Lean OfficeThe 5S

5S Your Desk: And Other Tips for Office Productivity

By Jon Miller Updated on April 3rd, 2021

“I know where everything is.” How many times have you heard (or given) this rejoinder to “please 5S your desk”? It’s hard to argue the logic of “cluttered desk, cluttered mind” when a desk is an emotionally charged personal space, too often nearly a shrine adorned with family photos, sports team paraphernalia, and toy mythical creatures.
“Being in control of your office space saves time” says this article and offers some interesting statistics to back it up.
A 2005 study commissioned by DYMO of Connecticut (a maker of office labeling systems and not exactly a disinterested and objective third party) identified that:

– More than half of managers in America consider desk cleanliness when conducting salary reviews
– 51% of those surveyed identified a link between desk tidiness and productivity
– Each lost document costs the company $120
The same study found the following spread in the degree of desk tidiness:
– 49% are “professional but relaxed” with a few small, neat stacks
– 31% are “organized chaos”
– 13% are “creative type” or very messy
– 7% are “prim and proper”

So only 7% of the desk in American offices have anything resembling proper 5S… that explais a lot of things. Since 5S makes waste and abnormality visible, there’s a lot of hidden waste waiting to be uncovered and eliminated by office kaizen activity at 93% of American offices (assuming the spread above is evenly distributed across companies).

In the same article professional office organizer Janet Nusbaum identifies e-mail as a source of disorganization and wasted time. Essentially she recommends not letting e-mail set the agenda for your day, and preparing at the end of the day for the next day’s priorities. The Lean parallels would be one-piece flow of office work and not allowing interruptions (e-mails) to create WIP (half-finished tasks) while you answer e-mails, and also the idea of external preparation from SMED to know in advance what you need to start your next day. We’ve seen again and again that when you keep the work flowing one at a time you minimize clutter and make 5S upkeep much easier.

Citing the 80/20 rule (Pareto principle) that only 20% of what comes across your desk you will really need, another professional office organizer Julie Mahan espouses “when it doubt, throw it out” just as in Sorting with 5S. She is quoted:
The physics of clutter is that it will come into your office without your assistance but will not go away without your assistance.
This is true. The second law of thermodynamics states that if no energy enters or leaves the system then the potential energy of the state will always be less than that of the initial state in all energy exchanges, and entropy (the degree of disorder in the system) increases. You do work (organize) to increase the potential energy again. But when you transfer energy by doing work some energy is lost as heat and this increases the entropy of the overall system.

For example when you wind a clock the energy it take to wind it is transferred to the wound clock spring as potential energy, and some energy is lost as heat and entropy increases. When the spring unwinds and turns into kinetic energy heat is lost again and entropy increases.

Do you ever wonder why things always get cluttered again after you’ve cleaned and organized? It’s a law of the universe, and you can’t break it. If you do nothing, you’ve already lost. Clutter prevails. You can’t win against entropy. You can only fight it. You can’t even break even. Entropy will always increase. You need to keep adding energy into the system (organizing). The flow of energy maintains order. By adding energy into a system you create organization. That’s what 5S is.
Fight entropy. 5S your desk. It might affect your raise.

  1. Keith Pugsley

    November 5, 2007 - 5:52 am

    There are famous precedents for using the laws of thermodynamics to justify a belief. However as much as I appreciate the ethos behind tidy and 5S deskspace, and as an engineer, appreciate with interest the physical laws. I am cautioned by the autonomous example of self-organization in the growth of living organisms, from accepting this sleight of hand (or physics) from believing in this particular analogy. Similarly in the development of organisms (as with software code) there is always a trace of redundancy, ‘clutter’ and no longer useful elements (eg appendix, coccyx etc) which for many reasons are ever present. That said I’m eager to read your ‘principles’ since I recognise my own slavedom to the paper invasion in my life.

  2. Ambati Jagdish

    July 1, 2008 - 10:35 am

    I completely agree with your analogy of Thermodynamics principles in applying the 5S principles in office space. For years now I have been doing this and I have very good success by using the simple manta ” Everything should have a place and every thing should be in its place and things which dont fall in this category are out of my office.
    This helped me in my last 3 assignments in U.A.E while on wellsite , In Indonesia in office and in India in office.
    5S is not a just a office tool but it applies to homes as well.

  3. Sarthak Sengupta

    July 10, 2008 - 7:49 pm

    The most difficult part in doing 5S, I think is the sorting . We have a tendency to straighten things out without much of sorting. We love to put labels for everything that we have, to ensure ‘everything in it’s place and a place for everything’. I would rather modify the rule ….’everything that’s needed in it’s place and a place for everything that’s needed.’

  4. Jon Miller

    July 10, 2008 - 10:03 pm

    Very good point. It’s hard to have a clear desk unless you have a clear mind, clear purpose, clear goals, clear job description, etc. Too often work that is invisible (knowledge work) has vague standards of expected outcomes, resulting in ambiguity.

  5. Chuck Massie

    October 31, 2008 - 1:33 pm

    Typically I’m neat and orderly so this all makes great sense to me. I have a problem with the point a 5S committee decides whether I have too many personal objects on my desk or not. I have plenty of desk space, it doesn’t hinder my work and makes it a pleasant place to be. I don’t find that contrary to the 5S principles and consider that a personal invasion.

  6. arlene

    July 26, 2010 - 4:07 am

    what do you mean a 5’s

Have something to say?

Leave your comment and let's talk!

Start your Lean & Six Sigma training today.