Monday, October 27, 2008

The 5S concept: Will a Misplaced Stapler Get You in Trouble?

Watch out: 5S may be coming to your workplace. And if it does, well, you have my condolences.

I first read about 5S several months ago, and hoped it was a bad blip on the radar screen, sort of like a new High School Musical cast being assembled.

But no, there it was on the front page of the Wall Street Journal this morning. For those who haven't heard of 5S (sort, straighten, shine, standardize and sustain), it was originally designed for the manufacturing floor as a way to keep things neat and tidy to increase efficiency. Everything has a specific place, and unnecessary stuff is tossed so that no time is wasted looking for something, seen as especially important when people share a workspace.

Now, 5S has made its way to the upper floors and into the cubicles, and I'm getting a very bad feeling about it.

Don't get me wrong. I'm all for keeping chaos to a minimum in the workplace, and disorganized, messy work spaces aren't good for anyone. But as someone who has covered the workplace for decades, who has interviewed hundreds of bosses and hundreds of employees over the years, I think this idea is going to be about as welcome as a weekly performance evaluation.

Why? At a time when people are so concerned about their jobs, when companies need every mind engaged in coming up with new and innovative ideas in order to remain competitive, when bosses are just trying to keep employees focused and not watching the stock market go nuts -- we're going to focus on whether a desk is neat? Or whether a person's sweater should be allowed on the back of a chair?

I realize some people think this concept is great, and a perfect solution to the problems of inefficiency and disorganization among team members. But I've seen this thing cause a backlash before, and I just believe when people are being asked to work longer hours, with little or no pay raise or bonus this year, that telling them they put the stapler in the wrong drawer is going to be a bit grating on already frayed nerves.

If you ask a couple who has been together a long time what the secret to their relationship is, many of them might reply it's being respectful, kind, communicating well and valuing what the other person has to bring to the relationship. I'd agree with all of those things. And I think most bosses would agree that's what they also value in their team members.

Do they want to be policing the office looking for points to deduct for lack of neatness? Are employees going to be trying to find ways to keep a picture of their kid or a beloved pet from being banned from their workspace instead of focusing on their work? Will 5S only lead to lower morale -- and lead to greater inefficiency, rather than improve it?

I sure hope not. I sure hope that companies don't go overboard on 5S at a time when we need everyone engaged, enthusiastic, energized and upbeat (the 3E's and 1U method) -- but I'm not counting on it.

What do you think of 5S? Are companies focusing on the wrong things at work these days?


Walter Akana said...

Great post, Anita! Looks to me like the 5S concept has some merit; especially if it’s used as a tool to improve efficiency, and make everyone’s life at work a bit easier. However, I agree that it has great potential for misuse when adopted by managers – particularly as a way to ding employees. As with other imported practices, 5S should be a solution that emerges from the workgroup and that everyone commits to. Yet, in making a decision to adopt this solution, teams should first apply another practice: The 5 Whys (

Anita said...

I think we're thinking the same thing: That poor managers can use it as an easy excuse to criticize workers instead of offering them truly useful and meaningful feedback. Thanks for the link...always appreciate more information!

John of Indiana said...

What a wonderful idea! Instead of down-sizing and having to offer severance packages, just fire 'em "For Cause" because they refused to take down the picture of the reason they put up with more CRAP for the same (or less) pay (i.e. The Family)
This will be discarded like the much-bally-hoo'd "Quality Circles", but like those circles, only after immeasurable damage has been done to the workplace.
I really think whoever thoguth up this concept did it so their industry could steal our lunch and eat it while we're running around trying to find the "right place" for the tape dispenser.

Anita said...

Dear John,
I'm trying not to be cynical about the whole process, and I'm sure there are plenty of folks to defend it. But I think you make good points about how the workplace has had a "go" at these ideas before...and all they end up doing is causing more distrust among workers and management. Just what we DON'T need now.
Thanks for posting.

Shawn said...

A recruiter from a mid-sized privately-owned company just told me about the 5S concept the other day.

To me, “sort, straighten, shine, standardize and sustain” sounds like something everyone should shout during early morning company-wide calisthenics.

Anita said...

Ha! Sort of like "head, shoulders, knees and toes, knees and toes..."
I guess we could all use the exercise, right?
Love that vision.

Jason said...

As a part-time black belt, I'd like to second what Walter has said above. 5S is supposed to be a practice done by a group to make the work flow the area. It comes from the work, not from above.

Here are some other discussions about this same article:

Lean Blog: this-wsj-article-and-many-organizations

Training Within Industry: 5s-in-wall-street-journal

The Training Within Industry post says it better than I can: "don't do 5S unless you are helping people solve problems that make their job easier and safer while creating waste free standardization."

Anita said...

Thanks so much for the links...always so helpful!

Anonymous said...

We are experiencing 5S at the company I work for. It is good to a point, but then becomes something that looks like it was developed by someone with OCD. We have blue tape around everything: staplers, trash cans, printers, even "workspace". Then little labels are applied to tell us what each item is! Our desks are next. No personal items allowed. We all think this is insane. Is this what the original concept was all about? I think it is a way to tag items as inventory and clean out all trash and unnecessary items so it'll be easier when they close down or move us! Ulterior motives!

Anita said...

I know this is probably pretty rough for you, but I had to laugh at your descriptions. I hope the writers at "The Office" are paying attention, because it doesn't sound like it gets any crazier than this. Let's hope someone gets a clue and puts a stop to the idiocy.