Lab Organization: Why You Should 5S Your Laboratory

Kin Leung

Kin Leung
Apr 15, 2022 12:00:00 PM

Have you ever entered a lab where it looks like a disaster area? It may not have happened after an actual centrifuge accident or explosion, but you can tell that the lab needs a makeover in every sense of the word. Some cases are on the extreme end, such as this lab at Georgia Tech that was an unfortunate victim of negligence, but for the most part it may be just a messy neighbor who needs a gentle reminder to take a moment and clean up their bench for the greater good. (Figure 1)


Dirty Bench

FIGURE 1: A lab bench of nightmares. Source: Reddit r/labrats


There is, of course, a great amount of pressure on scientists in all areas, both academic and in industry, to produce. With long hours and the need to multitask and prioritize experiments, it is easy to see why maintaining laboratory cleanliness (and safety!) could fall to the wayside. Between the stressed-out research associates, graduate students, and postdoctoral fellows who are trying to run that last experiment to produce a figure for their dissertation, journal article, or corporate update, and the principal investigator who is trying to juggle their seminar travel schedule with obtaining funding for future research or reporting to their CEO, carving out an extra hour per month to do a team lab cleanup would seem impossible. Yet, a clean, organized lab could save precious time lost to trying to find the correct pipettor or reagents, and the higher level of safety afforded by the clean lab could prevent accidents, thereby saving lost work hours and even lives.


Finding the Time and the Motivation to Clean and Organize


Cleaning up and reorganizing a lab space, much less an entire laboratory, may seem daunting, but it can be done! Take the aforementioned extreme example of a laboratory at Georgia Tech that had fallen into grave disrepair, with hazardous waste everywhere. (Figure 2) A hazardous materials handling and cleanup team had to be sent in to clear the waste before the lab could be reorganized, but once the hazardous chemicals were tested and removed over the course of a month, a cleaning team took a single day to restore the space into something the institution and the lab group could be proud of.


Before And After Lab Cleanup

FIGURE 2: An example of a laboratory space before (left) and after (right) a lab clean up activity. Source: Georgia Tech EH&S


Whether you are the lead scientist or just a new undergraduate student getting their first taste of research, there is nothing that should stop you from bringing an untidy or unsafe situation to the person in charge, and no shame in admitting that something could be improved even if it’s as simple as organizing equipment and reagents. You could decide to just take charge and initiate a calendar to get everyone on the same page to give every member of the group a manageable task in the future once the initial cleanup is complete. Alternatively, you and your entire group could just concede, in a fit of desperation, that the situation is untenable, and something needs to be done.


I sincerely hope that your lab would never descend into the chaos of that lab at Georgia Tech, but the 5S method should help you prevent any potential catastrophes, or at the very least, make any future lab cleanup activities easier and faster.


The 5S Method of Organization


The 5S methodology originated from Japanese manufacturers who sought to improve workplace organization and efficiency, but many other places, including Western countries, were already implementing the 5S concepts, just without the name. The five “S” words in the methodology are derived from the Japanese language, although they have since been loosely translated into English.


I don’t necessarily think you need to be as obsessively organized as this gentleman has described, but you may admit that it must be nice to be able to find what you need right away! (Figure 3)


5S Lab Bench

FIGURE 3: An example of 5S implementation at the lab bench. Source: The Random Walking Blog


The methodology has five phases, hence 5S:

Sort (from seiri)

  • This entails sorting through everything in your working space and removing any unnecessary materials. Think of it as a solution to excessive hoarding.
  • Team members will need to evaluate whether an item is useful or whether it should be eliminated from the working area.
  • The goal is to reduce the amount of time spent looking for something and to increase the amount of available workspace, among other benefits.
  • Examples would be any broken/obsolete equipment, expired reagents, and dishes that need to be placed in the cleaning area or placed in a storage space.

Set in order (from seiton)

  • Now that sorting is completed, place the essential materials in their optimal places in the lab space.
  • Team members will need to organize equipment in a logical manner based on their functions, and organize reagents according to their storage temperatures, potential hazards, etc.
  • The goal is to make the workflow in the lab as efficient as possible for everyone.
  • Examples would be to group all thermocyclers in one spot, and to identify a single bench for all shakers and/or water baths, thus freeing up space for individual work areas that team members can personalize for their unique workflow.

Shine (from seiso)

  • Once the initial two stages of reorganization are completed, regular inspections and minor cleanings should be scheduled to maintain the new organization scheme.
  • Once the first two phases are complete, it should not take that much out of your day to shine.
  • The goal is to keep the working area clean, safe, and easy to work in. It is easier to work if you actually enjoy being there, and you can enjoy it more if it is clean!
  • Accountability helps! And this leads to the next S…

Standardize (from seiketsu)

  • This means to standardize the procedures put in place to sort, organize, and clean the lab space.
  • Team members should assign each other inspection and clean up tasks, whether it is on a permanent or rotating basis.
  • The goal is to make sure everyone has an assigned duty and is invested in keeping the lab organized so a major cleaning event can be avoided.
  • It helps to have a shared calendar (Google or Outlook and/or printed and posted) that allows everyone to see who the point person is for each task.

Sustain (from shitsuke)

  • With full investment of all team members comes self-discipline to ensure that the lab space remains clean and organized.
  • Team members should all have a vested interest in maintaining the current level of lab cleanliness, while always contemplating new improvements whenever possible.
  • The goal is to ensure that the lab space remains organized, an extension of the standardization phase, and to again avoid another necessary major cleaning event.
  • Periodic training of lab personnel, both rookies and veterans, could be useful in reminding everyone where items should be stored when not in use!


You and your compatriots in lab may not elect to go whole hog and do the tape, but the general principles of 5S are enough to help you get started in improving your lab workflow and research experience. Training a new lab member to adopt your group's 5S shouldn't take very long, and may pass the organization bug down to the next generation of research professionals. If you are interested in setting up a standard document for your lab, a Google image search for “5S audit checklist” will return many examples that you can use as is, or adapt to your group’s unique requirements.


Implementing 5S In a Lab Setting


5S originated from the manufacturing sector, specifically the Toyota automobile company, but its principles can absolutely be implemented in your lab as we described above, as well as in your own home.


I did do full-on 5S while working in manufacturing, but when I was a graduate student, serving as the group’s lab manager as well, I did not actually outline every bit of equipment with tape (like what the gentleman did in Figure 3). However, since my mentor did have a label maker, my lab mates and I religiously labeled just about everything possible. The lab established a master database that was shareable, such that once the item was labeled and placed in its proper spot in the work space, everyone would know where to find it. We assigned identification numbers to each refrigerator and freezer, even the mini-fridges in the middle of each bay and the liquid nitrogen freezer, and used the grid system within clearly labeled freezer boxes set up in freezer racks to give each reagent a home that was then recorded in the master database. This was done from the simple, like activated sodium orthovanadate aliquots, to reconstituted growth factors, enzymes, and antibodies. Our freezers looked something like Figure 4 below.


Organized Freezer

FIGURE 4: A well-organized freezer. Source: Stellar Scientific


This had the added benefit of allowing each lab member, once they determined the exact location of the reagent, to not only find the item quickly, but to reduce the risk of contamination or reagent instability. Most of the time, the person could go directly to the correct freezer, select the appropriate box, take the reagent, and shut the freezer in less than 30 seconds to prevent the accidental thawing of reagents due to drastic temperature changes that could damage future experiments. As biochemists and molecular biologists, we were all paranoid about the stability of our precious enzymes and antibodies, and while my colleagues and I did not know it by name at the time, we did employ the 5S principles to a large degree to protect our reagents! I only provide this as an example; your lab group can do whatever optimizes the work space for you and your colleagues, and you can even use the principles to enhance your pantry, refrigerator, living space, whatever!


I hope that you are able to adopt the 5S strategy to your own workflow, whether it be in lab or in life, and that it greatly improves your experience!



Tags: Lab Life, Support, Lab Tips, Organization, 5S, Organize, Laboratory, Work Space, Clean, Safety

Kin Leung

Kin Leung

Kin Leung is the Scientific Content Marketing Manager at ABclonal. Kin has a background in immunology and cancer biology. He has enjoyed working with many different technologies and living systems, and is always eager to learn more about the natural world. Kin enjoys talking science and sports, including baseball and the Chicago Cubs.