Ron Ashkenas tells the following story:

In one large consumer products company, the CEO insisted on having detailed operational reports rolled up every month to the corporate level, which she then used for a monthly review meeting with business heads and corporate staff. Creating these reports required a small army of corporate financial analysts while also creating a cascade of work within all of the business units. And since the financial analysts were not always busy with the monthly reports, they also generated additional activities for the businesses that they thought were value-added. When the CEO retired, her successor decided that these detailed operational reports were unnecessary since each business unit already reported its key numbers — and the big review meetings never resulted in substantial decisions anyway. In other words, he quickly determined that this form of operational roll-up was not critical to the company's success and it was eliminated (along with the small army of financial analysts and the additional work they spawned).

People commonly think about 5S (a place for everything, and everything in its place) in manufacturing terms: organizing and decluttering the physical space around you. That's too limiting. It's also the wrong focus for knowledge workers. In other words: no, it doesn't matter where you hang your damned sweater.

Factory workers manipulate and process titanium alloys or scratch-resistant iPhone glass faces. Knowledge workers manipulate and process information. Regardless of what kind of worker you are, you need 5S to provide you with quick access to what you're working on, and to allow you to spot abnormalities.

So, when the signal-to-noise-ratio approaches zero -- when there's just a little bit of information coming through the static, as at the consumer products company described above -- you know it's time for information 5S. It's time to identify what information is necessary to serve the customer, make decisions, and manage the business, and eliminate the rest. Anything else may be interesting, but is ultimately irrelevant -- and even worse, it sucks valuable resources into the giant maw of waste.

In my upcoming book (A Factory of One, out in December 2011) I tell the story of the nurses at the Covenant Health System in Texas. They analyzed their work and found that they spent 51% of each shift filling in forms (rather than doing something useful, like, say, taking care of patients). The vast majority of that time and effort was waste. An information 5S project cut that time in half.

Take a look at the information you create and ask others to create for you. How much of it is waste, and how much of it is value? How much of it is just "legacy work" -- stuff that's just always been done, and no one remembers why anymore -- and how much of it really helps you make decisions to lead the business?

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