Thursday, March 24, 2011

5S in the Office the Right Way

Executive Summary:
Ignore the books and your business’ Lean experts when they say to apply Lean’s 5S technique to your office workspace.  It’s a waste of time.  Instead, use the 5S principles and make the digital information systems and file structures on your servers – the place where office personnel really work - easier to navigate and use.

The Rest of the Story:
If your business has adopted and applied the Lean methodology, or in many cases the Six Sigma methodology, then chances are you have been directed to learn and apply the 5S technique to your office space.  It has happened in every office I have worked and every one where a friend of mine works where the Lean methodology exists.  The problem is that in every one of those cases, it was done wrong.  I even have books on my shelf that say to do it, and talk about how effective it can be, but I say they are wrong too.

That’s right.  I’m saying for the entire Intranet to read, that applying 5S to your desk, your cubicle, and your bookshelf is a waste of time.  Sure, it may be beneficial to clean things up once in a while, but I never lost any significant productivity because my stapler wasn’t assigned to a special spot and replaced there the last time I used it.  I almost never use it.  I don’t lose any productivity because my book is still on my desk instead of in alphabetical order on my shelf.

I lose productivity when I can’t find the business template for the presentation I need to prepare.  I lose productivity when my access to a file server is denied because I forgot my password or the protocol changed and my computer profile hasn’t been updated.  I lose productivity when I can’t find a file because it’s named some gibberish for which I didn’t think to search.  I can spend much too much time looking for something in an e-mail archive.

The real way to 5S your office is not at your desk.  It is inside your computer and your information systems.  To top it off, I’d bet the first taker dinner, that I could find more business benefit from 5S in the information system, than that taker could find for 5S in the production system.

Please let me backtrack just a moment for any readers who are not intimately familiar with 5S.  It is one of several techniques introduced through the Lean methodology1.  It’s simple and quite effective, and you can read about it from numerous sources on the Intranet.  For our purposes let me simply explain that 5S stands for the five following actions, which are performed in order.
  1. Sort – identify the necessary, eliminate the unnecessary
  2. Set – make a place for everything and make sure everything is in its proper place
  3. Shine – keep things clean and use the cleaning process to inspect for problems
  4. Standardize – create a standard way of doing things and a standard to improve
  5. Sustain – don’t’ just 5S once and walk away, make the above S’s habit

If your workspace is a laboratory, a library, a workbench, a soldering station, or any similar workspace where physical tools and devices pass through your hands on a regular basis, then the 5S you were trained or read about in books is the way to go, and you will benefit from it.  However, if your workspace is the computer screen and your tools are software tools, and the things that you make, or move, or modify are elements of digital information, then skip the desktop and bookshelf.  Apply 5S to the stuff with which you work, inside the data system.

Here are some thoughts for your first venture into digital 5S.
  • Target a single file folder, not the entire server, but pick one that you use every day
  • Sort through the files and delete the nonsense, archive the old, and keep the imminently useful
  • Set limits for when something gets archived and rules for what is allowed in the folder.  My favorite is to create a text or document file titled “001Folder Rules.”  The 001 ensures it is the first file listed, and the file explains the guidelines for the use of the file folder.
  • Shine the folder by making it a rule that if you find something wrong while routinely using the folder, you fix it then and there; don’t leave it wrong.  Schedule periodic inspections to archive or delete information according to the rules.
  • Standardize the way files in the folder are labeled and include that standard in your 001FolderRules file.  Just make sure that you use full words, not gibberish, in your file names so that the search function will remain intuitive and useful.
  • Sustain by educating everyone who uses that folder how you just rearranged it, what the rules are and where to find them, and perpetually enforce the expectation that the rules and neatness be maintained.

You see?  It’s actually very simple.  For many file folders, the last 4 S’s could be done in about an hour – unless a lot of files need to be renamed.  The first S is the killer.  Once it’s done and you succeed to sustain, you won’t need to do it again. 

Now imagine the long-term pain you and your team will save by doing a periodic 5S on your information systems, one at a time.  Once the sustain habits are in place, you will be real happy you did. 

I’ll pick a neat number, $50.  Say that your burdened hourly rate to your business is $50 (if you are reading this, it’s probably a-lot more).  Now say that you lose 10 minutes looking for a file, 2 times a day, every day that you work.  That’s 1/3 of an hour each day for roughly 250 days at $50 an hour.  That’s $4,162.50 a year, for just one person.  Now say that your business has 500 office employees with similar waste, that’s almost $2.1 million a year.  Any takers on that dinner bet?

The next time that one of your business change agents or your leadership directs you to do 5S in the office, direct their attention to your computer, the place where your real work takes place, and tell them that you want to apply 5S in there, not your desk or bookshelf.  If they give you a weird look, just ask them how much of their work takes place on the desk vs. on the computer.  The 5S technique is very effective, when it is applied where productivity takes place.  Point this out, and you could be the office hero for a day.

Stay wise, friends.

1.  Lean Enterprise Institute:


  1. I am currently taking a "Lean Champion" class at a local college. Of course the company is paying for me to attend this class and I have done all of my required homework as a token of appreciation. I have cleaned up our office supply closet and found a home for my tape dispenser and stapler. However, just this morning I searched for several minutes, before giving up and calling the person, for the e-mail I "filed" yesterday. I found this post because I was searching for a way to organize what I really use each day, information. I couldn't agree more with this post and appreciate the tips.

  2. I always here the 5's every time I switch jobs, it's really helpful. Thanks.

  3. I think you hit the nail on it's head with this article. I know for managers who try to implement 5S to the office as they do in production there is a sixth S, the S for Stupidity!

  4. Gimme a break, why did I waste my time reading this?

  5. Article is four years old - and still completely valid. I agree, and am confused as to why no one talks about leavning out the virtual workspace.

  6. Article is four years old - and still completely valid. I agree, and am confused as to why no one talks about leavning out the virtual workspace.