Organize Your Lab With the 5S Method

row of microscopes 5S ftloscience post

The 5S method gained worldwide attention after the Second World War, with the Toyota Motor Corporation’s success in adopting the principles of 5S to increase production yields while reducing costs. Today, we recognize the value of creating efficient workflows even outside of manufacturing processes and commercial settings. Laboratories are one such area that can potentially benefit greatly from adopting the principles of 5S, reducing costs while increasing research output.

5 Steps to 5S

5S is a systematic way to improve and maintain the level of housekeeping in the workspace. This is because the cornerstone of efficiency is to have a clean and safe working environment. But it isn’t enough to just say ‘oh, I’ll simply clean up after myself’. During the hustle and bustle of our daily tasks, it becomes all too easy to focus on other things besides housekeeping! This is where the 5S method comes in.

The 5S method can be broken down into 5 distinct steps or standards: Sort, Set, Shine, Standardize and Sustain. Ideally, the entire 5S process is systemically followed from area to area until the entire laboratory has been covered. Breaking down the process one zone at a time makes the workload more manageable while ensuring that each area gets the focus and attention required for a successful 5S implementation.

Step 1: Sort

To start off the 5S, we first need to distinguish between what is needed and what is not, which means sorting through everything. This will leave your workspace in a (temporary) mess, but it’ll be all worth it! Don’t hold on to objects based on sentiment, or because ‘it might come in useful later’. Focus on what is helping you with your work right now.

By looking at each item in isolation and asking, ‘do I really need this?’, you’ll be surprised how often the answer is no. Many objects around our workspace don’t have real usefulness, but because we don’t stop to explicitly question their existence, they tend to go unnoticed.

duran borosilicate glass bottle colorful caps sorting 5S
Too many of a certain piece of equipment/glassware? Find a new home for it! A cluttered workspace decreases efficiency.

Step 2: Set

For all those items that will stick around, they’ll need a marked area to call home. Cordon off areas with tape, labeling them as well; it should be obvious that a certain item belongs in that space. Try to arrange frequently used items so that they are easily accessible, such as in the top drawer of a benchtop. Items that are key to your work should be easy to locate, reducing the time spent looking for them.

It is a good idea to further sort items based on their required quantity and frequency of use. You don’t want to have a drawer with 30 round-bottomed flasks when your lab only uses 10 each week! Of course, keeping some extra stock is important, but it should be kept separately from in-use inventory. Easy-to-access drawers and shelves should house in-use inventory, while stock inventory can be stored elsewhere (corner cabinets, storeroom, etc.).

Managing chemical inventories in this manner is especially beneficial to a laboratory. Establish the required quantity for each reagent, and only order more when the current stock falls below this number. This ensures a reliable supply without overstocking, saving costs and space.

filter paper whatman bag storage stock
Improve efficiency and decrease clutter by stowing away stock inventory in a dedicated storage area.

Step 3: Shine

Now that everything has been put in its rightful place, the area needs to be cleaned up! This isn’t limited to the surface of benchtops and fume hoods, it also applies to equipment. Set a new standard for cleanliness with pictures to show how an area or equipment should look after use, and ensure everyone cleans up after themselves.

An added benefit of keeping the workspace clean is that when experiments go wrong, the troubleshooting process is made simpler. You can be more confident in your results if you know that the issue facing you isn’t one of contamination. And identifying the source of contamination is another challenge altogether.

Early on in his career, the great physicist Richard Feynman spent some time in a biology lab working with cells. Molecular biology was just taking off, and one of the pioneers of the field was Hildegard Lamfrom, who was studying ribosomes at the time. She approached Feynman to request for bacterial ribosomes to conduct some studies about pea proteins.

Unfortunately, Feynman’s ribosomes were infected with a certain virus which meant that the experiments didn’t work. If Feynman had stored them in a clean environment, he would have been part of a tremendous discovery of the conversation of ribosome structure and the uniformity of life!

Step 4: Standardize

So, you’ve completed the last 3 steps and your lab looks like new (almost). But now isn’t the time to put your feet up and enjoy a cup of coffee. Not yet, anyway. We need a robust system in place to maintain this level of tidiness.

The first step is transforming the somewhat alien process of good housekeeping into second nature. Just like all other habits, this one can be acquired through practice. Checklists are a good place to start, such as a ‘waste disposal checklist’ or ‘post-LC run checklist’. Here’s an example.

Before Leaving The Lab:

  • Benchtops and fume hood surfaces clean?
  • Chemicals and reagents placed in correct storage?
  • Waste cans emptied?
  • Gas, power, water lines off?
  • Are overnight connections secure?
  • Etc.

Assigning each member of the lab a specific zone to maintain helps reinforce the previous steps. Giving ownership of an area to an individual means they will be accountable for the state of the area, though maintaining a 5S lab should be everyone’s responsibility!

Step 5: Sustain

As alluded to previously, sustaining the entire system is the most challenging step of 5S. Many 5S systems go out of steam after just a few months, before they have the chance to become a habit. During these vulnerable months, it is important for the associated activities to be reinforced.

This means getting everyone on board with the housekeeping rules, as well as having regular walkthroughs to ensure each area is properly maintained. The results of the walkthrough should be shared with members of the lab so that areas in need of improvement can be worked on. Make sure that every member of the team feels included in the project, always keeping an open ear to suggestions for improvement. Remember that there is no ‘final goal’, each 5S activity is a continuous process!

How a 5S Laboratory Can Improve Efficiency

Most of us are (or have been) guilty of messy benchtops and dirty fume hoods, excusing ourselves from cleaning up: ‘I’ve got better things to do’ or ‘oh, it’s going to be messy later anyway’. The beauty of the 5S method is that once it is ingrained into the culture of the workplace, good housekeeping becomes a routine habit instead of a chore.

Having a clean environment appeals to our visual senses. If our workspace is tidy, we are more likely to leave the area in the same state as we found it. A 5S-ready laboratory also ensures that at a glance, we can tell exactly where something should belong! 5S projects also improve the safety of a lab, ensuring that dangerous situations are not hidden by clutter but instead stick out like a sore thumb.

By ensuring the availability and cleanliness of equipment, items and reagents, we can better focus on science and research. Just like how we can improve results with systematic methods of research, we can similarly increase our output with systematic and consistent housekeeping. A clean lab is an efficient lab – and the 5S methodology provides a tried and tested way to achieve exactly that.

Did you follow all the steps above? Now you can kick back and reap the benefits of a 5S ready laboratory!

4 Responses

  1. Sean says:

    Duct tape might be your best bet? I honestly cannot think of anything that would be resistant to regular attacks of acidified bleach!

  2. Kayla says:

    We clean our benches with an acidified bleach solution. Any alternative ideas to tapping off sections on the bench since the bleach will ruin the tape over time?

  3. Sean says:

    The most challenging part of 5S is ‘sustain’!

  4. Kenneth T. says:

    We periodically do 5S projects here, where I work. They don’t always last long.

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