Does it sometimes feel that you spend more time looking for tools in your garage than actually getting to work on your project? How many times are you having to look around your shop saying “I just put it right there why is it not there now?” If this is you, (it was me for a long time) then there’s a high likelihood that you need to consider getting your garage or shop organized.
Once I finally decided to stop and make a conscious, focused effort to get my shop organized, it completely changed the way I work. It increased my enjoyment and I found that I was FAR more productive. The other thing it allowed me to do was tackle other problems that I had been putting off in my garage such as getting the temperature better regulated. If you are interested in learning more about that, I wrote an article on that topic that can be found here.
Below is the method I used to get my shop organized. Ironically, it was a method that I used often at my day job. It actually hit me on the drive home from work one day that I could totally use the same principles in my own garage. This is a method I have used to organize 100,000 square foot warehouses and office spaces. Why it never crossed my mind to use on my small 2 car garage is beyond me.
The term “5S ” comes from a Japanese organization method using the The term words: seiri, seiton, seiso, seiketsu, and shitsuke. The English translation of these words are: sort, set, shine, standardize and sustain. The first major company to implement the practices were at Toyota. Nowadays, the “5S” terms and methodology are used in production environments around the world.
Personally, I have witnessed a Fortune 20 company implementing this concept at one of their facilities and being able free up approximately 40% of the the footprint in the building they were leasing. Don’t assume this method can’t work in your shop since it’s used by large corporations. This method can absolutely transform your garage if you put the time into getting organized.
How many times do you go out into your shop to work and you are tripping over tools that you haven’t used in months? Then to make matters worse, the hammer (or any other tool) that you always use, is nowhere to be found. If you are like me, it feels like you spend more time hunting for the tool you need or moving tools out of the way so you can work.
The first step in the 5S process is sort and will help declutter your work space to get you more productive and efficient in your projects. There are really two phases to the Sort process. The first is to decide if the item is needed or not. The second part is to determine how often it is used.
Before you begin, I recommend clearing an area of floor space in your shop. How far you take this step is up to you, but I like to put multiple boxes out that are clearly labeled. Examples include: Trash, Donate, Daily Use, Monthly Use, Yearly, Keep but Store. If you don’t have enough boxes or large enough boxes, you can also put painters tape on your floor to mark off sections.
As you begin the Sort phase, I recommend picking a corner of your shop and working from there. It’s easy to get distracted and start skipping all around the shop. Picking one small area and moving from there also provides a visual of the progress your are making. This always helps me see that I am actually making progress!
Is it an Item of Need?
At this point, you should have an area cleared in your shop as you begin sorting through your stuff. This should generally be a “Yes” or “No” question. There really isn’t much ambiguity in this. Now, you are going to go to your starting spot. Pick up your first item and ask yourself “Do I need this?” If so, the next question to ask is “How often do I use this?” Then you are going to place the item in the matching box or section you labeled in step one.
As you sort thru your garage, if you are like me, you are going to run across some tools that you’ve completely forgotten about. You may be temped to hang on to them, but if they’ve been hidden in a dark corner and untouched for years, use this as an opportunity to get rid of it. If you do come across some tools that you rarely use but don’t want to get rid of because they’re expensive to replace or something, then that’s ok! Later as we finish up the 5s process, we are going to put those into an area that you can still access, but they are out of your way.
As you continue through this process, try to make sure you are being honest with yourself when you ask if it’s an item you truly need. If an item is defective or broken, toss it (unless you are absolutely certain its a repair you can make within the next week or two). Holding on to these broken items just wastes space in your shop.
Below is a decision tree to help.
An important tip as you go through this phase is to not only look at what’s in front of you. If you’re standing in your shop and you’re looking around it’s easy to just see the things that are laying on the floor in front of you or on top of your cluttered workbench. Look beyond just the items in plane view. Go through all drawers, boxes, tool chests, etc. You want to ensure you’ve looked over everything in order to maximize your space.
Set in Order
This phase of the process is where you really start to see the organization of your shop come together. In this phase, everything in your shop gets a home. One of the popular quotes that I often hear in the corporate world when teaching this section of the 5s process is: “everything has its place everything in its place.”
In the sort phase we had you separate items into groups on your floor that was organized by the frequency of use. Now you’re gonna start giving those tools a home that is close to where they belong.
For instance, perhaps you have a miter gauge, push sticks, feather boards and a dado set of blades for your table saw. You want to place all of those items within close proximity of your table saw.
Of the items, in our example, I’d assume everything except the dado blades get used every time you turn on your table saw. If so, you want to place these items so that when you are standing in front of your saw, they are within 1 or 2 steps from your position.
The dado blades are probably used less frequently. If that’s the case, place them in a drawer or cabinet close to the table saw. Or if you have multiple saw blades across multiple machines that will be stored, find a drawer or cabinet for all of them together.
After your first area is organized, move on to the next spot you want to focus on. This could be a work bench. As you stand there in front of your bench, decide, what are the items that you use the most. For me, this is pencils, glue, basic screws, screwdrivers and cordless drills just to name a few. Place all of these items with a step or two of where you typically stand. Hang as many items as you can to keep them off your work space or off the floor. This can be accomplished by adding shelving or pegboards in front of your bench.
Shine or Sweep
The third phase of 5s is “Shine” or sometimes referred to as “Sweep.” This step entails both cleaning your shop in the current state, but also developing a plan for the future.
Now that everything has a home, you should focus on cleaning. This includes sweeping and vacuuming up any dust and garbage that you find laying around. But it’s not limited to just the floor. It’s important for you to spend this time to really get your shop cleaned up. This includes opening up some of your saws and vacuuming them out thoroughly. It includes cleaning your hand tools if they need it.
This is also the time to take note of tools that need some maintenance. Perhaps as you are going through this phase you notice that the blade on your hand planer is dull. Make a list of these items so that when you complete all of the 5s steps you can go back and take care of these items.
At this point, you should be able to look around your shop or garage and see a completely transformed work area. Your tools should be neatly organized. Your shop should have little to no dust and grease laying around. Best of all, you should be able to walk around in your shop without tripping over tools, garbage and materials.
Now you need to put measures in place to keep your shop organized going forward. This step is the easy one to skip. Taking the time to complete this step can set you up for years of success.
At this stage, you want to put visible indicators in place to ensure each tool remains in the home that you’ve given it. The level of detail that you take this to is totally up to you. However, I suspect the level of detail you put into it will ultimately determine your success rate.
It’s important that everything remain where it is located. My recommendation is to put tape down to outline the space your tool takes up.
For example, companies I work for have taken this as far as putting tape in the shape of a square on the floor to indicate where the trash can belongs. They then add a label that states “Trash Can.” This ensures there is never any question what belongs in that spot. It’s also provides a visual reminder should something not be in it’s designated spot.
At this point, you’ve completed the hard part. If you’ve followed the steps above, you should be standing in the middle of your shop and admiring your nice clean shop. Finding tools should be easy at this point. No longer are you tripping over tools or taking 5 minutes of your time to clean off a work bench to glue up a couple pieces of wood.
The sustain stage of the 5S process never ends. If you are the only person working in your shop, it will be important to stay disciplined in making sure each tool makes it back to its home at the end of each day or project. If other people are going to be working in your shop, you’ll want to make sure you hold them accountable for putting things back where they belong.
After all the work you’ve put into getting your shop to look this good, it’s important to make sure it stays this way! If you don’t keep it this way, you’ve just wasted your time getting to where you are now. Take some time to decide how you are going to keep the shop looking this good. Here’s a few suggestions:
- Clean your work area at the end of each day that you worked. If you are working on building a bookcase over a weekend, stop and clean up your saw dust and tools at the end of each day. This will help ensure a cleanup project doesn’t get too overwhelming and large. At the end of the day, your shop should look like it did before you started.
- Come up with a machine maintenance schedule. The frequency of this could be based on how much a machine gets used. Frequently used machines get looked at monthly while others get looked over on a quarterly basis.
- Take time to find a home for new tools or products that you add to your shop. Try to avoid tossing them into the first available spot that you find.
Hopefully you have found the 5S process a great way to break down the overwhelming task of cleaning and organizing your garage. This is a method that has been tested and used for decades in every industry you can imagine. But it’s also a method that I think will work in your shop if you take the time to go through the steps and keep the discipline to sustain it going forward.
Summary of Steps
- Clear a space on the floor with marked locations based on whether you keep the item and if you do, how often you use it.
- Pick a corner and ask yourself “Do I need it?” If yes, “How often do I use it?” Place in matching area. If you don’t need it, discard it! This completes the Sort phase.
- Next you want to give every item a home. The home of the tool should be based on where it is used and how often you use it. Table saw tools should be close to the saw. Frequently used items should be within 1-2 steps of your primary location.
- Now it’s time to clean. Not just the floor, but anything that may need it in your shop. Clean out the inside of your saws for sawdust.
- As you clean, check to ensure your tools are good on maintenance. If something is needed, make a note and complete it after you’ve finished the 5s process.
- Add tape around the borders of your tools to indicate where they belong. This will help hold you accountable for making sure tools are where they belong.
- Create a maintenance schedule for tools depending on how often they are used.
- Create and continue to modify a sustainability plan. Continue to try new strategies and schedules to help keep your shop clean and organized.