Today's post is a question that I'm grappling with, rather than an answer (or any theoretically profound advice).

As I've written about before (here and here), 5S is fundamental to a lean transformation. A lot of people who wear more expensive suits than I do would probably go further, and say that it's the most important step: without the discipline of 5S embedded within the workplace, there's no hope of creating a sustainable improvement.

And for the most part, I agree. I do think there's tremendous value in applying 5S to the information you manage. For one thing, you'll store less fly-infested electronic garbage (I mean, do you really need to keep the baby shower invitation you made in Word three years ago for your co-worker who's no longer at the company?), and while storage is cheap, it still costs something. You'll also have an easier time finding what you need when you need it. Credit-Suisse's and Chevron's story indicate that the exponential growth of data makes it really tough to find what you need if you let the electronic piles grow too big. Finally, I think that the 5S discipline is important because it creates consistency in your actions and throughout the company. When you cull worthless junk, even if it's just a few kilobytes of electrons, the message is clear: your company is committed to lean and to a rock-solid lean foundation.

But. . . when Google desktop can find anything on your computer in .03 seconds, is there real value in spending time organizing, sorting, and deleting emails, spreadsheets, and PDFs? Lean philosophy pushes us to eliminate waste -- which is to say, anything the customer doesn't want to pay for. If you're spending more time and energy filing your emails into a seven layer taxonomic tree of folders than you'd spend by clicking the Google search button, aren't you creating more waste by applying 5S? The customer doesn't really care how you get the information he needs, only that you get it quickly.

So maybe Google renders 5S efforts -- at least with regards to the information that knowledge workers traffic in -- unnecessary. Or worse: maybe Google, in a nifty bit of reverse alchemy, transforms those efforts into, well, waste.

I don't know the solution to this question, but I think that it's in the spirit of lean to ask it. What would Taiichi Ohno do?

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