What you can learn from Marie Kondo


The Life-Changing Mindset of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo has sold 2 million copies worldwide. It’s the top seller in the New York Times “advice and how-to” category. It’s the number one seller overall on Amazon right now. 5S for Operators by Hiroyuki Hirano, who in many ways is the father of 5S, ranks number 129,268 in books on Amazon. Ron Taylor’s 5S: Workplace Organization and Process Design Using Lean 5S checks in at number 87,584. Ade Asefeso’s 5S for Supervisors is at 550,900. 5S for Healthcare by the well-respected Tom Jackson is at 377,661. Brice Alvord’s Planning & Implementing 5S comes in at 937,654. I don’t know exactly how many copies of these books have been sold, but I’m pretty confident that their total combined sales over the past 19 years (when Hirano’s book came out) are nowhere near the 338,000 copies of Tidying Up sold in the U.S.—since October.

Okay, this isn’t a fair comparison: Kondo’s book is for the mass market, while these 5S books are targeted primarily at manufacturing organizations. But there’s a deeper truth operating as well. Kondo writes in the language of ordinary people. She doesn’t force readers to adopt new jargon or even a foreign language. She tells readers to look at their closets and answer one simple question: “Does it spark joy?” If yes, keep it and treat it with respect. If not, toss it out.

Now, think about 5S. The concept is basically the same as the one Kondo advocates. (Sure, there are differences, but many of the fundamentals are similar.) But instead of presenting the overarching concept in easily grasped language, the lean community uses the meaningless shorthand “5S.” We tell people that they must follow each “s” in the proper sequence. We translate the original Japanese into words like “shine,” which actually doesn’t mean shine in the way any English speaker would expect.

Kondo asks people if the stuff in their houses sparks joy. We ask people to distinguish between “set in order” and “straighten.” Is it any wonder that it’s so hard to get workers to accept (much less embrace) 5S?

Shame on us for making such an important concept so off-putting.

As you may know, I just finished writing my second book. (It’s still untitled, but McGraw-Hill will be publishing it in September.) One of my goals was to take the Japanese, take the jargon, and take the Toyota out of lean. I wanted to tell a story about continuous improvement unencrusted by the barnacles of traditional lean vocabulary that can be so alienating to newcomers. I’m pretty sure that the book won’t reach the heights of Tidying Up, but I hope at least that it helps you think about making improvement tools and concepts more accessible for your organization.

Take a lesson from Kondo. She’s inspired rabid groupies committed to her vision of cleaning the crap out of their houses. You can too.

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