Depersonalized Workplaces are L.A.M.E., not Lean, Harming Productivity and People


When I was traveling last week, a magazine caught my eye, one I don't normally read: Scientific American Mind and the article  “Cubicle, Sweet Cubicle: The Best Ways to Make Office Spaces Not So Bad ( Preview )“.

The whole article isn't online, unfortunately, but it's good reading if you want to buy it on the newsstand or online. It re-emphasizes some of my points, I think, about the overly strict and overly restrictive instances of “bad office 5S” (like this joke video I made). Here is the subtitle for the article:

The article cites a lot of psychological research and studies to prove something that should be obvious: people like to have control over their own workspace – they don't like to be told how to arrange things. Being “resistant” to standardized work is often an understandable reaction to being told what to do.

The article makes the further point that an office with overly-controlling top-down management styles might be harming productivity and making people sick.

Now, in the Lean world when we talk about 5S and standardization, I think it's worth thinking about WHAT matters. Does a certain organization and standardization impact the customer or workplace? For example, it might be good for patients to be restrictive and NOT allow nurses to just put medications wherever they want (each nurse having a different spot or putting it in a different spot each time). That lack of standardization might lead to errors… so the need for standardization probably outweighs the need for individual expression.

But in cases like determining how to decorate an office… that's probably a case where there's no customer benefit to having “standardized” decorations or anything like that.

An extreme approach to mindless standardization with no purpose (other than feeling powerful in telling people what to do) is illustrated by this funny Pier 1 commercial I saw last night:

Ugh, who would want to work in a workplace like that? “No inflatables.” That's the movie Office Space come to life.

Back to the magazine article cited psychology studies with different types of office settings with different degrees of employee control.

The article states:

“Employees perform best when they are encouraged to decorate their surroundings as they see fit, with plants and ornaments, comic calendars, photographs of their children or their cats – whatever makes them feel most comfortable and in their element.”

Google and their “campus” where employees are encouraged to decorate their cubicles in their own fun, interesting way is cited as a positive example of this.

More after the ad:

The article reaches back to the days of Frederick Taylor, the favorite historical nemesis of the Lean Blog, and his 1911 publication, “The Principles of Scientific Management.” Taylor insisted that a productive manufacturing workplace was one that included only the tools and materials required to do the work. As the article says:

“…employers soon began to apply his ideas to the white-collar and creative workspaces as well.”

That might have been the first instance of “bad office 5S” or what a Taylorist might defend as “T.A.M.E.” or “Taylorism as Misguidedly Executed” (just like modern-day L.A.M.E. practices?).

This was a continuation of the evolution from freedom in the professional workplace to control. Before the industrial revolution, medieval scribes (a privileged professional class) were allowed the freedom to “set up the small rooms [in which they worked] however they liked, typically with a motley assortment of chairs, stools, books, and drafting tables.

By the end of the industrial revolution, professional workplaces were “standardized” so that “managers had greater control over their clerical workforce and were able to keep an eye on underlings' progress at all times.”

Lean thinkers will realize this, but it's worth saying – a Lean workplace isn't about top-down command-and-control behaviors.

The article takes the “control” theme further by claiming that the modern cubicle farm open layout is inspired by or borrows from an 18th-century circular prison design called a “Panopticon” where a central tower allowed a small number of guards to monitor prisoners who were around them. Since the guards couldn't be seen, the fear of being watched was just as effective as actually watching every prisoner every single moment. The authors imply the modern cubicle farm allows the boss to sneak up on you at any time (hence the popularity of the cubicle “rear view mirror”, eh?).

Many people think a vibrant or fun-looking workplace is the key to productivity. The authors suggest that it's actually the level of CONTROL over the workplace that makes all the difference.

In an experiment, office workers were put in different settings. The first, unfortunately called the “lean” office was a Spartan workplace with clean desks and zero decorations (see below). There's no evidence in the article that the authors mean “lean” in the sense of Lean Thinking or the Toyota Production System. It could be the everyday use of the word “lean” that's popular (meaning “not having enough”).

The workplace with decorations determined by managers led to a 15% productivity improvement without harming quality. When the workers in the study were given decorations and were given FREEDOM to put them where they wanted, that led to a 30% productivity improvement without a decline in quality. What the authors call “synthetic fun” isn't nearly as beneficial as giving employees control. When the experimenters gave control and then took it away (rearranging things), productivity declined, not surprisingly.

I think this study confirms my suspicion and practice (even in my manufacturing days) that “lean” shouldn't mean “no personality.” I was never one to take away items from the factory that helped create a fun environment (such as a stuffed animal that one production associate kept in her workspace in the last factory I worked in). I've never been one to think a “lean office” means no pictures on your desk or no personality.

As the article points out, the irony is that people who think a plan, Spartan workplace will help productivity would actually do better by giving control to the employees.

The authors also cite research that says employee illnesses are higher in workplaces where they don't have this control. What's often blamed on “sick building syndrome” might actually be “sick culture syndrome.”

I think these are important lessons for those doing “lean office” work or any lean work. If we have the urge to push standardization of the workplace, we should ask what really needs standardized and to what extent. If something really matters for quality or safety, standardization might be appropriate (such as determining where safety supplies go in an MRI suite).

I think you can standardize the nuts and bolts of the productive aspect of a workplace (for quality and productivity) while also allowing people control over the aesthetic aspect (such as how the interior of the MRI suite is decorated to help kids be more comfortable).

I think the research and that article shows that over-the-top standardization isn't just something to laugh at, it really can be harmful. I think it provides some proof that the top-down command-and-control workplace isn't the most effective. If your definition of “lean” means better performance for the organization, benefitting the customers, and improving employee morale, you have a DUTY to forget the ideas that a so-called “lean office” is one where people don't have family photos on their desks.

Something to keep in mind, eh?

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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. I only recently learned who Taylor was, and the impact he has had on corporate culture. I’m hopeful that this is starting to swing back the other way and making for a more humane and human-centered work environment. People seem to be more aware today of the psychologicaly warped things that companies do in the name of productivity, and I hope the awareness continues to grow. Down With Taylor!!

  2. This reminds me of one of the central points of Dan Pink’s “Drive”: that people need a feeling of autonomy in order to remain motivated. He was thinking about the larger work canvas, but the same is true, I think, writ small: controlling and determining our work environment has powerfully positive effects.

  3. “Dehumanizing” stuff like this unfortunately does happen in the name of Lean, check out this story from the UK:

    The Public and Commercial Services union said the moves were “dehumanising” staff. The HMRC said the aim was to “provide improved service”.

    Non-essential items targeted include money, memorabilia and packed lunches.

    Essential items that are allowed in workstations include calculators and pens.

    The HMRC’s Lean programme, which aims to improve efficiency, has already resulted in a work-to-rule and overtime ban among 14,000 civil servants.

    Yet, managers claim:

    “Rather than making work boring and repetitive, staff are being invited to work with their managers to improve the way tasks and systems are developed.”

    Strange disconnect there.

  4. What about the blue collar workers! All I ever hear about is office people and middle class asses. What about working class people and just working people in general. Where I work, and I work in a factory, everyone is just soo polite. You can tell it is fake. Everyday, I can tell just exactly who I am and exactly where I fit in the sceme of things. We are basically treated like servants!

    As always, the management conservatives win again.


  5. Jason – the same ideas apply in production settings, like I said in the post, I was never one for taking personal items out of the production setting if the items weren’t unsafe and weren’t in the way of anybody or weren’t offensive.

    Everybody should be treated with respect, not just office workers.

    I’m sorry you are apparently in a workplace where that isn’t the case.

    But calling people “asses” doesn’t help.

  6. I work in an office on my own. the office was bland so I decided to put five small 3×3 inch cards on the wall, stuck on with bluetak, to avoid damaging the wall and a small plant on the window sill. I have been told that due to health and safety I need to take the cards off the wall and to get rid of the plant as it may attract mice. I have been doing some research to find some evidence to support the managements decision but to date -nothing. Have I missed something??? or is my manager just a controller??

    • Hi Angela – I’m sorry to about this. Some locations here in the U.S. claim that fire code prevents putting paper on the wall unless the sheets are in a plastic protector. A true command-and-control manager would just tell you to remove the stuff, without giving any sort of explanation. I don’t know if plastic plants attract mice… seems a bit silly.


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