What’s in a Name: Defining Terms in Lean Manufacturing

The Name Game

Does a name change who or what your are? In the Lean culture there are several names for doing the same thing. Take 5S for example. Depending on where you are it might not even be five and even then it might not even be “S.” But does it really matter?

Blast From the Past

5S name poster

Several studies date the 5S process back to the Venetian shipyards in the 16th century. The shipbuilders during these Elizabethan times were a model of efficiency. Their approach was like nothing seen before. They prepared pieces in workshops, having them ready when it was time to assemble the whole ship. Legend has it, the shipbuilders were so efficient, they were able to construct a complete ship for King Henry III of France in less than two hours while he attended a banquet in the Arsenal’s Great Hall on one of his visits.

This is pure speculation, but I’m gonna go out on a ledge and say the Venetian shipbuilders didn’t have Seiri, Seiton, Seiso, Seiketsu and Shitsuke written on the walls of the factory anywhere. Whether they had their own names for their process or they simply had a “way of doing things,” the fact is they were efficient. Many feel they were the very first to have “5S” and Lean processes a part of their process long before the term 5S was even thought of.

 Across The Pond

Fast Forward to the 20th century and the development of a new system begins to unfold that would change manufacturing forever. When Sakichi Toyoda and Taiichi Ohno first developed Toyota’s Total Production System (TPS), there was lots of names to be handed out. A name for every process, philosophy and standard had to be developed and modeled.

In Toyota’s original development there was only a 4S process. They didn’t need the fifth because the feeling was that if you were successful with the first four then it became second nature and the need to sustain was ingrained in.


As the movement came out west, the names stayed put. The important part is the process came, but it needed a name. In order to keep the “S” in 5S the translation needed to match up. Which worked out quite well; Sort, Straighten, Shine, Standardize and Sustain are now some of the most common names heard in factories across the states.

Free 5S guide and poster
Free 5S guide and poster

However, while those five S’s are the most common, they are not the only ones. There are several variations of all the S’s in 5S that fit the culture of the organization it’s trying to benefit. Again, does it really matter though? This isn’t the telephone game you played as a kid where the initial message gets lost along the way. What organizations call their 5S process is really up to them, as long as the methodology doesn’t get lost in the process.



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