Earlier this year, the British press reported on a British government's scandalous £7.4 million consulting contract for a government "office lean" initiative. The consultants applied 5S principles to workers' desks in order to increase their efficiency -- the theory being that a clean desk will result in less time wasted in looking for important documents and supplies -- and they marked desks with tape to indicate where the office equipment should be.Bad 5S Lord knows it's easy to make fun of this effort to apply lean principles to the office. If there's one way to alienate and demean people, it's to tell them where to put their stapler. (Actually, telling an adult how to tie his shoes might be worse, but consultants seldom go there. Fortunately.) Mark Graban commented eloquently about this fiasco a few months ago.

But in fact there is a real value to intelligent application of 5S principles in the office, and it goes beyond the obvious time savings of not having to search for information. (I'm assuming that no one has lost significant time actually looking for their computer mouse.) That value comes from making decisions about the stuff that you've collected over time.

Given the volume of information that you manage, there's a huge amount of stuff -- emails, files, reports, magazines, websites, etc. -- that you've collected as part of your work. Some if it is useful for getting your job done. Some of it is useful. . . but realistically, you're not actually going to use it, because you're just too busy, or your job has changed. And some of it was useful at one point, but now it's obsolete garbage.

Applying 5S to this collection of stuff means making decisions about all that information and figuring out what to do with it. Whether you choose to actually use it for something, archive it for the future, or toss it, you're finally assessing your work and analyzing your needs. And this analysis will give you greater clarity about what you need on a daily basis to move forward with your responsibilities.

Most people I work with find that the vast majority of the stuff they're holding onto is just plain worthless, and they end up tossing it. They're surprised -- and a little embarrassed -- by how unimportant and irrelevant most of the information is. When they're done with this process, they have more a lot more physical space in their office.

More significantly, they have more psychic space in their brains to handle the daily challenges of their jobs. And that's one of the key benefits of implementing 5S at your desk. It's not the increased efficiency of your hand in grabbing your stapler. It's the increased efficiency of your brain in managing ideas.