Probably Not Meant to be an Illustration of “5S”


I was watching the NBC web series (via iTunes podcasts) called “Ctrl” the other day (I'm a big fan of Tony Hale from the show Arrested Development).

Anyway, I saw a scene that reminded me of “bad 5S” practices that you might see in an office somewhere. You might remember the blog post and picture from a few years back when an accounting firm int he UK was forcing employees to put tape around their desk supplies in the name of 5S. That seemed more “L.A.M.E.” than Lean.

So, in the show, Hale's character Stuart has been fired and a co-worker is gathering up his things, and you see this:

You can clearly see what appears to be “5S tape” outlines around items on his desk. There was no mention of Lean in the show, nor was it implied. I think what the tape outlines show was a certain anal-retentiveness of an uptight character (along the lines of WKRP in Cincinnati's Les Nessman putting tape on the floor to represent a fake office wall and door).

I got a chuckle out of it. Does my desk at home or work look like that? No. Do I encourage people to do that on their desks at work? No, not if it's a personal desk.

Using tape outlines, however, CAN be very helpful in shared workspaces. It's a visual cue and reminder to put equipment or supplies back to where it belongs. That way, different team members don't waste time looking for things. But I think the value is limited when you do this on an individual desk.

Will any of you own up to doing something similar on your own desk?
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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. If it is not labeled "5S", "Lean" or any other specific wording it will sustaine and embedded in the cultural DNA of the work.

  2. not my own desk, but in my toolshed I do this. Not because it is shared, but because I'm a slob AND cannot stand having to search for things. The outlines help me discipline myself to tidy up afterwards.

  3. I have a desk behind me that I use for a laminator. I have a bracket around it to locate the specific spot it belongs on the desk so that upon exit the items do not fall off the end off the desk. It serves as a reminder before I use it to make sure it is positioned correctly.

  4. Here at Barnes-Jewish Hospital, we encourage similar rules. Tape is a must for shared supplies/areas, but not required if it's your personal desk. On my desk, I share the card reader, so I taped that off. Nothing else is taped.

  5. I label things on my personal desk if there is a purpose, of if I have a history of leaving something out.
    For example, I have a spot marked for my microphone. It helps me make consistent recordings. My calculator and my portable recorder have labeled locations because I don't want to be looking for them when I need them, and it helps remind me to put them away after using them.

  6. I don't understand you folks who put tape around stuff on your own desk. It seems maniacal or moronic. Do you REALLY need to make sure your microphone is exactly in the right spot? I just don't understand.

    I think stuff like that gives real lean a bad name, honestly.

  7. We do the same with our coffee area in our break room!! It's great!! Everyone knows where things are suppose to be (sugar, cream, ect. ) we also have a step by step procedure on how to make coffee! The coffee is always consistent and everyone loves it.

  8. To the last anonymous commenter – I can completely understand why you would do this in a shared space (like a team break room). I've helped people set up 5S and even a kanban system to make sure they didn't run out of creamer, for example.

    I like your use of standardized work.

    But this is altogether different than one guy's individual desk, I'd say.

  9. OUCH! This could just be a comic attempt to reflect the clearing of the desk rather than an anal character!

    I wince everytime I see anything remotely 5S like this in desk based industries. It just reminds me of all the bad stories i've seen and heard about manufacturing Lean experts broadly applying tools they've learned without every challanging the tools. The UK accounting firm was but one example in recent years.

    You 5S-ers should remember. the office's primary tool is the PC. User Interface design or UX design should be the primary focus for 5S – making their processing tool quick, intuitive to use and easy to train. As should folder structures, knowledge management and process management.

    Badly designed systems can easily become the biggest source of waste in service industries.

  10. We have been doing a lean course at work. 4 of us share the same desk, through a 24 hour roster. One idiot has decided to put tape around everything on the desk. He has not consulted with any of the rest of us, and has decided to set it up just the way he likes it. I know at least 2 of us prefer a different set up. Thanks to the course this is probably going to stick, and it feels even worse than being micro-managed.

    I spend 12 hours at a time in this office, and now just looking at my desk depresses me.

    If this is going to be the outcome of the lean training we are getting then I think I will find another employer that is interested in delivering real value to their customers rather than just going through the motions in the belief that it is “lean”.

  11. Hi guys,
    There’s an interesting chapter in “Who’s Counting” by Jeff Solomon about a company implementing Lean and in particular Lean Accounting methods. The “Implementer” mentions that he goes way overboard by applying 5s to everything on his desk. He admits that it’s overkill but it’s to show everyone that he “walks the walk”.

    Only recently I’ve done the very same thing at my own desk, which has also been converted to a stand-up desk and with great results.
    But everything on my desk is included, taped, shadow-boarded etc.
    Sure, my staff had a laugh about it at first and our relationship is good enough that they can tell me I’m a nut job and know I won’t take offence (!). But one of our supervisors came to me and said that he was actually quite embarrassed by his own personal workspace as it had paper all over the place. 24hours later, he’s improved it dramatically and now his staff can find drawing specifications, Bills of Material etc without having to sift through other piles first.
    While it would’ve been easy to simply order him to “tidy up his desk” , I’ve learned to be patient with lean at times and ultimately the results will stick.
    We’re still in the very early stages but it’s the little gains like that which help to infuse simple ideas and improvements.


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