As I've argued many times before, 5S for knowledge workers applies to the information they manage, not the location of their staplers or the allowable size of family pictures on the desk. (See my posts here, here, and here.) Typically, we think of information in a visual format -- physical reports, spreadsheets, emails, etc. But a recent NPR story on the problem of hospital alarms made me realize that information can also come in an audio format -- and that format benefits from 5S as well. The 24 patients in the cardiac care unit at Boston Medical Center were averaging nearly 12,000 alarms a day. Some devices beep when they work normally. Other machines beep when they're not working. With 12,000 alarms a day, fatigue is a real issue:

Alarm fatigue is when there are so many noises on the unit that it actually de-sensitizes the staff, so the staff no longer hear them. If you have multiple, multiple alarms going off with varying frequencies, you just don't hear them. That obviously can be dangerous. Patients can die when an important alarm is missed or an electrode gets unstuck or a monitor's battery goes dead.

This situation is analogous to an overflowing inbox, where critical emails get buried in a long list of unimportant messages. Or a computer desktop crowded with all the files you've used over the past few months, making it laborious to find the one file you need for an upcoming presentation. Or a system that necessitates the use of multiple forms with redundant information in different layouts.

Although they didn't use this terminology, the hospital did 5S on the auditory information:

[Boston Medical Center] analyzed the alarms and found that the vast majority of alarms are unnecessary and can simply be switched off. Other low-level alarms were upgraded to crisis mode. Nurses were given authority to change alarm settings to account for individual patients' differences.

The result? The cardiac unit went from 90,000 alarms a week to 10,000 alarms a week -- an 88% reduction in useless information. Now, when a crisis alarm goes off, the staff can easily hear and respond. They're also better able to hear when a patient presses the call button for a nurse.

Remember: 5S isn't just for physical items. In an office or service environment, it's just as important -- if not more so -- to apply it to information, in whatever form you process it.