2 , this checklist keeps me accountable and gives me hard data for how to improve
Round 2 , this checklist keeps me accountable and gives me hard data for how to improve

In standardize you are trying to create a system to control the area. We are trying to cut out perceptions and deal with facts. For example I just finished round 2 on the minimalist games.  I like checklists they help me know what is going on.  If I was a naturally optimistic person and had no checklist I would have assumed I got rid of close to 800 items.  If I was a pessimist I would think I only got rid of 100… Maybe. We see things as we are, not as they are. So standardize is here to help you know what is going on, so you can control the outcome better.

The reason we make change is because we want something that is different then what normally happens. But we have to acknowledge that just because we clean off the counter doesn’t mean that we now have the habit to maintain it that way.

Standardize is to help you build the habit, checklists are usually a great way to do so.

Make a check sheet that has you audit the area every day. You need to do it frequently at first. Then as you start to get use to the new norm you can do it less often until it becomes a habit. The honesty part I was talking about was admitting that our improvements wont last unless we are proactive about maintaining them.


Sustain is at the end but really its something you should be considering through out.

When I think about sustain I am thinking. “How can I make doing it the right way easier then doing it the wrong way.”

We all suffer from laziness when we are talking about something our world doesn’t revolve around. Unless you are a clean freak you aren’t thinking about the state of your home 24/7. Unless you are in love with saving you aren’t always thinking about ways to save. The creation of automatic withdrawals is a practice in sustainability. It might be a pain to set it up but then it just happens and you have to put more effort to stop the savings then to just let them happen.

That is a perfect example of making the right thing easier then the wrong thing.

I’ll be honest I can’t prescribe anything specific but what you are trying to do is give yourself a chance for it to become natural, habitual. We are trying to remove barriers to maintain improvement.

So let’s say you have a junk drawer. But all you want to do is keep the scissors in that drawer, that’s it. Well to make it easy to sustain you could put in a space filler block. Something that will block all the excess space. Now the drawer wont be able to get full with junk.

Get started on a 5S event

Now before you jump in, there is a little pre-work that needs to be done. Like a project at work you need to set parameters. What area are you going to focus on? Pick one area and make it manageable. Pick how much time you’ll dedicate. You need to decide what your goal is. Your broad goal is to keep only what is needed in that specific area. 


Let’s talk more about that. In lean there is a general understanding that if something is important you need to make it a priority. Which means you need to set aside the time to make it successful. 15 min here 15 min there just isn’t going to cut it. You’ll lose steam because you’ll be going too slow to see results. And  the lack of results will shake your already weak commitment ( 15 min is a weak commitment). At work we schedule 3-5 days, attempt to pull everyone off their day job ( this is were I got frustrated at my companies lack of commitment)  and focus solely on the task at hand.

3 to 5 days might be a bit much depending on the space but remember you need to go through all the 5S steps. So the bigger the space the more time you’ll need. You should be planning in hours or days not minutes.

I love lean, I really do. I love it so much I think it should be taught to high schoolers right along side of personal finance.

Don’t forget. Tell me why you never straighten before you sort?


6 thoughts on “5S : Continuously Improving your living space”

  1. I like this! I can see how the 5S’s would lead to an effective way to manage not just money and ‘stuff,’ but many aspects of life. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thanks for visiting Kurt.

      Yup. I really do think it’s versatile in its application… The funny thing is most people get stuck on the implementation of ideals. We can think things should work a specific way but knowing it and knowing the steps are 2 different things. 🙂 so hopefully this gives people a nice frame work!

  2. I think this an excellent introduction to the 5S’s. Its short, simple and to the point but also gives examples. I really hope it has inspired some to try it.

  3. It’s good timing for me that I have come across this now. We are in the middle of clearing the house of junk and I find that it is a huge job both physically and emotionally. I’m hoping that having some strict principles like this might give me more structure around my process (sometimes I feel I get way to caught up in the emotional side of stuff and then it is hard to move along)!

    1. I hear you. I have also been there feeling overwhelmed by the amount of stuff I have to go through. But its best to just break it down one step at a time( or one area). I hope this does help and you accomplish your goal. please feel free to come back and let me know how everything is moving along.

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