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What Problem Are You Trying to Solve?

The soul-deadening excesses of corporate 5S tyrants continues to astonish me. While leading a workshop at a healthcare client last week, I learned that two of their internal lean champions—and I use that term VERY loosely—had become tin-pot 5S dictators. One of these so-called lean leaders forbade anyone to have more than a single personal photo on their desk. Another dim bulb insisted that everyone put blue tape outlines around their computer, phone, stapler, etc. These exercises in small-minded stupidity were all the more surprising because this is an organization that has been pursuing lean for several years now, has a lean leadership development program in place, and has been consistently working with an outside consultant.

I’ve written before about the absurdity and wrong-headedness of transferring 5S in a literal fashion from the factory to the office. Setting that equipment in “order” doesn’t accomplish anything, because—as far as I know—no one has ever lost their computer or their keyboard. Setting the information that office workers manage in order is a good idea, but not the computer itself. And as far as the one-personal-photo limit? That’s stupid. And cruel. And pointless.

5S is nothing more than a tool designed to solve specific problems, like abnormalities in a process that might otherwise be hidden, or wasted motion while looking for tools. But it’s a tool for a specific problem, not something to be slavishly and mindlessly applied because it shows up on page 34 of your Big Book of Lean. That makes as much sense as using a crescent wrench to hammer a nail. Or doing extended calculations in a table in Word.

Whether you’re implementing an improvement program on your own, or you’re getting help from an outside consultant, you always need to start with this fundamental question: What problem am I trying to solve? The answer to that question will direct you to the appropriate tool (if it exists), or force you to invent your own.

Stop worshipping at the altar of Toyota. Instead, learn from Toyota. They invented tools to solve their specific problems at specific times. You need to do the same.

Commit to problem solving. Commit to learning. But don’t commit to 5S unless it's relevant for the problem you’re facing. Otherwise, all you’ll get is alienated workers who will leave you for an organization that allows them to have a picture of their wife AND their dog on their desk.


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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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Real cooks practice 5S (and lean)

The lean blogosphere today has been atwitter with references to this morning's NPR story on organizing your life like a chef. It's a terrific story, and well worth the listen if kaizen is important to you, personally or professionally. Placing tools correctly, keeping things in order, creating standard work -- all of these ideas are embedded in what chefs call mise-en-place. When I was writing A Factory of One three years ago, my editor, Tom Ehrenfeld, pointed me to a terrific explanation of mise-en-place in Anthony Bourdain's book, Kitchen Confidential. In my view, mise-en-place is a perfect illustration of 5S done right.

Here's what I wrote in my book:

If you’ve never been to a restaurant kitchen, you’d be amazed at the contrast with the “front of the house” where you dine. It’s crazy back there, particularly during the lunch and dinner rushes. People are shouting and cursing, waiters, cooks, and “runners” are rushing through the kitchen trying to get orders out the door—it’s barely controlled chaos.

Except for one spot. The cook’s mise-en-place, the area where she organizes and arranges the ingredients she’ll be using that night. Chef and author Anthony Bourdain explains the importance of mise-en-place in Kitchen Confidential:

Mise-en-place is the religion of all good line cooks. Do not f**k with a line cook’s “meez”—meaning their set-up, their carefully arranged supplies of sea salt, rough-cracked pepper, softened butter, cooking oil, wine, back-ups and so on. As a cook, your station, and its condition, its state of readiness, is an extension of your nervous system—and it is profoundly upsetting if another cook or, God forbid, a waiter—disturbs your precisely and carefully laid-out system. The universe is in order when your station is set up the way you like it: you know where to find everything with your eyes closed, everything you need during the course of the shift is at the ready at arm’s reach, your defenses are deployed. If you let your mise-en-place run down, get dirty and disorganized, you’ll quickly find yourself spinning in place and calling for back-up. I worked with a chef who used to step behind the line to a dirty cook’s station in the middle of the rush to explain why the offending cook was falling behind. He’d press his palm down on the cutting board, which was littered with peppercorns, spattered sauce, bits of parsley, breadcrumbs and the usual flotsam and jetsam that accumulates quickly on a station if not constantly wiped away with a moist side-towel. “You see this” he’d inquire, raising his palm so that the cook could see the bits of dirt and scraps sticking to his chef’s palm, “That’s what the inside of your head looks like now. Work clean!”

Want to know what 5S is, without resorting to all those difficult-to-pronounce Japanese words? It’s mise-en-place. (Of course, we’ve just substituted French for Japanese, so there may not be any advantage for you.) It’s your physical workspace and your information precisely laid out so that you can find anything with your eyes closed. It’s the clean well-ordered inside of your head so that you can stay on top of all the work your boss, colleagues, and customers are dumping on you. . . . Quite frankly, if a line cook during the dinner rush can keep his workspace organized, so can you.

If you think about 5S in this light, and see the connection to the way you manage your work and your time, you can avoid turning 5S into a L.A.M.E. exercise.

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The Three Elements of 5S

3 Elements of 5S-4-2
3 Elements of 5S-4-2

Mark Graban blogged recently about poorly executed 5S. I've also covered 5S extensively as it pertains to the management of information in an office environment. But people still get it wrong -- perhaps because they get wrapped up in the confusing jargon of Sort, Shine, and Set in Order? In any event, inspired by Mark, I've been thinking of the three key elements of 5S -- Purpose, Organization, and Maintenance -- that ensure the 5S exercise isn't a dispiriting waste of time, effort, and energy.

Framework and Maintenance, without Purpose is a soul-sucking waste of time. It's LAME masquerading as lean. As both Mark and I have written about, you've got to have a reason for implementing 5S. Just trying to keep people's offices neat and pretty without a clear business objective is pointless.

Purpose and Framework, without Maintenance makes you the victim of entropy, which is a particularly potent force in most office environments. If you're not going to make the effort to maintain the organization that you've created, don't even start. It's like cleaning your house once a year -- why even bother? The effort expended on a single, annual cleaning blitz isn't worth the payoff. Sure, for a week or two you won't be picking your way through a living room filled with empty pizza boxes, but the other 50 weeks a year you're a candidate for Hoarders.

Purpose and Maintenance, without a Framework is the epitome of ineffectiveness. If you don't have a framework for how you organize the physical and electronic information, you're just wasting your time. It's like having a car and keeping it clean without knowing how to drive. I mean, you can do it, but why?

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Don't confuse posters with action.

5S Signs vs Adoption  

I have a new theory: the more posters, stickers, and banners promoting 5S, the lower the level of adherence to 5S principles. You can extend this idea to pretty much anything a company deems important: if leadership is promoting respect, or innovation, or safety, you'll probably find sexual harassment charges, me-too products, and lots of worker's comp claims.

Point #10 of Dr. Deming's 14 Points states, "eliminate slogans, exhortations, and targets for the work force." (Yes, I'm selectively quoting. This point is in reference to defects and productivity, but I think that the basic argument holds true.) Instead, "institute leadership" (point #7) to get the results you're looking for.

People are social animals. We take our behavioral cues by observing leaders' actions, not from reading the wallpaper. If you want 5S, you've got to live 5S. I know of no better example than the president of a $100M contract manufacturer of electronics boards, who gets on his hands and knees and cleans the floors of his company. Every. Single. Morning. (Check out this photo from Kevin Myer's excellent post):

Presidential 5S

If you want 5S -- or respect, or cost savings, or safety, or whatever -- first, get on your knees and start doing it yourself.

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5S for Creativity

You don't usually find gems about Lean in the New York Times magazine, but check out the profile of director Baz Luhrmann (Romeo+Juliet; Moulin Rouge; La Boheme; Strictly Ballroom; Australia) here. Luhrmann believes passionately in the benefits of simplification and minimization, and while he doesn't use the term "5S," that's clearly part of what he's talking about:

Luhrmann believes that external order creates internal possibility. For example, he has nearly identical closets in New York and Sydney, with everything in the same place. He gets cranky, he said, if “I have to go: ‘Where are the underpants? They’re supposed to be in Drawer No. 6.’ ” Same with the bathrooms. Toothpaste, toothbrush, everything is laid out in the same pattern, no matter what city he’s in. “As I’m going through the routine, I don’t have to think,” he said, adding that this leaves more room for creativity. “The mind is unlocking something.”

This is something I've written about many times before: 5S does NOT compromise, impede, or strangle creativity in people. Rather, it provides structure, clarity, and freedom for the higher powers of the mind to focus on important issues. Looking for underpants, or toothpaste, or even figuring out what to eat for breakfast or what suit to wear steals cognitive resources that can be better spent elsewhere. As Mark Graban wrote,

I’ve heard Toyota people say you want to eliminate the hundreds of LITTLE repetitive decisions so that the person involved can focus on the FEW major decisions with a fresh mind that’s not fatigued from constant decision making.

There's no excuse. Give it a try. See what happens.

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Information 5S: Audio Edition

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.



Lean: it's just like backpacking.

As you may know, I've been spending a lot of time working with outdoor companies. My background is in sporting goods & the outdoor industry, and I'm an avid backpacker myself. Recently, I've noticed that building a lean organization focused on continuous improvement has many similarities with the backpacking ethos. 1. Multi-purpose is better than single purpose.  When you backpack, every ounce and every cubic inch is critical, so you look for gear that serves multiple purposes: zip-off pants (long pants and shorts); CamelBak's All Clear purifier (water purifier and bottle); backpacks with tops that convert to fanny packs for day hiking.  When you design a business process, you want to have people who can fulfill multiple functions: customer service agents who can take orders but also work in warrantee; marketing staff who can help with packaging; product developers and designers who can cross the aisle. This flexibility creates greater understanding, improves handoffs, and allows you to flex the workforce to meet sudden demand shifts.

2. A place for everything, and everything in its place. The lean principle of "5S" (essentially, everything neat, clean, and organized in its proper place, with no unneeded items) is critical in backpacking. You can't carry extra gear that you won't use; making and breaking camp is far easier when everything is in its proper place; and cleaning everything before going out is a great way of spotting problems or defects. The same rule holds true on a manufacturing floor or in an office: critical documents should be visible and easily accessible; you can work faster and with fewer errors when you have only the correct and needed information at hand; and you can spot problems or time-sensitive issues when they're segregated appropriately.

3. Flow When you're backpacking, you become acutely aware of issues that impede the smooth flow of camping life. How far away, and how do you get to, the water source? Where will you set up your kitchen? What's the process by which you'll set up your tent? Where will you hang your food? Of course, it's possible to make anything work, but when you're pressed for time, you want all activities to proceed as smoothly as possible. You want them to flow with a minimum of fuss, of rework, of back-and-forth trips to your backpack or your campsite. Similarly, when you're designing an office layout or designing a process, you want to think through the process to ensure that there are as few handoffs as possible, and that there's a minimum of travel time between groups. It's not catastrophic if the credit department has to walk 250 feet to the sales team -- but it's not ideal.

I'll discuss other similarities in a future post. In the meantime, what similarities do you see?



Open doors and closed minds

I am not making this up. A network admin in a class I taught was complaining that she can't focus on her work because it's so noisy at her desk. Her office is right next to the main conference room, so there's a lot of traffic and noise from the meetings held there. Moreover, the company president has decreed an open door policy -- to the point that no one (at least at her level) is allowed to close their doors. Ever. And people don't like to close the door to the conference room either.

She asked the president if she could close her door. No.

She asked if she could wear headphones. No.

She asked if she could work at another desk. No.

She asked if she could close the conference room door. Yes, but it's politically difficult for her to ask execs to close the door because it's too noisy.

I repeat: I am not making this up.

Consider the organizational culture that would not only allow this situation to happen, but would make it difficult or impossible to improve it. I mean, who really thinks that an open door policy means that a door must be open *all* the time? That's insane.

This situation reminds me of the problems that companies have when they adopt 5S or other lean concepts. Management adopts the tools without understanding the problems they're intended to solve, so they end up with LAME instead of lean. (Or see my piece on Kyocera's pathetic 5S implementation.)

At the risk of stating the painfully obvious, an open door policy does not actually require everyone's door to be open all the time. It's a mindset, an attitude, and a culture. It's not the physical position of a piece of wood. Any organization that is willing to sacrifice not only the productivity but the well-being of a worker, has a lot to learn about the oft-forgotten pillar of lean -- respect for people.

I won't bother listing all the possible ways a company can maintain an open-door mind-set without critically undermining people's ability to concentrate and focus on their work. (But if you're interested, feel free to contact me.)

But I would love to know: where do people come up with these moronic ideas?





Four to-do lists? Try 5S.

My client yesterday showed me her to-do list. Make that her to-do lists. The handwritten one on the yellow legal pad. The messages marked as unread on her Blackberry. The meeting action items listed on her iPad. The messages she flagged for followup in her Outlook inbox. Four lists, four places to look for work that needs her attention.

As I've written about before, 5S for the knowledge worker does not mean putting tape outlines around your stapler or setting rules about how many family photos can go on your desk. That's just a mindless transfer of 5S to the office. What you need to do is translate it for the office -- and that means applying it to the information you manage.

If you're living with four to-do lists, you need 5S. You need a way to organize the tasks so that you can easily see them, assess them, and make rapid judgments about what, how, and when to handle that work. If you're embarking on a scavenger hunt every time you want to plan your day, you're in trouble.

From my perspective, the twin purposes of information 5S are (1) to help surface abnormalities (in this case, work that's not getting done), and (2) to make it easier and faster to access materials. The fewer lists you have, the more likely it is that you'll accomplish those goals.

If, for some reason, you need to work with multiple to-do lists (the iPad for meeting notes, a legal pad for things you remember at your desk, the inbox for stuff arriving via email), that's okay -- but then it's incumbent upon you to 5S those lists each day: review them, consolidate items, and schedule the work in your calendar or on a personal kanban.

You wouldn't want to do something as simple as grocery shopping with four different shopping lists. Why would you want to do something as complex as scheduling and planning your work with four lists?



Librarian vs. Archaeologist

Michael Schrage writes at the HBR blog that getting organized is mostly a waste of time:

When it comes to investing time, thought and effort into productively organizing oneself, less is more. In fact, not only is less more, research suggests it may be faster, better and cheaper.

IBM researchers observed that email users who "searched" rather than set up files and folders for their correspondence typically found what they were looking for faster and with fewer errors. Time and overhead associated with creating and managing email folders were, effectively, a waste.

Six years ago, I would have disagreed with Schrage: I recommended that people embrace their inner Linnaeus and set up elaborate folder structures for their electronic files and their email. The goal was a comprehensive taxonomy that would allow people to locate any message in seconds. But when Google desktop can find anything within .03 seconds, why bother taking the time to do all of this organizing? Yes, you'll have to cull through some irrelevant results, but the time you spend sorting the informational wheat from the chaff is far less than the time you'd spend painstakingly cataloging and filing each individual message and file. (And that's assuming that you don't mistakenly put the Henderson invoice in the Hernandez folder; then it's gone forever.)

As Schrage points out, this approach is actually very much in keeping with lean thinking, insofar as we're moving from a "push" approach to information management -- organize now, whether or not you need it -- to a "pull" approach -- organize and sort your information when you need to find it.

What Schrage doesn't address is the reality that not all of our information is electronic and suitable for search. There's no Google search for carpet swatches and spec sheets, Etruscan pottery fragments, or pathology samples. There's also no random search for plenty of publications that aren't digitized. For these things, there really is value to "getting organized."

Even when information is electronic, sometimes it's easier to organize it than to search for it. My wife, for example, handles the scheduling for the 13 interventional radiologists in her section. Each month she sends an email to her colleagues asking them if they have any vacation requests, conference commitments, or other scheduling issues she needs to account for. She'll get responses like this:

"I'll be at the ASCO conference from Jan 22-26." "I'm taking my kids skiing from Jan 20-24." "I'm visiting Dana Farber Cancer Center Jan 18-19." "I'm taking a couple days off from Jan 25-28."

With no keywords, there's no way to search her mail for these messages. And the messages can't even be threaded, because people don't always respond to her original email. As a result, she keeps distinct mail folders to handle scheduling requests as they come in.

I think the organized vs. disorganized dichotomy is a false one. Your information takes many forms, and requires different treatment. Sometimes it's better to be a librarian , and sometimes it's better to be an archaeologist. The method you take depends on the problem you're trying to solve. That's real lean thinking.



December 2011 Newsletter: The Waste of @Waiting For

If you're a fan of GTD and you use an "@waiting for" folder, you're wasting time, effort, and energy. There's a better way. Download PDF



Mise-en-place, 5S, and why tape outlines on the desk are stupid.

Karen Martin, Mark Graban, and Kevin Meyer have been tweeting over the past couple of days about a hospital in New Mexico that -- sadly -- is putting tape outlines on people's desks in a misguided implementation of 5S. This nonsense has enraged the nurses who understandably see this as irrelevant to their ability to get their jobs done. Confusion about how to apply 5S in a knowledge environment is rampant, as these stories of "lean as misguidedly executed" (LAME) attest. I believe that's because people focus on the easily visible, outward trappings of 5S without understanding the purpose of the tool.

In his book Kitchen Confidential, chef Anthony Bourdain explains the function of a cook's mise-en-place. His description gets at the heart of 5S better than anything I've read by any lean consultant:

Mise-en-place is the religion of all good line cooks. Do not f**k with a line cook’s “meez”—meaning their set-up, their carefully arranged supplies of sea salt, rough-cracked pepper, softened butter, cooking oil, wine, back-ups and so on. As a cook, your station, and its condition, its state of readiness, is an extension of your nervous system—and it is profoundly upsetting if another cook or, God forbid, a waiter—disturbs your precisely and carefully laid-out system. The universe is in order when your station is set up the way you like it: you know where to find everything with your eyes closed, everything you need during the course of the shift is at the ready at arm’s reach, your defenses are deployed. If you let your mise-en-place run down, get dirty and disorganized, you’ll quickly find yourself spinning in place and calling for back-up. I worked with a chef who used to step behind the line to a dirty cook’s station in the middle of the rush to explain why the offending cook was falling behind. He’d press his palm down on the cutting board, which was littered with peppercorns, spattered sauce, bits of parsley, breadcrumbs and the usual flotsam and jetsam that accumulates quickly on a station if not constantly wiped away with a moist side-towel. “You see this” he’d inquire, raising his palm so that the cook could see the bits of dirt and scraps sticking to his chef’s palm, “That’s what the inside of your head looks like now. Work clean!”

Want to know what 5S is and why it's important, without resorting to all those difficult-to-pronounce Japanese words? It’s mise-en-place. (Of course, I’ve just substituted French for Japanese, so this may not be an improvement.)

Doctors and nurses (mostly) embrace 5S when it comes to the tools of their care-giving trade. Take a look at any surgical tray, and you'll see that's true. Physical organization -- 5S -- is essential to being able to deliver care smoothly and efficiently. Supply closets are perfect examples of places that benefit from 5S. But organizing the stapler and 3-hole punch on the desk? That's asinine and pointless. No one needs to find the stapler with their eyes closed.

When it comes to the office environment, it's more important to apply 5S to the information people manage, not the tools they use. The issue isn't where the stapler sits; the issue is where critical information resides. Can people find it quickly and easily on the file server -- or on medical forms?

Making information flow faster, with less waste and greater clarity -- that's how 5S should be applied in the knowledge workplace. The nurses at the Covenant Health System in Texas understand that. They didn't mess around putting tape outlines on their desks. But they did reduce the amount of time they spent filling out paperwork by 50% by simplifying, standardizing, redesigning, and eliminating all their forms. That's 5S intelligently applied to a real problem.

Tape outlines around the stapler? Diktats concerning the maximum number of pens a person can have at his desk? Please. They're not going to get rid of the mental equivalent of peppercorns, spattered sauce, bits of parsley, and breadcrumbs that litter the brains of knowledge workers.

The gemba for a knowledge worker is inside her head. Let's make sure that the information that goes in there is well-organized and easily accessible.


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5S in Three Bullets

This is not 5SA few months ago, Mark Rosenthal boiled 5S down to three key points:

  • You have everything you need.
  • You need everything you have.
  • You can see everything clearly belongs where it is.

There's a lot to be said for the simplicity of this description. But how does it apply to knowledge workers?

Too often, 5S is transplanted -- not translated -- from the factory floor to the office cube without considering its purpose. That leads to ridiculous situations such as the one at Kyocera America, where there's an internal 5S cop yelling at people for putting sweaters on the backs of their chairs.

Knowledge workers traffic in information, not materials. So for a knowledge worker, Mark's points can be rewritten as:

  • You have all the information you need.
  • You need all the information you have.
  • You can see  that all the information clearly belongs where it is.

From this perspective, it doesn't matter where you hang your sweater, put your stapler, or keep the picture of your dog. None of those affect your ability to access the information you need to do your job. As long as your electronic and paper filing systems allow you to quickly and easily retrieve information, you're okay.

That doesn't obviate the need for visible management tools. Particularly because the information you receive is increasingly electronic, it's difficult to assess at a glance what you have. When you look at a product development spec package, a legal brief, or a pile of papers, can you easily tell whether you have all the required information? If not, some sort of signaling system -- a kanban, checklist, post-it notes, etc. -- is needed.

Mark goes on to say:

As the work is done, the moment someone discovers something else is needed, THAT is the time to deal with the issue. Ask, “Is this something we should need in the normal course of the work?”

If so, then you learned something that you didn’t know or didn’t remember when you first organized the area. Add that item, find a place for it, and establish a visual control. Right now.

If not, then “Why did we need it this time?” What broke the normal pattern of work? This is where 5S breaks down – when we don’t discriminate between something that is needed in the normal course of work, and something that is needed as an exception.

This process is just as important for the knowledge worker. When we don't ask these questions, we end up buried in piles of papers, in stray files on the computer desktop, and random emails that have been ambiguously flagged for "followup," even though the flags don't really tell us anything about the process. Once all those bits of information start to accumulate, we no longer have just what we need and need just what we have. That leads to errors, rework, waiting, and all kinds of wasted effort.

Think about it.

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When good data go bad.

Bob Lutz, longtime car guy who held senior leadership positions at GM, BMW, Ford, and Chrysler, tells a story about the feedback that David Davis, an auto industry expert, received on a speech he delivered at GM:

Sometime in the early '80s, he'd accepted a gig as speaker to a large group of GM executives. The speech appeared to go well, and the applause felt genuine. David went home pleased and thought no more about it until he received the following letter:

Dear David:

You asked for feedback on your remarks at our recent conference. The data is just now available.

The rating scale was zero to ten with ten being "best." The five non-GM speakers had scores ranging from zero to ten. Yours ranged from three to ten. The five "outside speakers'" average scores ranged from 5.25 to 8.25.

Your average was 7.35.

Two speakers had higher scores than yours. Your standard deviation from the mean was 1.719 and ranked second among the variances, showing that most people had a similar opinion about your remarks.

I personally enjoyed your remarks very much. Your refreshing candor, coupled with your broad understanding of people, product, and the market, gave us exactly what we asked you for—"widened competitive awareness."

Thank you for your participation.

Absurd, right? Hopefully you didn’t snort the milk from your Cheerios out your nose as you read this. It’s a miracle that GM survived as long as it did with this kind of bureaucratic plaque clogging its organizational arteries.

But before you sprain your shoulder patting yourself on your own back for how much smarter you and your company are than big, stupid GM, think about the birth of that colossal dysfunction. At some point, a diligent, well-meaning employee—or her manager—probably wanted to help improve the quality of presentations. And he probably read in business school that what matters gets measured, so he created a simple 10-point rating scale.

[Stop here. Does your organization use one of these scales to evaluate speakers, or training sessions, or the selection of deli meats in the company cafeteria?]

It’s a short—very short—step from a 10-point rating of an individual event, to a comparison of multiple events. And an even shorter step from that comparison to a deeper, more thorough statistical analysis, replete with r2-values and more Greek letters than you’ve seen since your last purchase of foreign yogurt.

Organizations, and individuals within organizations, drive themselves to the land of absurdity all the time because they don’t ask the first question that lean thinkers focus on: What is customer value?

Learning that a speech was well received with a score of 7.35 out of 10 is valuable, important, and worthwhile for the customers (in this case, the speaker and the people who invited the speaker). The other data, not so much. The Outside Speaker Effective Analysis Group could have identified that value by simply (gasp!) asking the customers what information would be helpful for them. Hell, there probably wouldn’t even be a need for an Outside Speaker Effective Analysis Group in the first place had GM focused on this question.

In my mind, this is where traditional approaches to productivity go wrong. These approaches focus on improving the efficiency of producing these reports without considering whether or not they should be produced in the first place. The lean approach—first, identify the value—is, to me, a far better way to operate. And once you’ve identified the value, you can apply the lean tool of 5S to the information: sort the value from the waste, set it in order, systematize the delivery of the information, etc.

Of course, the waste from not focusing on customer value isn’t always as obvious as having an Outside Speaker Effective Analysis Group (The existence of a department like that is pretty much a dead giveaway.) Sometimes it’s subtler, like having the IT department generate dozens, or even hundreds, of reports per week, most of which go unread (as happened at one of my old employers).

Unless you continually evaluate your own generation of data, reports, and statistics, you run the risk of becoming the punch line to a joke and an object lesson in making good data go bad.



The value of monotonous rituals

Scott Belsky penned a terrific article at The 99% on how the ritual of writing out a to-do list helps some people stay productive. Here's how he describes the ritual of Bob Greenberg, the CEO of the digital agency R/GA:

Despite his digital interests, Greenberg's productivity tools are entirely analog. He uses a paper agenda with a series of lists written at the top that he writes every single day. In the morning, Greenberg will manually bump uncompleted tasks from the previous day to the current day. He also re-writes the names of key clients and other areas of focus; often transcribing the same names again and again, daily, for weeks if not months or years. . . . By manually bumping a certain task every day, he feels that it is incomplete. He is faced with the reality and forced to either complete the task, delegate it, or bump it again.

I see a clear parallel between this ritual and the process of 5S in a manufacturing environment. You can't engage in a thorough 5S program without looking at every physical item and determining its purpose and value. The same is true with the information you manage.

You need to sift through the accumulated flotsam and jetsam of your day -- the scribbled notes, the emails, phone calls, and hallway conversations, the random thoughts that occur to you while getting your coffee -- and identify what has value and what doesn't. Applying 5S to the information you handle (or, in Greenberg's world, re-writing his daily lists) means making decisions about what to do with it. Whether you choose to act upon it now, defer action for a later date, or finally give up on it, you're actively assessing your work and analyzing your needs. It's this analysis that will give you greater clarity about what's required on a daily basis to move forward with your responsibilities.

Personally, I'm not a big fan of writing and re-writing the same tasks. I think it's far better to put a stake in the ground and set a target date for action or completion. But I do respect Greenberg's focus on creating visibility for his work and forcing himself to make mindful decisions about what he's going to do. Too often we act unthinkingly, reacting in a Pavlovian fashion to the latest stimulus. And that's a recipe for failure.



Shrink the Change

As I've said many times, I'm not a big fan of business books. I think they're usually bloated, self-evident, post-hoc analyses that don't really teach too much. (Read about the "Halo Effect" for a more thoughtful and intelligent critique on these books.) Nevertheless, though, I read and really enjoyed Chip and Dan Heath's latest book, Switch. Notwithstanding Kevin Meyer's low regard for the book, I found it insightful and really useful. Because, really, when you're trying to get people to manage their time better or to undertake a lean transformation, what you're really trying to do is get them to make a change -- a switch -- in the way they behave.

The Heath brothers talk about Dave Ramsey's "Debt Snowball" approach to reducing personal debt. Dave advocates that when you're totally overwhelmed by debt, you should pay off the smallest debt first, rather than the debt with the highest interest rate. When you've paid off that debt, every available dollar goes to paying off the next smallest debt. Why? In his words,

sometimes motivation is more important than math. This is one of those times. . . . Face it, if you go on a diet and lose weight the first week, you will stay on that diet. If you go on a diet and gain weight or go six weeks with no visible progress, you will quit. When training salespeople, I try to get them a sale or two quickly because that fires them up. When you start the Debt Snowball and in the first few days pay off a couple of little debts, trust me, it lights your fire. I don't care if you have a master's degree in psychology; you need quick wins to get fired up. And getting fired up is super-important.

This approach to debt reduction is pretty controversial. But the underlying concept -- getting small wins -- is, I think, a pretty powerful idea. As the Heath brothers put it,

if people are facing a daunting task, and their instinct is to avoid it, you've got to break down the task. Shrink the change. Make the change small enough that they can't help but score a victory. Once people clean a single room, or pay off a single debt, their dread starts to dissipate, and their progress begins to snowball.

In my work, I often see people -- from mid-level managers to highly-paid senior executives -- buried in a pile of junk. (Not exactly the picture of 5S for information.) Despite their competence in so many areas, they're often paralyzed by the task of processing all that stuff. It's just too overwhelming for them. So they feebly move stuff from one side of the desk to the other, or move one email into an electronic folder, and then. . . stop. Or even worse, they come in on a weekend with every intention of finally getting control, but after a few minutes, they give up and do something else, like some regular work. It seems so fruitless to attempt to purge all that accumulated flotsam and jetsam.

Instead, I think, people could help themselves by shrinking the change. Don't try to get completely organized. Just get more organized. Don't try to apply 5S everywhere. Just apply 5S to one area of the office, or one supply closet, or one operating room. For that matter, don't try to become a lean company in one day or one kaizen event. Just try to become leaner.

Make that the first step. Shrink the change, and make it an easy win.



Lean and the power of communication.

I attended the LEI's Lean Healthcare Transformation Summit last week in Orlando and was impressed by all the attendees' dedication to improvement. The problems with our healthcare system -- and the healthcare insurance system -- are legion, but seeing the accomplishments of this group gives me some measure of hope that things might actually get better. Amidst all the value stream maps and photos of 5S initiatives, one thing that really hit me was how communication lies at the heart of so much of lean. From kanbans to value stream maps, from daily huddles to managerial standard work from 5S to A3s, I kept seeing how clear, concise, and consistent communication eliminates waste, creates value, and focuses activity and attention on what's important. When you think about it, a kanban is a form of communication that tells someone that something needs to be done at a certain time. Value stream maps are a kind of visual communication that helps reduce misunderstandings. Daily huddles are clearly about communication of problems (and solutions), while manager standard work is a way to routinize and clarify communication up, down, and across an organization. 5S is a way to help communicate abnormalities in a process or place. A3s are an elegant and concise method of communicating just about anything. And you can't go to any lean plant or office without seeing visual management boards that essentially are just forms of communication.

So this got me thinking about the waste of time, effort, and energy that goes into what passes for communication in most organizations. You know -- confusing emails with no clear purpose. Voice mails that don't answer questions, but instead just ask you to "call me back" (and race through the telephone number at the end). Soul-sucking meetings that serve no point except the aggrandizement of the organizer's ego. Proposals and reports that deforest half of Brazil without telling a coherent story. That's a colossal amount of waste.

By no means am I diminishing the importance of the lean tools that are so often discussed. But it does make you wonder: what would happen if we spent even just a little time on improving the quality of the communication within and between organizational silos?



Email is where knowledge goes to die

"Email is where knowledge goes to die." * Think about that for a sec. Think about the treasure trove of information that lies buried in your email inbox, or somewhere in the painfully complex taxonomy of email folders that you've created to hold each message in just the right place -- your own private, generally poorly-functioning, Dewey Decimal system.

I started thinking about this issue after reading one of Jeremy Sluyter's recent blog posts. He points out that the inability to access the information locked away in individual email boxes creates waste. You ask a question via email, a colleague answers, and both you and the company benefit. But when you save the information in a mail folder six layers deep in Outlook,

The transaction, the knowledge gained, has died in your email, for you to forget and for no one else to see.  And what about the next time someone asks the same question?  In fact every time someone asks the same question over and over again, we are wasting time.  And we all know that time = money.

Jeremy says that each time you answer a question over email, you should ask yourself what you could do to ensure that the answer to this question is available to everyone. Even if your organization doesn't have an intranet, there are ways to make the answer available to a Google query. [For more technical ways to transform information into usable knowledge, read Bill French's post here. Much too advanced for me, but it might make some sense to you.]

To me, this is another way to view 5S for knowledge workers. It's not about putting a tape outline around your stapler and mouse -- probably you can find the damn things without the tape, and if you can't, you probably won't be holding your job down much longer. 5S is for information -- for making it easy to find and easy to use for the rest of the organization.

When it comes to "set in order," don't worry so much about organizing your inbox and mail folders. Think about how you can make that information readily available for you -- and for others -- when you need it.

Don't let knowledge go to die.

* Hat tip to Bill French for this unbelievably felicitous turn of phrase. I stand humbled before you.



Create a fast track for your work.

I spent a few days at the SHS/ASQ alphabet soup conference in Atlanta this week, learning about how hospitals are implementing lean to improve their quality and lower their costs. I was struck by the fact that all the focus is on hospital processes -- admission, discharge, nurse shift change, etc. -- but no one is thinking about how to use lean to improve the way people do their office work. The nurse supervisors and managers I spoke to, for example, were complaining about the difficulty of getting their administrative tasks done in any sort of efficient way. Like workers in any other kind of organization, they buried by email, paperwork, and meetings. There's no easy solution to these burdens, but there are lessons from the way hospitals manage patients that can be applied to the way that individuals manage their work. Consider the "fast track" that many hospitals have implemented in their emergency departments.

There's one pathway for the serious problems -- gunshot wounds, cerebral hemorrhages -- that need immediate attention. And there's a fast track for people who have non-life-threatening issues that can be easily resolved, such as stitching up a bad cut or splinting a sprained finger. These are high volume, fast turnover cases. If you've ever gone to an emergency department that doesn't have a fast track for a non-life threatening problem, you'll end up sitting around for hours studying People magazine's "Sexiest Man of 2007" double issue while the medics take care of the guy who's having a coronary.

What would happen if you created a fast-track for your work? As part of 5S, sould you set up a paper and electronic filing system that separates the high volume, fast turnover work from the serious, more complex issues that take time to process? That would make it easier and faster to access the information you need, and avoid those Howard Carter-like archaeological expeditions looking for stuff.

Going one step further, could you create blocks of time in which you only dealt with high volume, fast turnover work, and other blocks that were reserved for the big stuff? If you did that, you might increase the likelihood that you'd deal with everything more quickly, more smoothly, and with less stress.