This is not 5SA few months ago, Mark Rosenthal boiled 5S down to three key points:

  • You have everything you need.
  • You need everything you have.
  • You can see everything clearly belongs where it is.

There's a lot to be said for the simplicity of this description. But how does it apply to knowledge workers?

Too often, 5S is transplanted -- not translated -- from the factory floor to the office cube without considering its purpose. That leads to ridiculous situations such as the one at Kyocera America, where there's an internal 5S cop yelling at people for putting sweaters on the backs of their chairs.

Knowledge workers traffic in information, not materials. So for a knowledge worker, Mark's points can be rewritten as:

  • You have all the information you need.
  • You need all the information you have.
  • You can see  that all the information clearly belongs where it is.

From this perspective, it doesn't matter where you hang your sweater, put your stapler, or keep the picture of your dog. None of those affect your ability to access the information you need to do your job. As long as your electronic and paper filing systems allow you to quickly and easily retrieve information, you're okay.

That doesn't obviate the need for visible management tools. Particularly because the information you receive is increasingly electronic, it's difficult to assess at a glance what you have. When you look at a product development spec package, a legal brief, or a pile of papers, can you easily tell whether you have all the required information? If not, some sort of signaling system -- a kanban, checklist, post-it notes, etc. -- is needed.

Mark goes on to say:

As the work is done, the moment someone discovers something else is needed, THAT is the time to deal with the issue. Ask, “Is this something we should need in the normal course of the work?”

If so, then you learned something that you didn’t know or didn’t remember when you first organized the area. Add that item, find a place for it, and establish a visual control. Right now.

If not, then “Why did we need it this time?” What broke the normal pattern of work? This is where 5S breaks down – when we don’t discriminate between something that is needed in the normal course of work, and something that is needed as an exception.

This process is just as important for the knowledge worker. When we don't ask these questions, we end up buried in piles of papers, in stray files on the computer desktop, and random emails that have been ambiguously flagged for "followup," even though the flags don't really tell us anything about the process. Once all those bits of information start to accumulate, we no longer have just what we need and need just what we have. That leads to errors, rework, waiting, and all kinds of wasted effort.

Think about it.

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