Organize Your Lab With the 5S Method

laboratory lab 5S setup apparatus equipment long

The 5S methodology was first wholly adopted by the Toyota Motor Corporation to increase production yields while reducing costs. Today, companies realize the value of efficient workflows, whether in manufacturing industries or otherwise. While laboratories may not keep track of the monetary value of their research, implementing 5S techniques can bring about real benefits in terms of research output.

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 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.

5 Steps to 5S

The 5S method can be broken down into 5 distinct steps or ‘standards’: Sort, Set, Shine, Standardize and Sustain.

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 every individual item and asking, ‘do we really need this?’, it’ll surprise you 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 by 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, thereby 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 by ensuring 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 issues 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. When approached by Hildegard Lamfrom, he offered his bacterial ribosomes to see if pea proteins could be made in them. We now know that this machinery is conserved throughout all species. Unfortunately, the ribosomes were infected with some virus that meant the experiment didn’t work. If Feynman had ensured they were stored in a clean environment, he would have been part of a tremendous discovery of 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?
  • Overnight connections secure?
  • Etc.

Assigning each member of the lab a specific ‘zone’ to take care of also helps to 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 the 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 fizzle out and die after just a few months, before they have the chance to become a habit. During these vulnerable months, it is important for the 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. The 5S activity is a continuous process!

How a 5S Laboratory Can Improve Your 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 good housekeeping becomes a habit instead of a chore.

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

Related: Improve Research Success with Strong Inference

By ensuring the availability and cleanliness of equipment, items and reagents, we can better focus on the 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. Overall, a clean lab is an efficient one – and the 5S methodology provides a tried and tested way to do exactly that.

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

2 Responses

  1. Kenneth T. says:

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

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