Using 5S to improve report and dashboard design

5S is a tool that lots of manufacturing businesses use. It’s a funny tool as it can look quite superficial unless you have been involved in a project where it has been applied properly. What people often miss is the mindset that goes along with it. When you start living and breathing 5S some quite interesting things start to happen, with hundreds of tiny incremental improvements adding up to huge culture shift and improvement in the work place. Something that fascinates me is how this applies to information, rather than manufacturing (where the technique was born). It seems particularly useful in the visual side of information – dashboards and reports – as 5S is a visually orientated improvement tool.

If you haven’t come across it before the 5 “S” are the initials of 5 Japanese words, which are seiri, seiton, seiso, seiketsu, and shitsuke. In English these roughly translate to


Straightening or Setting in Order

Sweeping or Shine

Standardized cleaning-point at a 5S organized plant


There’s a Wikipedia article here that will give you the conventional take on what these mean. I’m not a huge fan of the contortions required to get the 5Ss into English, but you can see why it was done, after all an acronym loses a bit if it isn’t actually an acronym.

Here’s my take on the 5Ss and how they apply to dashboards and reports…


Wikipedia says…

Eliminate all unnecessary tools, parts, and instructions. Go through all tools, materials, and so forth in the plant and work area. Keep only essential items and eliminate what is not required, prioritizing things per requirements and keeping them in easily-accessible places. Everything else is stored or discarded.

Putting an information design spin on this, I say…

Get rid of anything on the dashboard that is not needed, is there “just in case” or is there to “look pretty”. This includes:

On spreadsheets and PDFs remove unnecessary…

  1. Borders

  2. Boxes

  3. Shading and fills

  4. Big logos (generally I don’t think they are necessary at all unless the output is for external consumption)


On charts and graphs Remove…

  1. Tick marks

  2. Gridlines

  3. Borders and fills (on both charts and bars)

  4. Colour (unless is specifically conveys information)


Keep in easily accessible places

Optimise your storage so that documents are…

  1. In a logical, self explanatory network location

  2. Do not require interminable levels of navigation through folder hierarchy to access them

  3. Are clearly identified with relevant data (like date of issue)

  4. The information within the document is accessible through good layout, logical structure and correct internal signposting and indexing


Straightening or Setting in Order

Wikipedia says… Arranging tools, parts, and instructions in such a way that the most frequently used items are the easiest and quickest to locate. The purpose of this step is to eliminate time wasted in obtaining the necessary items for an operation.

Putting an information design spin on this, I say…

  1. Frequently used information should be prominent. The prime real estate on any dashboard or report is:Create a logical thread, matched to the way in which it will be used, so readers don’t have to jump backwards and forwards on the same page or through a report

    1. The front page
    2. The top left hand corner (for Western readers, anyway)
    3. So critical stuff goes in the top left hand corner of the front page
  2. Look closely at how the report or dashboard will be used. If it’s a meeting then there should be a proper “terms of reference”. Your document should match those terms of reference.

Sweeping or Shine

Wikipedia says…Clean the workspace and all equipment, and keep it clean, tidy and organized. At the end of each shift, clean the work area and be sure everything is restored to its place. This makes it easy to know what goes where and ensures that everything is where it belongs.

Putting an information design spin on this, I say…

Eliminate what is not required – that includes behind-the-scenes stuff. This applies not just to the dashboard or report itself but that mess of data and sheets behind the scenes. The clutter in those source spreadsheets is slowing you down and making mistakes more likely.



Wikipedia says…All work stations for a particular job should be identical. All employees doing the same job should be able to work in any station with the same tools that are in the same location in every station. Everyone should know exactly what his or her responsibilities are for adhering to the first 3 esses. Synonym : Systemize

Putting an information design spin on this, I say…

Create a consistent production process and design language.

By “consistent production process” I mean:

  1. Document precisely how you define your measures

  2. Hold that definition in one place and maintain only one (up to date) copy

  3. Write down the process, using process maps, user guides or whatever else you need

  4. Keep the process documentation up to date

  5. Train up more than one person on how to produce the documents, and make sure they are trained in the same way

When I talk about “consistent design language” you can use the example of a newspaper. The actual content of the paper is different every day, but the layout of the front page and internal pages follow a very consistent set of layout and design rules. You become familiar with those and stop having to think about where something is on the page. You can navigate the internal pages confidently every day, without having to think about where things are. The goal of a “consistent design language” is to make sure that approach is taken across all of the reports and dashboards that you are responsible for.

  1. Use a consistent and logical layout

  2. Create a “house style” which everyone uses and understands

  3. Enforce the house style

  4. Don’t forget to give style guidelines to less visible things like report commentary – which can vary wildly if not tackled properly.

For more advice and guidance on consistent visual design take a look at my eBook – BlinkReporting. You can download it here.


Sustaining the Practice

Wikipedia says…Maintain and review standards. Once the previous 4 esses have been established, they become the new way to operate. Maintain focus on this new way and do not allow a gradual decline back to the old ways. While thinking about the new way, also be thinking about yet better ways. When an issue arises such as a suggested improvement, a new way of working, a new tool or a new output requirement, review the first 4 esses and make changes as appropriate. It should be made as a habit and be continually improved.

Putting an information design spin on this, I say…

  1. Hold regular reviews. Get the report producers to audit their own documents and those of their peers. Use a structured review document like this report design checklist to help you quantify progress and spot things slipping back.

  2. Hold regular reviews with the customers of your reports and dashboards and actively seek their feedback and input

Remember, these are only my take on how to apply the 5s principles to reports and dashboards. The key thing here are the principles behind it. You will know you are on the right track when you…

  • Start applying 5s principles automatically, without pulling out a checklist or being pinged by a diary reminder

  • Find yourself looking for new ways to streamline and simplify everything you do

  • Are alarmed when you see cluttered and badly designed reports and dashboards and are gripped by the urge to fix them.

Good luck and try not to turn into too much of an obsessive!

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