Why Clean Your Desk? Is This 5S?


    Why Clean Up Your Desk? Delight in Disorder Instead (WSJ $$)

    What does a clean desk have to do with 5S? It depends. Do you have your own desk or do you share a workspace with others? Can you find any item or piece of information within 20 seconds or does it take forever to find anything?

    The article I've linked to is about a book called A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder–How Crammed Closets, Cluttered Offices, and On-the-Fly Planning Make the World a Better Place.

    How's that for a messy and cluttered book title??

    One of the arguments the authors make has some merit from a total system perspective:

    “And mess can also serve as a valuable time-saver: The sloppy desk liberates the desk owner to focus on more important things. All that time spent straightening piles of paper — or working your way diligently through memos, messages and mailings — could be better used to crunch numbers or to think of a shrewd way of marketing Widget 2.0.”

    Granted, we all have limited minutes in the day (and in our lives). We have to prioritize those moments and straightening an office might honestly not be the right thing to be doing right now. A clean desk in a failing business might be like re-arranging desk chairs on the Titanic, eh?

    When a guy from Ford emails me about the office 5S program they have, I have to wonder where their priorities are. Do they really think the biggest waste in their business system is messy desks for engineers?

    5S is a method for eliminating waste and for making sure problems are apparent (so they can be solved). 5S is not just a “neat freak” exercise. Now, if engineers are having trouble working together and new model launches are being delayed because of messy desks, then maybe you have an argument for office 5S.

    Lean isn't just about 5S. We should do lean for lean's sake and we shouldn't do 5S for 5S's sake.

    From what I read in that book review, it hasn't convinced me that messes are more helpful than they are harmful. Do I have a bit of a messy office at home? Sure. But, my lean project team rooms are organized — because a group of us have to function and be productive together in that space. I can find the papers in stacks in my desk and home — nobody else has to. In our group room, we rely on 5S and organization to make sure we can all be productive, that we always put papers and tools back in the same place.

    What do you think of “Office 5S”? Has it been helpful for you? Or just a hassle? Click “comments” to share your experiences.

    Here is a free book review from Fast Company magazine.

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    Mark Graban
    Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


    1. Mark,

      For a leader at any level there is one very important reason to 5S your own office – credibility. What message does it send if folks hear you talking about lean and elimination of waste, then walk into your office and see a picture like the one above? You have to be the change you are trying to lead.


    2. Yes, that’s NOT my own office. It’s from a hospital office area. I wouldn’t personally keep an office like that, nor would I want my leaders to do the same.

      I lean more towards the side of organization being better than messiness. It’s an interesting discussion point, though, of “how” clean and “how” organized you should be.

      I agree that leaders need to set a good example. Amen to that. I have also just seen too many 5S efforts that were cosmetic and didn’t address waste elimination and waste reduction. Doing the wrong kind of clean up (fiddling while Rome burns?) might be muda of a different kind.

      Thanks for your comments, love your blog, Kent!

    3. Mark – feelin’s mutual. I learn something everytime I read your blog. Keep it comin’ – I’m lapping it up!


    4. How about 5S for the hard drive? One thing I see all the time is that people have nice clean desks, but their hard drives are a disaster…”I don’t use folders, I just keep all my files here. Now what did I name that…..can you just send it to me again?”

      I think a lot of this discussion of a messy desk is irrelevant. Most peoples work is on a computer. Almost all of the paper on my (OK a little messy) desk is printed computer output.

      I don’t worry about how long it takes to find my stapler. I use it twice a month. What I time is my retrevial time for a file or email. I do that all day. My rule is under 20 seconds or there is a problem. Some of the cleanest desks in my neck of the woods measure in minutes, and are always the ones asking for a resend because they deleted it in the name of organization!!

    5. Funny, I just wrote a blog entry for our site about this same topic, only I also noted an article that came from the BBC about how a civil service office incorporated Lean ideas–specifically taping desks–which the union perceived as “demoralizing.”

      Organization, whether it’s for a desk, hard drive or shop floor, has to work for the individual and if it’s a company directive, there has to be “buy-in” from the staff.

      Based on personal experience in the classroom and the office, I’d also have to say there is some truth to the claim of clutter and creativity. In our office, the clutter of our artists may look like a mess to me, but it obviously inspires them. Again, I believe it’s the individual that defines what clutter and organization mean in his/her life.

    6. Hi Renee — I saw that article about the UK civil service and have a blog post I’ve been working on about that, will probably release it tonight or tomorrow.

    7. This reminds of a point I find myself saying over and over again – the WHY of something is just as important as the WHAT and HOW, but we spend very little time on it.

      If the why of 5S in your office is the bottom line will change because you have a label around your stapler, then you will lose people. If it’s to set an example, that might be a different reason. In any case, spend time on the why.


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