Thursday, May 17, 2007

Contempt for 5S

There seems to be a swell of support against 5S activities which is certainly not a new phenomenon. The backlash against any attempts to organize areas like a person’s desk or workstation can be powerful, passionate and personal. This 5S backlash easily grows into contempt as we hear about extreme examples of 5S-Gone-Wild. This includes stories of companies that place footprints on desks for everything (computer, keyboards, phones, papers, etc) without regard of actual benefit, stupid rules that limit the number of personal items on a desk to an arbitrary number like 3, or label crazy consultants that have us labeling every possible object on site under the principle of visual management like in this Far Side Cartoon.

With the release of the new 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” written by Eric Abrahamson and David H, Freeman, many supporters of the messy desk lifestyle are united against any and all actions to “fix” what they believe is not broken.

Maybe guilt over not being better organized is a factor that causes people to rationalize the mess and clutter. As pointed out in Mark Graban’s post Not Neatness for Neatness Sake at Lean Blog, it seems that the authors of the book are glorifying messiness.

To get a better insight to their supportive argument that messy is better, read Tom Peter’s Cool Friends interview with David Freeman about his findings. I find it curious that many of the findings in support of disorder are based on surveys which I tend believe are not all together scientific and most likely bias. I do admit that I have not read this book or verified the details on his research so I only present my opinion on the use of survey data as fact.

Take for instant Mr. Freeman’s theory that “People who keep messy desks actually spend less time looking for things then people with neat desks”. And what is the scientific proof cited by the author that supports his theory, “We did a survey for the book that backed this up” along with his comment, “Common sense backs this up.” For me, common sense tells me the direct opposite. I guess even what is considered common sense is up for debate.

My thoughts are that organization and 5S principles are critical to continuous improvement success. As I have learned on my lean journey, we should question all assumptions and actions to eliminate waste. Even activities thought to be lean requirements like 5S should be constantly monitored like any other process for the value of performing the activity. Remember, any activity that adds cost or time without adding value as defined by the paying customer is waste.


Anonymous said...

My employer is in the midst of a huge, get-started 5S project. And don't get me wrong - we've seen a lot of benefits. But there comes a point of diminishing returns.

As an engineer, I have projects that span weeks; it's a waste of my time to spend 15 minutes tidying up at the end of the day just to take out that same material again the next morning - just so I can pass some arbitrary inspection of "neatness".

Somehow, the laying out of my desk with taped lines strikes me as a little, well, elementary school.

Is there an advantage to shedding excess stuff? Sure. But like every program, it seems, 5S is taken to the extreme without any rational thought. Like a kid with a new hammer, Management runs amok every time some new tool comes out (witness Theory of Constraints, Lean, 6 Sigma, 5S, etc.) thinking that these are substitutes for strong leadership, inspiration, and good, common sense.

Lastly, 5S in the office is an attempt to impose one way of thought on those very people - the engineers and scientists - upon whom every company relies to be creative. We all don't think alike - and to try and impose "order" on creativity is - IMHO - running counter to the very idea that companies need different thought processes and personalities.

Mike Wroblewski said...

5S is not meant to hinder creativity but to organize the workplace for productivity. Even little things like being able to find what you need without delay and frustration helps. But more importantly, 5S helps you see waste. If only we could find a cure for management running amok.

Anonymous said...

I believe to many times we leave out some of the other positives that come from a 5S initiative. Many key, prospective customers, I have taken on tour usually gain some perception of the quality of an organization based upon it being organized. Not always, but in many instances this is the case. We do not get a 2nd chance to make a 1st impression. In addition, we have found, as Mike stated, that 5S begins the journey to identify waste and to begin thinking along the line of continuous improvement. Yet, I do believe it needs to be truly meaningful and taping off where my phone and computer go to be muda.