Thrift Retailer
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Thrift Retailer

What 5S Means in Thrift

Photo by Mykola Makhlai on Unsplash

5S is a system to keep workplaces organized, standardized and safe. Since so much random shows up in thrift and second hand it’s even more important to have standard methods in place.

Be careful, start using 5S and you may be sucked into a whole universe of of operational excellence. 5S is a key building block in the Kaizen, Lean, and 6sigma universe. The most successful, pleasant and, yes, profitable thrift operations I have seen are this kind of disciplined.

Everything is either in its place, or not. There is a defined process for everything. There you have it.

It’s a minimalist lifestyle.

The 5 Ses, depending on what you read, are Sort, Set, Shine, Standardise, and Sustain. Safety is often included as the 6th S.

Do them all or don’t do any. Skipping one is like leaving a line of code out of a program, the whole thing breaks down.

1. Sort

Use, store or discard. This applies to the tools, supplies and equipment used in a work space as well as the product that does through it.

In Kaizen 5S sort is about getting rid of tools, supplies and equipment that are unnecessary and making sure everything that is necessary easily accessable in the workspace. Only what is regularly needed to do the job should be in a station or workspace.

For whatever reason stuff tends to accumulate. No one needs 20 pens, six markers, five pencils, six scissors, a box full of rags, a months worth of price tags and tagger tails at one workstation. I’ve seen it, you probably have as well.

Textile stations for example, go through a lot of tagger tails. There should always be a good supply but a months worth is just clutter. Multiple stations overstocked with a consumable like that adds up to wasted investment. Chances are whoever orders these supplies just checks the storage area, constantly reordering supplies already on site in abundance.

Do you need it and what do you need it for?

How often do you need it?

How much is needed in a day or shift?

An understanding and agreement of what is and isn’t needed in a work space is the foundation of everything to come. Everything not necessary to complete work has to be removed from and kept out of the workspace.

The staff working in an area must have the most valuable voices. Yet they have to be able to easily explain the value and frequency of any tool or quantity needed in the Gemba (work space).

In my experience holding Kaizen events, employees working in an area will sometimes argue passionately for odds and ends that they might only need a couple times a year.

One quirk in second hand is the interesting or curious items that become décor on a workspace. The Star Wars action figure, the clever snarky poster, the vintage whatnot. There are a few problems with allowing these odds and ends to sit.

  • It creates clutter. An interesting trinket does not add value to the work area and can be a distraction.
  • If it’s that interesting, it has value and needs to be sold. As soon as an item is donated it becomes the property of and an asset of the store. No different than traditional purchased goods in a traditional store.
  • The longer something sits the more likely it will be damaged or stolen, costing the store the entire value of the item.
  • One thing becomes five, then ten. Other work stations do the same and a snowball effect takes charge.
  • Management offices are no different. One filled with donated curiosities is a terrible example.
  • Holding on to donated items like this dishonors the intent of donor.

A best Kaizen or 5S bests practice is to insure that Every item touched every day is processed down one of several designated streams. Convert assets to cash, dispose of the liabilities properly.

2. Set

Once the clutter and excess is cleared out and there is agreement on what is actually needed, how much is needed, everything has to have a home. A specific place each thing stays. Things used often or constantly should be on the top surface easily accessible and in the same place at each station. Lesser used but needed items, like consumables supplies should be under or adjacent to the workspace.

A tagging gun has a specific home. Same for tags, pens, stapler and anything else needed in the work space. A maximum and minimum quantity also have to be established and understood.

At the end of this step only needed items remain. Each has a designated, marked spot and a maximum quality is established.

Once all that is worked out it is time to focus on the donated stuff. The goal is to create a constantly flowing stream with a minimum number of rocks in that stream.

Everything goes one of these directions:

  • Sell
  • Store
  • Test
  • Research
  • Salvage
  • Trash

Just as every tool and supply has to be defined, the flow of goods through various stages also has to be defined. A river is a great visualisation. Rivers don’t loop over themselves. Those that meander back and forth are great for tubing but not so much for the efficient flow of goods from donation to sale.

A couple ways to measure efficiency is to map the number of times an item is touched, how long an item is touched and importantly, how long an item waits between steps. Goods spend most of their time waiting between steps.

3. Shine

Everything clean — Eventually this becomes a point of pride.

Getting things clean is one thing. Keeping things clean is the key. This goes to making a workplace pleasant and reinforces the other pillars of 5S.

Clean includes the floor, work tables, tools, carts, everything related to a work area. It’s also a good time to inspect tools and equipment, making sure they are in good shape, ready to go.

Scheduling time in the work day just for shine and clean signals how important it is and gives permission to leave a work area clean and ready for the next shift or day. It is so much easier to come to work knowing a work area is organized, clean and set up.

Management regularly reinforcing, and from time to time participating in this step will help turn it into a habit.

One pet peeve of mine is price stickers. They have a way of accumulating. When they are cleaned up every shift they don’t multiply overnight.

4. Standardize (create rules)

This is how agreed-to layouts and processes are maintained. There are several ways to accomplish this.

  • Use visuals to maintain norms. This can include marking where each item is maintained in a workstation.
  • Signing or pictures showing the proper layout of a workstation can also be useful.
  • Marking exactly where work in process is kept and how much is allowed keeps an area from being overwhelmed.
  • Use checklists that cover the key points of each of the 5 S expectations. These can be filled out and signed daily by those working in a space. They should be verified by management at regular intervals, and done by them from time to time.

5. Sustain

This is the secret sauce. 5S isn’t a way to clean up a facility, though that may be an initial result. Sustaining involves buy-in at every level. Regular review and updates with a documentation process that is regularly reviewed will make or break this kind of program.

Like any initiative, there will be early adopters that get it. Then there will be those that hate change no matter the benefits. Celebrate the early adopters and bring the rest along.

6. Safety

Safety is often the sixth S. It’s a natural result of a successful program. When everything has a place, everyone understands and follows clearly defined processes, a facility will naturally be a safer work place.

The mop and broom are always in the right place, ready for use upon need. Eye wash stations are accessible and current. Aisles are clear of clutter and pallet jacks are stored when not in use.


Wow. That was a lot.

Don’t try to change the whole company at once. Pick one area or process, focus on that. Pull a team together, include a dash of patience and a pinch of determination.




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Tim Gebauer

Thrift and retail blogger. Helping small business succeed. Connect on linkedIn, my thrift reseller blog thethrifter or my amazon thrift merchandising e-book.