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?


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