Due to its popularity and the fact that it does lead to more organized workplaces when implemented properly, at some point someone believed that it would be good to implement 5S in the office. And thus another misapplication of an otherwise okay lean tool commenced. Today, in many companies, you will see people who patiently explain to visitors how office 5S has led to greater organization, cost savings, and other magical effects believed by executives of companies who should know better. The reality is that when an office 5S program is implemented there is usually a training done followed by some cleaning and organizing and then someone (or a team) gets to do the 5S audits in the office. See, you can't effectively manage something unless you can measure it (I write that with tongue firmly planted in cheek as that thinking is some of the most damaging in all of business). People with clipboards walk around and harass office workers while thoughtfully examining their desks, checking that their staplers are within the taped marks, and even in some cases opening desk drawers and counting how many ink pens are inside. All in the name of improvement. For those keeping score, or whose bonus relies on the numbers, and those in upper management who don't know better, these activities are part and parcel with the magical improvements expected by simply applying an okay idea in another part of the business. For the rest of the people it is an amusing distraction at best and an absolutely boorish waste of time at worst. I know this because I've been on both sides of the 5S audit equation, as the auditee and as the auditor. I can honestly say that I don't know which side is worse.
5S as a tool for organizing a manufacturing workplace is an okay idea in that it is simply a little bit of structured "common sense". The people who work in manufacturing--the operators, technicians, and supervisors--can see the limited value such organization brings and usually don't have a problem with it. The silly audits that must accompany such initiatives (otherwise, how does management know that the lean guys are doing their jobs?) are a necessary evil to achieve a modicum of cleanliness and organization. And, here's the main point, for a repetitive operation and/or one that relies on closely following detailed work instructions having a clean and well-organized workplace can lead to reduced mistakes and variation, inevitably leading to better quality. However, such repetitive operations do not typically exist in the office, hence the lack of value of 5S there. Let me elaborate....
Imagine that you are a Production Manager in a factory with a few hundred people and around $100 million in annual sales volume. Your typical day might consist of a morning meeting with your team followed by spending several hours on the manufacturing floor to see what happened in the past day and examine the various operations. You may have a meeting with the Controller to review the month's production volume and the Safety Manager to better understand a new ordinance drafted by the local government. You grab a quick lunch, double-check your emails, talk for a few minutes with the Plant Manager then head back out to the manufacturing floor to see what is happening at the start of second shift. You may discover that a relatively important piece of equipment has broken down and you work with the Quality Manager to arrange the appropriate process deviation documentation as well as the Engineering Manager to arrange for alternate machinery. Finally you end the day with a short meeting about next year's performance rating system with the HR Manager before heading home a little bit after dark. You've put in a more than 10 hours today and gird yourself to do more of the same tomorrow.
At no time during your day did it matter at all that the stapler on your desk was within the little yellow tape lines or that you had exactly 3 ink pens in your desk drawer. Such a dynamic and fluid role is not helped at all by delineating required markings on a desk and specific locations for this book or that filing cabinet. Seeing the results of the latest office 5S audits posted on the bulletin board doesn't even register. For people with this kind of work, office 5S falls in the boorish waste of time category very quickly. They are doing the kind of work that is almost the opposite of repetitive and it is not helped one bit by some program to put little tape lines on people's desks and count how many ink pens are in their drawers. Of course the Production Manager's activities must fall within some kind of system, and that's why we have ISO 9001 and other management system standards, but applying a concept intended for the manufacturing area into such a working environment is actually damaging to these people who conduct key activities to keep the business running.
Thus ends this post, what are your thoughts about the applicability of 5S in the office?