5S in Aviation Maintenance

5S is a cornerstone element of Lean. It gets its name from five Japanese words; seiri (sort), seiton (set in place), seison (shine), seiketsu (standardize), and shitsuke (sustain). 5S can be applied almost anywhere in the organization. Administration, hangar, back shops, stockrooms, production booths; all can benefit from a dose of 5S.

Assuming we want to get started, where do we start? Well, first, we need a plan and every plan begins with a goal. The usual goal is reduction of waste. The plan sets rules for each of the 5S elements. In 5S, each element brings us closer to our goal of resource conservation and reduction of waste. Upon completion, it includes the anticipated benefit of the overall process as well as the organization’s commitment to assure that changes are maintained. A post mortem process after execution of the plan will provide lessons learned for the next use of the process.


By sorting we begin to analyze our environment and what it contains. We examine objects in our work spaces and begin to question their presence and purpose. Sorting is a decision process based on rules intended to satisfy plan goals. In sorting, the 5S team makes two piles: “what stays” and “what goes.” We eliminate the waste of space. People have installed 5S as part of a growth plan and discovered upon execution that they could defer the purchase of additional square footage. They were able to create new spaces from existing facilities. Execution of the sort process will require discipline and, to be honest, some ruthlessness.

Some examples of sort activity includes:

  • Equipment that is broken or has been in disuse for significant periods of time — discard or remove from the area for storage.

Note: Always ask “why?” “Why” challenges group think and “not invented here” attitudes. When will it be used and for what purpose? If no clear answer then it’s likely that it should go.

  • Broken or obsolete equipment that has become the place for accumulated trash, people’s hats, and coats needs to be removed. (Kind of like that treadmill we all buy for hanging all our workout clothes on!)
  • Obsolete hardware or parts must go — surplus them out or discard in the dumpster — metal scrap or hardware should be sold off for salvage.
  • Record archives: Are the records needed for any purpose or can they be disposed by shredding? Reduce paper and records storage only to the minimum needed to meet liability and compliance requirements. If they are needed, look at scanning or some version of electronic storage.

In sorting we must have the input of personnel who work in that space. Don’t be shy about communicating the goal of the plan. Most people feel more comfortable working in an organized workplace and will generally embrace the initial effort to make changes. It’s not unusual to discover that personnel have been living in frustration with a situation for years.

Plan on doing this process regularly once 5S is institutionalized — it’s a continuous improvement exercise that, once it becomes a habit, sharpens an organization’s ability to see and eliminate waste.

Set in place

What remains in the workplace must be organized and established as the new norm. Everything gets a place. Identify where each item goes and decide early on why it must be in the place assigned. The reason why must be communicated to the work force. It’s helpful to have a map of equipment and tooling locations to keep everything in its assigned location.

“Set in place” examples include:

  • 5S teams draw equipment outlines on the floor and label the equipment location on that spot.
  • Cabinets are relocated and their content is clearly labeled. Mechanic toolboxes may be required to be maintained in a set location.
  • In Department of Defense (DoD) programs a set location from where mechanics will carry the tools is maintained as a FOD control measure.
  • Toolboxes are arranged in one place, test equipment another and are designated by painted lines on the floor.
  • HAZMAT cleanup materials are clearly labeled and located close to the work areas.
  • Ground power units are stationed convenient to the aircraft and parked so they are not in the way of work.
  • Technical data stations are located at set locations. They have enough space for the equipment, but not so much that they accumulate discarded paper.
  • HAZMAT waste containers will have their location near waste generating areas with their contents clearly marked.


The face lift begins here. We paint and clean the area after we re-organize. Equipment may get a new coat of paint. Years of accumulated dust and dirt are washed off by liberal application of soap and water.

Floors are cleaned and, if necessary, repainted or re-conditioned. Areas that are set aside for remaining equipment will be repainted or outlined. In a shop the application of paint on the walls and equipment can have positive effect on staff productivity. Broken equipment that survived the sort process must be repaired at this time. Time must be set aside to periodically clean and restore any improvements made.


By now we have invested a lot of time and effort in the previous three processes. Now we train the work force to the new system. Procedures for shop cleanup and management of the new environment must be trained and enforced throughout the workplace. If a team was assigned to create the plan and implementation, they should carry out training of the work force.

The 5S plan should include analysis of workstations. If identical work is performed in multiple locations, for example, nonstandard workstation layouts must be addressed so that one worker can use a location interchangeably with another. This analysis can be applied to hangar bays, back shops, and offices. The level of execution in this area can spell the difference in success or failure in the 5S effort. The organization will know if it falls short of its planned goals. These decisions will have to be made at the planning level so the effort doesn’t falter over unplanned costs.


We are here! We made it …have a party and celebrate. You’ve achieved a great milestone. Afterwards go back and do it again. This is sustaining. If we fail to maintain, we just fall back to where we started. Most efforts fail here after clear success early in the process. There are lots of reasons. But they all result in gradual deterioration of the effort because the organization fails somehow to incorporate the changes into its corporate culture.

5S keeps providing dividends only by constant practice and application. The drive for excellence is tied to continuous execution. Our plan in the beginning must include the means we will use to sustain our success.

Part of the lean journey

The thing about 5S is that it fits very well with aviation maintenance. It speaks to all the disciplines involved with internal compliance standards. The following are some examples that respond well to 5S implementation:

  • Hangar and shop standards (sort, shine, and standardize)
  • Quality assurance (standardization, sustain)
  • FOD control (sort, set in place, standardization)
  • Production control (sort, set in place, standardize, sustain)
  • Recordkeeping (sort, set in place, standardize, sustain)

Keep in mind that 5S is often part of a larger effort related to Lean implementation. But there is no rule that says it has to be. Also making these changes requires a top down and bottom up coordination to better mitigate the discomfort that change brings. Success is best achieved by starting small building on small continuous successes. Find an area whose improvement would be visible and make changes, then pick a new area and begin again. Keep in mind how small parts of the organization contribute to the whole. Be ready to fail, learn from failure, then try again and succeed. After all this is a journey; enjoy the ride. AMT


Vern Berry began his aviation career as an A&P mechanic in 1979. His experience within the aviation industry includes key management roles in quality and safety for both MRO and air carrier operations. He currently resides in upper state New York where he writes and manages a consultant firm at www.blowntireaviation.com.