Lean Office

5S Guidelines for the Office

By Jon Miller Updated on May 19th, 2017

Jonathan asked:

Hi Jon,
Recently, I was tasked to head a 5S project here in our department (Purchasing) but I have limited knowledge on what is applicable and what should be implemented. I was thinking that some guidelines could possibly do more harm than good. Can you please help me out in establishing 5S guidelines here in our office.

Nothing can stir up a group of placid professionals like informing them that those time-saving principles of workplace organization known as 5S will be coming soon to their office. Even among die-hard lean thinkers there is an alarming number who think that 5S “can’t be done” in the office to any similar degree that they do it in a factory, warehouse or even the retail floor. Perhaps it’s something in the carpet.

I have seen 5S in the office taken to the nth degree with both laudable and laughable results. The difference is largely in the attitude of the people. Either they are making 5S work for them, or 5S is making them work. Rather than discuss 5S in any depth, let’s assume that the people leading 5S have done their homework and have a good understanding of what it is and isn’t. In the Archives under the 5S section there are a number of articles that may be helpful if this isn’t the case.

Although 5S is the place many organizations start in applying lean principles and tools, there can be some initial resistance from office people due to its manufacturing heritage. In the office we work with information and not things after all, so what does “sort and straighten” really mean? People are often surprised at how much stuff there is in the office and how the disorganization of this stuff affects the quality of their work, productivity and even job satisfaction. Just watch people do their work, time it and look for the non-productive bits. So the first guideline is to gain agreement on waste removal.

There is clearly something to this resistance to office 5S. Process is process and waste is everywhere. Very few office workers would say that their processes are waste-free or that there are no problems which need to be solved. Those few who say this are experiencing a failure to communicate, are delusional or are lying to maintain the status quo. I’ve worked through all three. Each requires a different sort of intervention before even attempting to talk about 5S. Once that is done, the first step is to gain an unwavering agreement that waste exists, categorize and name them, and develop motivation to remove these waste. Put the customer first, team members next, and then quality and cost metrics after that. Once that is done 5S becomes one of several means to the end of waste removal, often the simplest and most convenient means. Rarely does 5S fail to address at least some of the root causes of problems in the office.

However, be pragmatic and change course and use whatever tool you need to solve the problem rather than insisting on 5S. Having said that, from the point of view of promoting 5S successfully in the early stages, the second guideline is to look for the nail.

When you have a hammer and you know there are nails about, it’s not always bad to go looking for the nails. Nails can be trip hazards and should be hammered in to shore up the structure in any case. But the expression “hammer looking for a nail” exists because well-intentioned people learn about improvement systems such as the 5S and try prescriptively deploy it across the board without understanding the original intent of the tool, or the unique characteristics of the workplace in which to apply it. In short, if you are on the path to office 5S then look for motion waste. Time searching for information is waste. Time rearranging information or stuff is waste. Clicking through multiple screens on the computer is waste. Focus on quick and accurate retrieval of files, data, tools or anything required to get the job done properly. Make it easy to retrieve any bit of information in less than 30 seconds. Once the usefulness of 5S has been demonstrated in one specific way, it becomes easier to expand the application of 5S towards reducing errors, waiting and other wastes.

As a side-note ,sorting, the first S, can have a large positive impact on available office space. This space savings aspect of office 5S has been largely overlooked. The main reason for this may be the fact that it is harder to convert open office space into useful space, while open production space can be used for more value-added output. On a per square foot basis, there are also more walls and monuments in an office than in the typical factory. People in the office also tend to personalize and root themselves to space in the office in many Western companies in a way that is almost unhealthy. This brings us to the topic of culture and its effect on how to deploy 5S in the office, and our second guideline. Whenever we attempt to adapt kaizen techniques beyond their place of origin (the shop floor) we need to go to the new environment to study the natives.

Those of us who have lived overseas among the natives of those cultures, or those of us who work with multinational teams have some understanding that people are different, and beg to be understood. Even those of us who live in the least culturally diverse and most racially and linguistically uniform communities are fooling themselves if they think their workplace is a monoculture. They will find that in fact we all work within a multicultural environment. People are people, but there are different cultures between the shop floor, the office, the sales force in the field, and those who work among mahogany walls. If you want to be a missionary of your ideas to these different tribes and cultures you need to learn their language and customs.

Professor Nitza Hidalgo has written some interesting things on the topic of teaching within a multicultural context. She helps us understand culture by looking at three levels:

  1. The Concrete: The most visible and tangible level of culture which includes the most surface-level things like clothes, music, food, games, etc. These parts of culture are often provide the focus for multicultural “festivals” or “celebrations.”
  2. The Behavioral: How we define our social roles, the language we speak, and our approaches to nonverbal communication. The Behavioral level is a reflection of values. This includes language, gender roles, family structure, political affiliation, and other items that situation us organizationally in society.
  3. The Symbolic: This includes our values and beliefs. It can be abstract but it is most often the key to how individuals define themselves. It includes values systems, customs, spirituality, religion, worldview, beliefs, mores, etc.

So what does this all mean in terms of doing 5S in the office? Any workplace can and should be understood from a cultural perspective, but the office needs to be seen as a second culture, that which makes an organization immediately multicultural. The office is many times more of a clear reflection of the culture of the people working there than a warehouse or factory. This may be due to the fact unlike a factory full of machines, offices are more “homey” and easier to customize and personalize with our own symbols, behaviors and concrete artifacts of culture. There is furniture. There is food. There is the internet. There are photos of your family. It’s like home. To a far greater degree than on the shop floor, 5S in the office threatens people’s sense of personal space, and by extension their sense of self.

From the point of view of Concrete we need to understand the existing office culture in terms of the surface-level things such as furniture, equipment, files, food, and so forth. This what most often gets 5S-ed. But we can’t stop there. At the Behavioral level we need to understand how these things reflect on how people communicate, how groups of people are structured, their formal and tacit roles, and so forth. These things become more important determining factors in making change happen the higher up we go in the organization. Finally the Symbolic aspects of the office culture are very important and easy to miss. These are the real values and beliefs – how people see themselves, how they see others around them and how they see the work they do. At the simplest level this gets us back to guideline #1: do people have the will to improve, even excel or do they “just work here?” The challenge with 5S in the office is to modify the Concrete aspects of culture in ways that also alter the Behavioral and Symbolic. Just as 5S makes process waste visible, whatever hides or enable the negative beliefs and values needs to be made visible through office 5S. That in the long-term is what makes office 5S work.
Hopefully that helps, Jonathan. If you were looking for more mundane guidelines such as recommended window cleaning solutions, how long to keep paper files, or how many pencils should be kept as standard item at each desk, I don’t have them.

  1. jamie flinchbaugh

    August 13, 2009 - 11:13 am

    Nice post Jon.
    I think one of the common problems people have when doing 5S in the office is the focus on the physical environment. However putting a label around the stapler is nice (especially if you keep losing your stapler), but won’t really affect your performance. Think about what you get when you apply 5S:
    – get rid of the stuff you don’t need
    – organize the stuff you have so it’s easy to get
    – be able to spot a problem easily
    If you apply that to what is the real tool in the office, information, then you really have something. But it’s a whole lot harder than putting tape around your stapler.
    Jamie Flinchbaugh

  2. Jon Miller

    August 13, 2009 - 11:39 am

    Hi José
    Thanks for asking. Yes, you have our permission to translate and include this article on your blog.
    Jamie – you are spot on – the “spot the problem” part is what is a bit unique in office 5S in my view because standards tend to be more vague than on the shop floor, and office workers have far more personal leeway in their work than the shop floor – a different culture.

  3. Ronak Shah

    August 13, 2009 - 9:08 pm

    As a change leader in Lean principles, I am getting people to change and adopt 5S. My scope of work is shop floor, offices and Outside area of plant.
    In shop floor and outside area, there is no huge resistance from the people, they have understood the importance of 5S in their working style. Only thing remaining is how to cultivate a habit for them to sustain 5S.
    When it comes to offices, those areas where people share their workplace are doing a good job.
    Only problem is in personalized cabins, where there is lots of arguments from managers why should they mark and label their cupboards and drawers, I know where i keep all my things.
    can you help me in this?
    How to convince them it is required.

  4. Daniel Markovitz

    August 14, 2009 - 5:03 am

    Your comments about “behavioral” and “symbolic” levels of understanding culture get to the heart, I think, of 5S in an office environment: the goal is to not only surface abnormalities, but to develop the “5S mind” — the habit of constantly looking for waste and problems that disrupt the value stream.
    Putting tape around the stapler is only important insofar as it creates a mindset that if there’s waste in the stapling activity (because it always gets lost), we should find a way to eliminate it.

  5. John Santomer

    August 15, 2009 - 2:03 am

    Dear Jon,
    Great post! It explains in details how 5S can be applicable on any situation. Sometimes people tend to be delimiting and very rigid in following the 5S principles misundertanding the real aim of the 5S approach. Implementation of the 5S principle will only uncover more “Kaizen’ points to address. What is more challenging is finding the committment and will sustain the principle and practice continuous improvement when the culture clearly dictates the opposite and there is no buy-in from the people in the group. If this is the case, the risk that the initiative will succeed declines proportionally. The intiative might end up as a “Flavor of the Day” and die out eventually without realizing its true potential. The real challenge will be – how to bring the people to accept 5S and practice it daily in their lives in spite of their multi-cultural or racial backgrounds. Continuity and sustainability is still a challenge even on a mono-cultural environement, imagine the complexities of adapting this in a multi-cultural one.

  6. Robert

    August 18, 2009 - 9:33 am

    As a lean office consultant my experience shows that there is a “S” Nr. 0: START. Office people understand 5S, they think it is very useful, they have good plans how to “make 5S” in the office (desk, cupboard,…)and in the “Matrix” (PC, File server, database,…), BUT they always start “tomorrow”… because today they are very busy…

  7. Mukul

    October 18, 2011 - 11:31 pm

    I agree with Robert. How can we convince them to start today?
    another question
    I am doing my project work in organisation. Its an office, everything seems to be hay-why. Even i have experienced difficulty in finding information because the documents are randomly kept and everyone seems to be busy. I want to recommend them to implement 5S in office. how can i convince them?

  8. Jon Miller

    November 30, 2011 - 7:19 pm

    Hi Mukul
    Offer to help solve the problems of the people you are trying to convince. Lead by example, donate your time, help them find ways to make their work easier and more fun. It is not necessary to use 5S, use any kaizen approach that works. The goal is not to implement 5S, it is to improve and create an environment of willingness to experiment.
    If people have no problems, you have a big problem.

  9. Ann Hamon

    March 15, 2021 - 12:33 pm

    Help workers in finding ways to improve and make their job easier. Help employees remove items they do not need.

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