Not Neatness for Neatness Sake


MSN Careers – Is a Messier Desk Better?

I was going to blog about this book before and Dan Markovitz had beaten me to it. But, Matt, a Lean Blog reader, sent me this new article on the same topic — is neatness potentially a waste of time? This discussion and the articles are based on the book A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder–How Crammed Closets, Cluttered Offices, and On-the-Fly Planning Make the World a Better Place (now there's a cluttered mess of a title!!!)

I tried giving the book a chance (in audio book form) and got through the first few chapters. I think the author makes a reasonable point that neatness for neatness sake isn't of high value. But, the articles I've seen about the book tend to make the leap from questioning neatness to glorifying messiness. I don't think that's the message the book was trying to get across. I'm sure the author might think this example would be waste, so do I. If neatness and order means we mark where our keyboard goes, yes, that's probably a waste of time.

There's a big difference between one person and their personal space (a desk) vs. a shared workplace. Most of 5S is intended to help in shared workplaces right? When I do 5S work, I always emphasize that we aren't trying to be neat for the sake of being neat, we're trying to reduce waste and make abnormal situations more readily visible. A messy and disorganized shared workspace leads to waste, as people are looking for needed tools and supplies instead of doing value added work.

Instead of asking “Is a Messier Desk Better?”, as the MSN article does, we should be asking “What's the Cost of a Messy Desk?” If there's zero cost (you're the only user of the space and you can keep track of where things are, no problem). If it's a shared bench in a factory, a laboratory, or a pharmacy, then the cost of messiness could be very high. That's where common sense has to intersect with Lean methods.

The MSN article says:

“Mess isn't necessarily the absence of order,” Abrhamson and Freedman claim. “A messy desk can be a highly effective prioritizing and accessing system. In general, on a messy desk, the more important, urgent work tends to stay close by and near the top of the clutter, while the safely ignorable stuff tends to get buried to the bottom or near the back, which makes perfect sense.

In a way, that's a 5S principle — the most frequently used documents (or tools) should be at closest reach, that might be at the top of a stack.

From the article, an example that might show a lack of common sense:

Feelings toward workspace chaos can be strong. The book cites a Bradford, Penn. police chief who actually was fired for not having a neat desk.

Firing someone over a messy desk? Come on. I would guess the chief was fired as part of somebody's show of power. If a City Manager or Mayor instituted some “clean desk policy” and decided to fire the police chief (or anybody) for not following it, that's either bad management or it was a police chief they could afford to lose…

What are your thoughts? Seen examples of “neatness for the sake of neatness” instead of using 5S to eliminate waste?

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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. The biggest misguided abuse of 5S that I’ve seen are those who have tried to 5S individual engineers’ desks. I can understand using 5S in model shops or prototype labs. There are born-organized engineers who seem to thrive on it. But there are others who will just resent the whole thing. I’m with you – if it’s their own space, who cares?

    Some of the most creative, productive engineers have so many spare parts, test equipment, etc. in their cubicles that you wonder how they can get anything done. . .because they need all those things to support the experimentation that leads to such great product designs.

    After all, aren’t we trying to encourage people to get direct, hands-on experience with the problems they’re solving? It’s hard to do that if the engineers feel like they can’t get their hands (or their desks) dirty.

  2. my company just started a neatness campaign. They just went through 2 whole floors and tossed out every paper tray and shelf. Then they limited every employee to 5 personal items, of which only 3 can be visible. This was done to people that do not share workspaces.

  3. Anonymous, I hate it when I hear about campaigns like that. Does it really show “respect for people” to antagonize them with “remove personal items” mandates??

    When we standardize anything, including a desk, we should ask “why?” Is there REALLY a good reason (safety or otherwise) to mandate the # of personal items on someone’s desk? Again, that sounds like a power trip from a manager rather than anything productive.

    A minute spent counting the items on someone’s desk is a minute distracted from things that matter, I’d say.

  4. At the risk of quibbling over semantics, Katherine’s comments are absolutely valid, but not necessarily pertinent to the desk buried in paper. The engineer who keeps a pile of test equipment and spare parts lying around is simply keeping his necessary tools at hand (as Mark pointed out). And in fact, most office workers keep their tools lying around, too: staplers, post-it notes, pens, pencils, paper clips, etc. Nothing wrong with that.

    It’s the accumulation of obsolete, worthless (or low-value) items that violates 5S principles. Toyota line workers don’t keep tools designed for a 1979 Celica lying around their work station. So why should office workers keep obsolete information (for example, last year’s phone list or an old version of a budget) lying on their desks?

    But even people who work independently need to be cognizant of the cost of mess. Would you trust your accountant if you saw your personal financial information in a giant heap, mixed in with other clients’ paperwork, on his desk? At the very least, you’d wonder if you’re paying for more hours than you need to. And at the worst, you might have serious questions about his ability to manage your taxes.

    Moreover, it’s hard to support the authors’ claim that “the more important, urgent work tends to stay close by and near the top of the clutter, while the safely ignorable stuff tends to get buried.” Yes, that often happens. But not always. When the paperwork starts piling high, something important is likely to get buried. (Cf. the Mars Climate Orbiter disaster for an electronic analog to this issue.)

    One of the most valuable benefits of 5S is the discipline it brings to the worker: he or she has to make decisions about what’s important and what’s not, and how to deal with it in a timely fashion. I’ve commented more extensively on this point here:

  5. Our plant has started a 5S program that is very counter productive. Tools and parts used for changeovers were moved off the shop floor. now insted of walking 3 feet they have to walk 700 ft. to get what they need. changeovers have increased by over 2 hrs. we look nice. They tell me we are going to start a quick changeover program soon. I can’t wait to see it.

  6. To anonymous…. I’m sorry to hear about the lousy “5S” implementation you’ve been put through. You know this better than any of us, that 5S isn’t about “looking nice” at the expense of effectiveness.

    Please keep us posted here, or email me using the link in the left column, if you have more stories to share.

  7. I too teach that to be clean for the sake of being clean can create Muda rather than eliminate it at times. Yet, MSN failed to note the potential perception gained or lost from a first impression by customer visits. In my experience potential and existing customers usually have some exposure to engineering offices and cubicles. Another aspect I have noticed is in a customer service group that has a high turnover rate or may be growing significantly. What is the cost savings of a cubicle (not shared) being left lean for someone else or having cubicles (not shared) standardized for the new team members. In addition, 5s/6s methodology, whether in shared or non-shared areas, has the ability to spark additional continuous improvement thought processes, can hopefully lead to a changed culture of continuous improvement. Lean is also a team thing that should become who we are instead of what we do.


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