Another “Bad 5S” Example

3 | Lean Blog: Bad Lean/5S Hits the UK Media

I presented yesterday and had a great day (meeting people and learning) with the Iowa Healthcare Collaborative and their annual Lean conference. I'll write more about their story later and will be doing a podcast with their President and CEO, Dr. Thomas Evans.

During my presentation, I made the point that 5S is not about looking neat for neatness sake, it's about organizing the workplace so employees are more effective in serving customers or patients. I used the photo in the article I blogged about with the crazy “5S your desk” effort at a UK accounting firm.

During lunch, a woman from a hospital came up and told me how her husband, working as an accountant at an Iowa manufacturing company got put through the same wringer (and she gave me permission to use the story).

A new boss (apparently a control freak) came in and announced they were going to 5S their desks. They were forced into a clean desk policy and were told they could have 1 black pen, 1 blue pen, 1 pencil, etc. Family photos and personal items were banished and people were limited to one filing cabinet.

The accountant was forced to box up many files and pieces of information, bringing them home or leaving them in his car.

How “Lean” is that? Not very.

If someone needs information, imagine the scene of walking to your car in the parking lot to reference something that you used to keep in your desk. That's just insane.

I asked her if they were “doing Lean” in accounting because they were also “doing Lean” in manufacturing, without thinking about how it would help accountants work more efficiently?

“Well, they THINK they're doing Lean, but then again, they're also using Lean to drive layoffs.”


For all of the good positive Lean examples in Iowa, it sounds like there's at least one copy-cat company who doesn't get it.

It illustrates the oft-forgotten “Respect for People” pillar of Lean and the Toyota system. How does any of the above corporate fascism show respect for people?

I'm not for messy desks and complete chaos. But, it's also possible to go completely overboard in implementing 5S the wrong way. Maybe the real issue is the organization of people's computer files or a network drive? Maybe the company needs to provide scanners and technology so people can convert boxes of information to PDFs or graphic files they can access online?

There's got to be better things to do than taking pens and pencils away from people in the name of “Lean.”

When manufacturers are L.A.M.E. instead of Lean, it makes it harder for the hospital people to embrace what their spouses have brought home from their L.A.M.E. workplaces. It makes it a bit of an uphill battle, but it's a battle we can win… the fight against L.A.M.E.!!!

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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. Some managers are just jerks who love their power and bossing people around. Lean, unfortunately, can be a tool toward that ends.

    Nothing we can do about that.

    Timeclocks can be used for good or for bad — do we blame timeclocks?

    Should we blame Lean? Nah.

  2. Mark did a tremendous job with the keynote presentation and the breakout session on VSM at our Iowa conference. He’s a great speaker with great information.

  3. In general, people *do* work better at clean, organized desks. But to confuse true 5S organization with a pointlessly imposed standard — why not 2 pencils? why not a red pen? — misses the point of 5S.

    I believe that in an office, the primary goal of 5S is to enable workers to access information quickly and easily. The secondary goal is to allow workers to see at a glance whether any WIP — in this case, information such as emails, memos, forms, etc. — has slipped through the cracks and needs attention.

    Having a picture of your dog or an extra Post-It notepad isn’t going to compromise those goals. It will only compromise the managers’ sense of their own power.


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