Productivity and organizing insights found in Lean systems

In October 2008, The Wall Street Journal ran the article “Neatness Counts at Kyocera and at Others in the 5S Club.” The article explores a typical day for Kyocera employee Jay Scovie, whose job it is to patrol offices to make sure they are sorted, straightened, shined, standardized and sustained masterpieces of uncluttered glory:

Kyocera’s version of 5S, which it calls “Perfect 5S,” not only calls for organization in the workplace, but aesthetic uniformity. Sweaters can’t hang on the backs of chairs, personal items can’t be stowed beneath desks and the only decorations allowed on cabinets are official company plaques or certificates.

One thing that bugs me about the article is that it doesn’t explain that the rigid aesthetic standards Kyocera implements are not part of the 5S system. Rules prohibiting a sweater on the back of a chair are unique to Kyocera’s “Perfect” 5S processes and not the standard 5S efficiency program.

As an unclutterer and a fan of productivity improving methods, I’m always disheartened when I see extreme examples of efficiency improvement systems discussed as if they are the norm instead of the exception. Programs that strive to increase productivity in the workplace are usually worthwhile systems that increase morale and creative thinking, instead of stifle it. This 2014 article in Harvard Business Review indicates that employees perform better when they can control their space.

If you work for a company with more than 150 employees, you probably are already familiar with at least one Lean system (“Lean” is the buzzword in the business world to mean a program that trims the fat — unnecessary and wasteful processes, methods, systems, etc.). If you’re unfamiliar with Lean systems on the whole, or are only familiar with one specific program, you might be interested in learning more about them. Even if you don’t implement the full systems, simply knowing about their methods can help to improve the way you do your work. I have definitely gained many helpful tips and tricks studying their processes.

There are numerous Lean systems, and each has a different area of expertise. Some can be used together, some are branches of pre-existing systems, while others are stand-alone programs. Different programs fall in and out of fashion, and these are a number of the current heavy hitters and resources that decently explain them:

What are your thoughts on Lean systems? Do you find that they contain useful productivity and organizing insights?


This post has been updated since its original publication in 2008.

27 Comments for “Productivity and organizing insights found in Lean systems”

  1. posted by Neil Matthews on

    I’ve worked under a 5s system at Nissan in a back office function.

    I can see the benefits of 5s on a shop floor, but moving it into the office just gives petty beauracrats the ability to abuse their power.

    5s audits used to happen and a snotty little message would come down from your manager about a box under your desk

    “Move the box”

    “Where to?”

    “52 say move the box, so move the box”


  2. posted by Sandy Coppertone on

    One man’s efficiency style is another man’s aggravation. It’s like trying to wear someone else’s shoes; one size does not fit all.

  3. posted by Maria on

    I would hate to work somewhere where I couldn’t organize my space as I see fit, and where I’d be under so much scrutiny and control that I’d have to worry about putting away my sweater over the back of my chair.

  4. posted by Jon on

    I’m an Industrial Engineer, so I’m unfortunately exposed to all these continuous improvement systems. It seems that in most cases companies apply these systems as a substitute for having to actually think of what issues face their particular function, whether it’s on the factory floor or the back office or wherever.

    There’s an excellent blog at, specifically the Japan Kaikaku experience the author went on to Japan (http://www.evolvingexcellence......mmary.html), where you can see that these systems aren’t just a set of platitudes and buzzwords, but instead so ingrained in the company culture that it’s not something they even have to think about, and that’s the only way they can work.

  5. posted by Kellye on

    What a terrible place to work. If you have to sit in a cubicle for 8 hours a day, you should be able to decorate, organize, and clean your office the way you’d like. I’m not saying leave a moldy sandwich in the desk drawer or anything, but organization is up to the

    As far as I’ve seen from personal experience, Lean Six Sigma is really ineffective. Pretty much management getting together to “brainstorm solutions” (aka accuse each other of inefficiency) and then they get so angry and resentful at each other they come back and take it out on their subordinates in petty little “improvement” programs like this one.

    I let my office get cluttered in ways I won’t tolerate in my home, because I’m a naturally disorganized person and it has to have an outlet somewhere. I have a smart-aleck desktop wallpaper, CDs in haphazard piles, stacks of memos, Post-it notes all over the walls/computer, goofy photographs of my friends and family everywhere, a thriving bamboo plant, and I’m seriously considering bringing in a Siamese fighting fish, too.

    The point is, I make my office my home away from home, so it isn’t complete drudgery to be there. I think all cube rats should have the freedom to do that. What you might lose in productivity, you gain in morale, so it’s pretty much an efficiency washout, but with happier employees.

  6. posted by Kellye on

    I’m not saying leave a moldy sandwich in the desk drawer or anything, but organization is up to the INDIVIDUAL.

    Sorry, cut myself off. 🙂

  7. posted by sue on

    “…Sweaters can’t hang on the backs of chairs, personal items can’t be stowed beneath desks and the only decorations allowed on cabinets are official company plaques or certificates…”

    Wasn’t that a plot point in the movie “9 to 5” and it resulted in low morale, low production and inefficiency?

  8. posted by jeff parnes on

    Lean attempts to remove non-value added steps from the process. In one lean analysis my group debated whether transportation was value added. Most lean guidance indicates that it isn’t.

    I countered with the experience of the ’49ers – they were willing to pay extra-ordinary sums for items that wouldn’t have been worth a premium elsewhere. But because they were available when they were needed, where they were needed, those premiums were paid. So much for transportation being non-value added.

  9. posted by amanda lee on

    I’m glad you posted this–reading about S5 in particular is helpful for me personally and professionally–but I doubt I’d respond well to someone dictating me to adhere to a particular system of productivity.

  10. posted by Kimberly Collins on

    I cannot begin to imagine working for a company that micromanages its employees to the point that they cannot even hang a sweater on the back of their chair. Asking employees to keep their workspace neat and uncluttered is one thing, but what Kyocera is doing is ridiculous.
    This is an interesting topic for me though b/c I had no idea these systems even existed.I am not in the business world, so it is really nice to learn something new.

  11. posted by Caroline on

    As a 5S implementor at my job, I can tell you that the danger is that it can become one more box to tick for management. But when done right, I think it can change the way business is done.
    At its most basic 5S strives for all the things that are espoused here on Unclutterer: a place for everything and everything in its place, things done right the first time, and the elimination of clutter.
    If you work in an office, think of your desk. Do you have a 3-hole punch? How often do you use it? Every day? Every other day? Once a week? Might it not make more sense to place that item in a public area where it can be shared by all, rather than squirelled away at your workstation? That’s 5S.

  12. posted by John of Indiana on

    Jay Scovie would just PLOTZ at the sight of my corner of the world…
    Does it really matter, so long as I can produce the TPS reports when asked for them?

    “Aaaaaaaaah, Yee-Ahhh… I’m afraid I’m gonna have to ask you to move the sweater, and you WILL have those TPS reports for me before you leave, right?”

    What’s next, “Quality Circles”? Oooh, that’s right, already tried and discarded those…

  13. posted by Suki on

    “Do you have a 3-hole punch? How often do you use it? Every day? Every other day? Once a week? Might it not make more sense to place that item in a public area where it can be shared by all, rather than squirelled away at your workstation?”

    If the location is determined by the frequency of use, it would save time, but if I am walking to and from the common 3hole punch, taking 5 minutes, then maybe not so much is saved.

  14. posted by Rob on

    I blog about lean regulary and can tell you that 5S is a pillar of great lean implementations. In your office, can you find whatever you need in seconds? Can anyone else walk in and find what they need in seconds? 5S removes what is not needed, places the necessary items at the point of use and make a clean, visual and high performance workplace.

    What are the 5S?

    Sorting – what is needed right now and what is not.

    Straightening – rules are set for a Lean Office layout – a place for everything and everything in its place.

    Sweep – is both physical and visual, removing any abnormalities, sources of backsliding, clutter, or poor visibility.

    Standardize – by establishing “what good looks like” and rules for upkeep.

    Self-discipline – the less of this you need, the Leaner you really are.

    In Manufacturing LEAN, a 5S program is typically the first LEAN technique applied to a new environment. The targeted area is literally swept out, clearing the decks for future improvements. After 5S then other LEAN techniques such as pull scheduling, workload balancing, and waste reduction are applied to cut service time and increase customer value creation.

    A 5S implementation in the office will quickly reveal many areas of waste. Some of these silent killers are:

    People waste
    Process waste
    Information waste
    Asset waste
    Surface waste

    Office employees might be busy, but are their activities focused, structured and disciplined? This might sound militaristic, but actually it is quite liberating. Once an employee understands what is expected of him/her, it is much easier to optimally perform. Many employees spend vast amounts of time doing busy work, or redundant work. Reports that nobody reads are a good example.

    If everyone knows what is expected, the atmosphere can become much more relaxed and pleasant. Mental and emotional energy can be directed at meaningful work that is focused, structured, and disciplined.

    As with any lean manufacturing process, it takes a vision to succeed. Top management needs to be totally committed and willing to allow time and expense to reach the goals. It is also highly advisable to make use of a good outside consultant.

  15. posted by sdavis on

    Will someone explain to me what is wrong with a sweater hanging on the back of a chair?

  16. posted by Eileen on

    Not a darn thing!I am laughing because the no sweater on the chair thing actually happen to me. My ex-boss decided to try for a promotion via an attempt at “lean,”: hence everything personal had to go. We missed sweaters and jackets as it was very cold. So an angry & cold person climbed up and unhooked the “elevator music” that bossman liked! He was not impressed and I don’t blame him. However after talking to him we got our sweaters and a couple of neatly placed items allowed. We all learned to be neater and management learned to realize people are more productive with at least one personal item nearby. I learned too much neatness control is counterproductive!

  17. posted by Craig on

    As a Kaizen practitioner and trainer for the last twenty-years I can tell you that 5S done properly is a simplification and uncluttering method that can be used anywhere and in any system.

    However, like all these methods, when it falls into the hands of idiots, especially box-ticking management bureaucrats, it can become a nightmare.

    I have used it in offices and where it is trained from the bottom up it has revolutionized the look and effectiveness of those workplaces. My standard advice to managers in these workplaces is to get the hell out of the way and say yes to anything the workers ask for.

    It is when it is imposed top-down, with dumb inspection sheets and the like that it always fails.

    Such is life… 😉

  18. posted by Marianne on

    I worked at a GE company that was implementing Six Sigma. I only had one question about the effectiveness of the program, since GE’s appliances were consistently at the bottom of the Consumer Reports rankings.

  19. posted by Allen on

    I’d love for Kyocera to evaluate my workspace for 5s. I love doling out ass-woopins and dogmatic little martinets are among my favorite afternoon snacks.

  20. posted by JefferyK on

    Interesting — I seem to have implemented some of the 5S practices on my own, having never heard of 5S before! And it causes weird vibes at work because I’m able to get a lot done, accurately, in very little time. “Oh, you’re so organized,” said through gritted teeth and a forced smile. Hanging my jacket on the back of my chair doesn’t seem to slow me down, but I do not keep personal belongings on my desk because they get in the way. I cannot believe the amount of time my coworkers waste looking for papers, looking for supplies, moving things around to get at other things, setting up convoluted filing systems that are never maintained because they are too complicated, etc., etc. It isn’t a style issue. They would like to be organized. However, they are afraid of change and don’t want to make an effort to try to do something differently.

  21. posted by Michele on

    HATE this nonsense. Our CEO got “sparse cubicle” disease thanks to one of these seminars, and it led to nothing but resentment and HR problems. People were made to get rid of decorations, family photos, and every reminder of home that made work tolerable. That was just one step on the staircase of company morale problems that led to mass quitting.

  22. posted by gypsy packer on

    Big, big difference between lean management and removal of individuality. As someone who’s gone through an identity theft, I believe that any denial of individuality results from inherent dishonesty of the deniers, from the high school conformist tyrants and cliques who steal each other’s clothes and iPods, to the bosses who only hire blondes (or whites) and go for the real estate or savings account, claiming that they were bought with money embezzled from him.
    That attitude shouts “I own you and I can take over anything you own for my personal use”.

  23. posted by Dale on

    Lean Six Sigma is the manifestation of the scientific method and authoritative data applied to organizational improvement. The only constraint is the effectiveness of LSS deployment in engaging the workforce to take the bull by the horns to improve their operations. LSS is simply cause and effect and absolutely will work – it is the human element and resistance to change that limits the value of the LSS contributions i.e. ROI.

  24. posted by WilliamB on

    I’m a little surprised that no one’s focused on Goldratt’s theory of constraints, and happy that the crowd’s mostly skipped 6 Sigma.

    Goldratt’s book is very readable – it’s set up like a novel and uses small homey examples that pop up during the protagonist’s life to illustrate. It’s a good exercise in thinking about “what’s stopping me from doing X?”; helping you learn how to identify barriers and to address each one in turn. In this way it’s related to the S’s of 5S.

    As has been pointed out already, neatness and organizations aren’t the same thing. Some people can find exactly what they need in the most godawful unorganized piles. Others can’t. Some people work best when all the projects they’re working on are out – for them out of sight is out of mind. Others work best with an empty desk and a good mental inventory of their files. Making both do the same thing would lead to decreased efficiency which is exactly the opposite of the stated goal.

    6 Sigma is a manufacturing framework that doesn’t translate well into the office world. … Um, I’ll skip the diatribe and just say that what makes people effective varies a lot more than what makes assembly lines effective.

  25. posted by Elaine on

    I’d hate to work in a place where individuality was banned. At one job, renovations were continual and our cubes were moved around all the time. If not for the signature sports posters, knick-knacks and other standout items, it would have been impossible for us to find one another, since there were no nameplates. And I’ve never, ever worked in an office where everybody agreed on climate. We’d have Menopausal Millie running a fan at top speed all day in December, and Frosty Fred complaining to Maintenance in August about the excessive air conditioning. So good luck with the no-sweater rule, LOL.

  26. posted by Kenneth in Virginia on

    To mean, ‘lean’ means downsizing by firing one employee and giving their work to someone else. Well, one person really can’t do two people’s work (in 8 hours), so a lot of work no longer gets done–or you find yourself working late for free.

  27. posted by Kenneth in Virginia on

    On second thought, I think I’d just get rid of the cubicles themselves. Large companies used to have large offices with no partitions. I don’t know when cubicles came around and I’m sure some people like them for the partial privacy and likewise, the open office doesn’t work for everyone. That was a fad in schools for a while.

Comments are closed.