The 5S’s: Lean Thinking Applied to Idea Development

It happens. You have a thought – an idea for something new. Slowly, it transforms itself into a vision in your mind; something very specific takes shape. It may be a product or service. It may be a delightful tune, a fragrant smell, a loan approval process or a simpler way to do something. It is a product or service that you or your company can provide, sell or market, and hopefully, make a profit or save money doing so. This transformation from idea to a real product, service, improvement, method, or whatever its final form or essence may be, has a systematic development lifecycle to ensure final quality and customer satisfaction.

Your excitement about your idea makes you want to start developing it immediately. You don’t want to “waste time” writing it down. You want to Think Lean. You already know what the final form looks like.

Yes, maybe you do, but you cannot develop it all alone – not if you want to get it to market before someone else does.

To do that, you need people. And they cannot read your mind.  So Thinking Lean means your idea must be written down, as clear and concise as possible. Not everyone will understand it in the same way you do. They will have their own vision of your idea. You may change some words or modify some features or conditions during development. You want to be flexible to get everyone on board quickly, but you don’t want to lose the essence of your idea: namely, its final form.

Originally developed for Lean manufacturing, the 5S’s can be applied to the idea development lifecycle process as well. They help ensure that the final product, service or process sustains the original essence and integrity of the original idea as it goes through the development lifecycle process. Once the idea is initiated, it goes through several stages: 1) concept, 2) design, 3) build, 4) integrate and test, 5) make or implement, 6) verify for approval launch or release into production, and finally, into 7) the production mode. These stages make up your development timeline complete with start and end dates, or key milestones, for each stage with the final stage milestone being, of course, your Start-Of-Production (SOP) date.

Recall the 5S’s are 1) Sort, 2) Set in Order, 3) Scrub and Shine, 4) Standardize, and 5) Sustain.  Now, to apply the 5S’s to develop your idea, first, Sort out your thoughts, scribbles, and notes, and communicate your idea from a high-level, big picture, like the elevator speech. So begins your idea’s specifications document, and your presentations, as you discuss your idea with your team, potential customers and possible suppliers of key components. Then, Set Up and organize your idea into features, functions, and options. Now you are getting into the details of what makes your idea real.

Once written down, then you must Scrub your idea by continuing to review the document, refining the words to ensure that the good features are kept as you remove features and options that are unnecessary – the “waste” in your design. For instance, do you really need to provide it in 24 different colors, when 2 or 3 may do just fine?

Now you are into the home stretch.

The next step is to Standardize your idea’s essence by establishing a baseline, which means stop writing after it has been reviewed and approved. This baseline allows your financial department to cost it, and your marketing department to determine a fair and profitable price, and maybe even put some feelers on its marketability.

Finally, what happens if they return with feedback, namely changes to your product? Then you must Sustain your idea’s essence through a change management process.

Thinking Lean using the 5S’s can be used to plan and estimate the work for a business proposal in response to a customer’s RFQ or to communicate and capture requirements for a new product, service, or process improvement. Thinking Lean involves asking questions to verify requirements: What, When, How Much, Where and Why.

About the AuthorJoann O. Parrinder, MSIE, PMP, CPIM, CSCP, is a dynamic project manager and process leader having managed successful projects to develop radios and satellite tuners for the auto industry, a website infrastructure for technician training, and other complex engineering and IT initiatives.

To learn more about how the Idea Development Lifecycle, please read Driving Operational Excellence – Simple Lean Six Sigma Secrets to Improve the Bottom Line or click on


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