5S at 70 mph.

You would not have wanted to be on I-95 in Pennsylvania last week.

Driving down that highway in a rental car on my last business trip, fiddling with the windows, adjusting the air conditioning, and trying to pre-set NPR on the radio, I couldn’t keep a constant speed. I was all over the dish, from 50 mph to 75 mph. Oh, and for good measure I started driving like your grandfather, with the left turn signal on for a couple of miles.

Now, driving at a constant speed on a freeway isn’t really all that tough. Most of us mastered that skill three or four years before getting our drivers license. And yet, I couldn’t do it. In my own car, no problem. But in the rental car, with an unfamiliar dashboard layout – no way. I couldn’t concentrate on my primary task – piloting the car at a constant speed – because I had to allocate mental resources towards finding my way around the buttons on the dashboard.

So what does this have to do with you, your office, and 5S?

When the information you manage is disorganized – thousands of emails in your inbox, piles of paper on your desk, filing cabinets engorged with obsolete crap – you have to allocate mental resources towards finding the information you need. And that makes it harder for you to excel at your primary task (whatever that is), because you can’t apply all your mental energies to your work. Whether you’re on a scavenger hunt for the correct version of this quarter’s budget or the FM stereo button, you’re not able to pay full attention to your job.

And that’s where 5S comes in. Clearing, sorting, and organizing your information ensures that you can access the information you need easily and automatically, without wasting mental energy on searching for it.

When my wife started her residency in surgery, her mentor told her she needed a system for setting up her working tray in the operating room. Every instrument had to be in the same place every time: the scalpels, the clamps, the sutures, and especially the Gigli Saw. (You don’t want to know. Trust me.) He wanted her to be able to focus on doing the operation, not on finding the instruments.

The same is true for you, dear knowledge worker. Regardless of how you choose to organize your information (and I’ve given you some ideas here and here, you need a system that enables you to find what you need without expending any mental energy at all. Otherwise you may find that your fellow drivers are giving you the finger.