5S Red Tags – The Correct Way to Use A Simple Lean Tool

If you already have knowledge of what 5S is, it’s likely you’ve probably also heard the term “Lean” before with reference to manufacturing, production, and warehouse/general business management. If not, and you’re just wondering what the heck this 5S thing is that every keeps talking about, well, that’s just fine too. In particular, I want to talk about the “5s red tag” system often integrated into traditional 5S operations and give some insights as to how to best use this tool. In order to best facilitate that, we’ll go over exactly what the 5S system is and how it works so that you can successfully conduct a project of your own.

What is 5S and why is it important?

At its core, 5S is about organizing a workspace in order to maintain or – ideally – improve its efficiency. The name refers to the five steps, which all begin with S and are derived from the original Japanese iteration of the process. They are, in order of occurrence, sort, set in order, shine, standardize, and sustain. A workplace using 5S is also best served by implementing various other lean tools into its processes in order to continually improve all aspects of an operation. This concept of ongoing improvement and working toward ideal efficiency is known as “Kaizen” in lean circles, which 5S is a part. As an aspect of the “sorting” process of 5S, a “5s red tag” system has long been popular:

“The red tag is a useful tool to help the sorting process – in the factory, warehouse, or office. These tags are used to identify unnecessary items that need to be either thrown out, recycled, sold or relocated. They are especially useful as a visual management tool as they easily communicate to other staff members that the tagged items are unneeded/unwanted.”

The Process Improvement Japan website goes on to note that many smaller companies in Japan don’t actually bother with red tagging, due to a smaller workforce and inventory figures making it unnecessary. It is also mentioned that red tagging is most needed when the area you’re working on organizing is very large, a multitude of employees/shifts might make confusion over sorted items likely, or if the process is expected to be ongoing and take some time to finish. Let’s take a look at the steps of 5S in detail, with particular attention to the practice of red tagging.

Using 5S Red Tags to Sort

The first step of getting any 5S project underway is to sort the area you are working in thoroughly. Let’s say you’ve got a work room in need of organizing; you may have noticed that searching for tools and materials is causing excessive time loss, that workers are in danger while going about their daily tasks in a cluttered room, or that you simply have too many unused or outdated items taking up space that could be filled with new and more useful things.

When sorting, the most basic systems will use either two or three piles, which we’ll get to in a moment. When you look at any item, you need to determine how often it is used, who uses it, projected future need (for seasonal items, for example), the space they’re taking up, etc. Items which are used on a daily basis or often enough to need to be readily available and easy to get to should go in one pile. This is sort of your “green light” pile, items in this pile will likely be moved back into position quickly after the area has been cleared out.

The second pile is where 5s red tags come in; the items that don’t make the green light pile should be sorted into another area or bin. This bin is for items which are only periodically, rarely, or never used. If an item is going to be placed into this pile, attach a red tag to it with the following information:

  • Name of who put it in the pile
  • Name/description of the item in question
  • The date the tag was attached

Now, in addition to the tags themselves, you can also use red tagging charts. These charts are especially useful for keeping track of many “questionable” items, or those, which you aren’t sure you really need anymore or not.

The idea with 5s red tags is that you will check in with a tagged item after a determined amount of time, one month is commonly used, and see if you’ve used the item in that time. Having a determined amount of time to evaluate items can help you make more objective decisions on them. Let’s say you cleared out your work area and found an old nail gun buried in one of the shelves. If it’s been without need long enough to get lost, so it is likely that you don’t really need the it around (perhaps you have a new one, use a machine to automate the process now, etc.). Waiting a month or two and seeing that it has not been used can help you make this determination without worrying about a future need. Remember, the idea with 5S is to keep things running smoothly by only hanging onto those items essential to getting your job done. Tagging charts can help you keep track of which items have been used in their “trial” period.

At the end of the allotted time, come back and make a decision: Throw away, sell, or donate items that are both unused and unlikely to be needed in the near future. Those that were used in the interim time, place them back in the original work area. For those things which may not have been used, but are highly situational items that you need to keep around “just in case” or for another time of the year, place them in a storage area so that they can be accessed when necessary, but will not impede upon normal workflow by getting in the way anywhere else.

While they don’t involve red tagging, or at least not as much, and aren’t the focus of this article, here’s a quick once-over of the other steps involved in 5S.


Once you’ve sorted your items, you need to put put the “keepers” back into the space you’ve cleared out. This time around, however, make sure that ease of access is based on the frequency of use of these items and that your space is organized efficiently. Also leave some extra space available (you should have plenty after the sort) so that you can return any red tag items that you determine to be needed.


Once items are in place, clean the space until it shines! Well, at least make sure that it’s cleaner than when you started. Use organizers, new shelving and drawers, etc. while setting in order, then brooms, vacuums, dusting materials and more to shine the space afterward.


The next step, standardize, means integrating the newly organized 5S layout into the daily tasks and training of your workers. Workers need to be taught where new spaces for items are, how to leave a 5S’d room as clean as when they left it, etc. This standardization is key to the fifth S as well…


The final, and arguably the most difficult, of the S’s is sustain. This means simply keeping your momentum and new-found efficiency going forward. There are many ways to help reinforce the sustaining of a 5S project, but a few to consider are involving employees directly in the projects, asking for feedback on new arrangements and locations, and changing new employee training to accustom them to 5S right off of the bat.

Similar Posts

Additional Resources