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4 min read

5S in the Laboratory: What? Why? How?

In theory, the application of the 5S methodology to a laboratory is an idea that makes sense. In practice, though, 5S in a laboratory setting is uncommon.

Whether due to some claimed correlation between creative intelligence and messiness or simply because scientists feel they should focus on their science rather than deal with housekeeping, the reality is that many laboratories are reminiscent of the creative chaos of the big bang.

In other words, laboratory environments are not always as organized and clean as one would expect.

And while many scientists enjoy a loosely organized environment, disorganization can compromise safety and negatively impact both productivity and the quality of the work.  In contrast, organized environments improve performance.

At GenoFAB, we’ve found that 5S is a valuable approach to laboratory organization. That’s why we developed a comprehensive online training program to facilitate the adoption of 5S because if you can’t keep your lab clean and organized, there’s no way your data will be clean and organized.

It's much easier to organize the workspace than the data space. It's a first step toward the adoption of a new organizational culture that set the stage for a lean culture that will support a more industrial approach to scientific research. Consequently, helping labs to implement lean methodologies starting with 5S is part of empowering research teams to engineer discoveries.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at how 5S principles apply to a laboratory setting. We’ll review what they are, how they benefit a lab, and what the application process entails.

What are 5S principles?

It’s widely believed that the principles of 5S originated in Japan during Toyota’s rise to prominence in the 1950s. While it’s true that they took on their alliterative form there, the principles themselves existed previously and were (more or less) being applied concurrently at Ford under a methodology labeled CANDO.

Naming trivialities aside, though, the purpose of 5S is straightforward: 5S principles reduce waste and increase efficiency. They’re meant to be followed chronologically and cyclically, as each stage of the practice enables the next and the process as a whole is designed to continually optimize the use of the workspace.

Here’s what each “S” stands for:

1. Sort

To “sort” means to review all items within a work environment and remove any that are unnecessary. This is designed to reduce the time spent locating items, to free up more workspace, and to increase safety by removing obstacles.

2. Set in Order

To “set in order” means to put all necessary items in their optimal places. This usually involves labeling storage areas (often via tape on item containers and holding areas) and arranging workstations in a way that makes the flow of work most efficient.

3. Shine

To “shine” means to regularly clean the workspace. This is meant to prevent the deterioration of order and to continually make the environment safe and suitable for work.

4. Standardize

To “standardize” means to order the processes used to maintain the organization of the workplace. This may mean, for example, organizing cleaning schedules or procedures, or documenting processes and placements via clear directions and even visual cues (like photos of correctly ordered shelves).

5. Sustain

To “sustain” means to continually ensure that the practices of 5S are being followed. Any issues or impediments to the consistent application of 5S should be identified and solved.

When followed, these five principles result in a clean and orderly environment that’s actively designed to make work more efficient.

What are the benefits of 5S in a lab setting?

The principles of 5S are most commonly applied in a manufacturing setting. That’s where they were first standardized, and due to the high throughput of production lines, the benefits of their application are quick and obvious.

But their value can be applied universally to nearly any work environment – and we’ve found that they have particular usefulness in a laboratory setting.

Here’s what they provide:

Increased safety. It sounds simple, but it’s important. Labs, when disorganized, can present real and significant safety risks. The adoption of 5S supports compliances with applicable health and safety policies. It can reduce potential for exposure to hazardous materials, minimize fire hazards, and ensure the accessibility of safety equipment. At the most basic levels, clutter can represent a tripping hazard. 5S improves organization and leads to improved safety.

Efficient execution of experiments. When laboratories are disorganized, research happens more slowly; it takes research teams longer to locate items, they wait for key supplies due to poor inventory management, and process setup delays the collection of results. 5S improves efficiency across the board; one study (unspecific to industry) found that most organizations save over $10,000 annually after implementation.

More accurate results. The biggest benefit of applying 5S principles to laboratories, though, is that it fosters a change of mindset. When people are more rigorous in the management of their workspace, they are more rigorous in the way they collect and manage data. This minimizes the risk of failed experiments or invalid findings.

How does 5S implementation happen?

With the benefits of 5S in mind, how can you go about implementing it in your own laboratory?

We’ve found that comprehensive training is essential. Stakeholders have to be educated on the principles of 5S, but just as importantly, they have to enact and maintain the practices themselves over the long-term. The value of 5S accumulates over time, after all. Organizations that think of 5S like we think of New Year’s resolutions are setting themselves up for disappointment. Adopting the 5S methodology should be a durable change of lifestyle in order to have a positive impact.

That’s why we coach research teams in the practice of 5S (versus only educating them on the principles). We work with all stakeholders – managers, researchers, and more – and ensure that each lab has “5S champion” who will own the implementation process. Typically, we find that training on the first four steps takes about one week, with another two-week period required to confirm practice of the “sustain” principle.

To help facilitate the 5S methodology, we also offer original technology solutions (online learning management system, checklists, reporting tools) that streamline its adoption throughout the organizations.

Overall, the results of 5S training and implementation typically represent a night-and-day improvement from most laboratories’ prior states; they go from cluttered counters and cabinets to streamlined spaces with flawless inventory management. Users of a 5S facility are not nostalgic for the they old ways, but rather take great pride in their work environment.

And, ultimately, they’re able to more efficiently engineer discoveries.

Want to Bring 5S to Your Lab?

The benefits of the 5S principles aren’t relegated to manufacturing environments. Laboratories can be more effective and efficient by using these methodologies, too.

Want to learn more about what 5S could look like in your lab? Take the Introduction to 5S course.

At GenoFAB, we empower research teams with technology solutions and computational services customized to streamline flows of scientific data. This infrastructure supports the adoption of lean management methods and helps organizations to reach scientific milestones on schedule and within budgets so that R&D investments don’t go to waste.

If you’re ready to automate your path to discovery, contact us.

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