You are on page 1of 6



Efficiency Managing information flow in a virtual
workspace with 5S |  by Scott Marchand Davis

Just the
5S is a proven tool on the factory floor. Indeed, some lean practitioners view it as a nec-
The 5S lean
method is often essary first step before moving on to more sophisticated lean methods.¹
used in manufac- By organizing and standardizing workspaces, 5S eliminates wasted motion and time
turing, but it can
be adapted for associated with missing tools or materials, poor maintenance controls and confusion when
office settings to moving from one workstation to another.
make information
workflows more In an office environment, however, the same tools that work well for a factory worksta-
efficient. tion can seem ludicrous. Labeling each tool required at an assembly station and eliminating
Specifically, bet- unnecessary equipment makes a lot of sense. Extending the same methods to the CFO’s
ter organization desk by taping off a square for the phone, monitor, keyboard and mouse, and ensuring that
and management
of information he or she has only a kanban-appropriate two pens is likely to produce some resistance.
flow allows knowl-
edge workers
to make better The start of 5S
decisions about 5S originated as a part of the Toyota Production System (TPS), with the five S-words origi-
prioritizing and
executing tasks. nally being Japanese: seirei, seitori, seiso, shitsuke and seiketsu. When translated to English
(and preserving the 5S structure), the five key phrases are:
In turn, imple- 1. Sort—For the factory floor, sort is usually the first step and involves removing unneeded
menting 5S helps
knowledge work- tools and materials from the workspace.
ers focus better 2. Set in order—After the space contains only what is needed, set in order provides a
on tasks, lowers
their stress and known and visible location for each item.
improves their 3. Shine—This refers to the cleanliness and housekeeping of the area, and an ongoing effort
to remove sources of mess and disorder. If the floor is constantly dirty, shine doesn’t just

16 QP February 2018 ❘ ❘ February 2018 QP 17

mean mopping it every day. It also means determining the source of

the dirt and eliminating it, if possible. As with all parts of the TPS,
4. Standardize—This provides a consistent experience for workers who 5S was developed based on
may be moving from workstation to workstation. Labeling, work- a specific manufacturing
station layout and visual aids are all as similar as possible so that environment.
workers have minimal need to adapt to new tasks. Standardize also
ensures that if an improvement is developed and validated, it can be
quickly rolled out to as many workstations as apply. Along the other axis is the repet-
5. Sustain—This is considered the most critical step and involves institu- itiveness of the tasks performed in
tionalizing the 5S processes to ensure maintenance and improvement the workspace. In the physical realm,
over the long haul. Sustain typically a traditional assembly line work-
incudes auditing the areas to identify FIGURE 1 station is highly repetitive, with the
opportunities for improvement and
catch any breakdowns in the 5S sys- 5S in different same basic task performed repeat-
edly shift after shift. On the other

tem before they become critical.² hand, a tool repair shop has a much
As with all parts of the TPS, 5S was less predictable workload, dealing
developed based on a specific man- with whatever items fail on a daily
ufacturing environment (automobile basis.
assembly) using general principles (min- Similarly, in the information realm,
imize wasted time and motion, minimize Repetitive, repetitive, a tactical buyer might spend the
information information
use of space, and make the right product focus (B)
bulk of his day acting on messages
focus (D)
the easiest way possible). Extending 5S from a materials planning system,
to other types of workspaces requires placing orders and getting quotes on
a return to these basic principles and a Non- a repetitive basis. Meanwhile, across
look at the type of work performed to physical
physical the hall, a design engineer works on
understand how the 5S words apply to focus (A) solving a variety of technical prob-
focus (C)
that workspace. lems arising from the most recent
performance test of a prototype new
Where can it apply? product.
A simple two-axis model helps decide how 5S might apply to a particu- How 5S applies to different work-
lar workspace. Along one axis is the degree to which the work involves spaces is illustrated in Figure 1, with
manipulation of physical objects versus manipulation of information. each quadrant demanding a different
An assembly worker is predominantly working on physical objects, for approach to 5S. The traditional
example, while an accountant is predominantly working with data. methods are most applicable to the
physical realm, repetitive workspace
(quadrant A). Similar methods also
TA B L E 1
work well in the repetitive informa-

Sample audit questions tion space (quadrant B). In this space,

physical layout may have some
impact (as with processing of paper
Inboxes are clear
Sort (Inbox zero = 5, less than one's day accumulation = 3, more than one forms), but proper organization of
week's accumulation = 1) the information flow for maximum
All projects have a next action simplicity provides the most benefit.
Set in order (100% have a next action = 5, some projects have a next action = 3, no This organization can include stan-
projects have a next action = 1)
dard formats for various forms and
Work area is organized efficiently
Shine (Complelety organized = 5, mostly organized = 3, chaos = 1) screens in information systems, easy
access to knowledge bases, prepared
File names and methods are consistent across projects and reference
Standardize scripts for interactions and automa-
(Completely consistent = 5, some inconsistency = 3, no consistency = 1)
Weekly reviews conducted consistently
tion of process workflows.
Sustain In the nonrepetitive physical space
(Within the last week = 5, more than 14 days since last review = 3, never = 1)

18 QP February 2018 ❘

(quadrant C), organization becomes FIGURE 2

Information processing workflow

more challenging. A good model for
this type of work is a hospital ER.
There, demand is entirely unpredict-
able on a minute-to-minute basis,
and a variety of equipment may be “Stuff” Inbox(es) Actionable? No Trash
needed at any given time. ERs cope
with this challenge by creating pre- File for
packaged kits and carts to support reference
various medical situations. A well-or-
ganized storage system providing Someday/
Do Delegate Defer maybe
pre-sterilized kits, along with an
(< 2 min) (Waiting for) (Action lists)
array of general purpose instruments
and tools, allows the ER personnel
to respond quickly and efficiently to
whatever patient situation comes While each tool has specific features of interest, they all share a com-
their way.³ mon goal of organizing information flow for maximum effectiveness.
In this context, what do the 5S words represent?
Most challenging area 1. Sort involves quickly assessing whether a particular information item
The nonrepetitive information space is needed and disposing of it as soon as that is clear.
(quadrant D) is perhaps the most 2. Set in order is a key element and requires assessing the needed
challenging area for applying 5S. This information items and determining what type of action (if any) is
area covers a wide range of knowl- required.
edge-based, creative and managerial 3. Shine is about minimizing your mess—for example, unsubscribing
workers who have far less-structured from mailing lists. It also can refer to minimizing the mess for others
task lists and often much more free- by limiting the distribution of emails and meeting invitations.
dom to prioritize their own work. In 4. Standardize is a tricky one. The organization benefits from a stan-
their workspaces, information flows dard approach to information management, but creative workers
in via phone, email, paper, informa- need the flexibility to adopt the standard approach using tools that
tion systems and conversations, and work for them.
all of this information somehow must 5. Sustain requires a maintenance and audit process to ensure that the
be converted into actionable work organizational process continues to function and does not start to
that is prioritized and executed. The accumulate waste material.
phenomenon of the desk piled with
paper and the email inbox with 1,000 Creating a workflow
unread messages is commonplace Implementing 5S for knowledge workers begins with selecting a stan-
in these workspaces. Here, the 5S dard method for information management. The method must be:
method must provide a means of ++ Sufficiently comprehensive to address a wide range of people and
dealing with this flood of information. tasks.
Fortunately, multiple tools already ++ Flexible enough for individuals to adapt it to their preferred tools and
exist that align with the needs work methods.
of the 5S words. These tools are ++ Easy enough to require minimal upkeep.
designed for time and information Figure 2 shows one such method in the form of an information
management—precisely the needs processing workflow based on concepts from “Getting Things Done”
of the workspaces in this quadrant. and “Zen to Done.” In this workflow, the first step is collection. In most
Among these tools are the “Getting cases, this process is automatic and hands-off, and occurs as informa-
Things Done” method,⁴ “Zen to tion flows into email inboxes, physical inboxes and information system
Done,”⁵ “Total Relaxed Organization,” workflows.
“Master Your Now,” “Lean Kanban” It does require conscious effort, however, to collect information when
and “Getting Results the Agile Way.” it comes in from verbal or other informal channels. After information is ❘ February 2018 QP 19


collected, it must be organized. This is where the sort, set in order and late in the day after a series of
shine elements of 5S come into play. grueling conference calls.
The first key decision in the flow is whether the item requires action One important element of task
(by anyone, not just the recipient). If not, the next question is whether tracking is knowing the relationship
the item has any value, either as reference data or as a prompt for some between storage repositories and
potential future action. Reference data go into reference folders (phys- projects. In this context, a project is
ical or virtual). Prompts go into a “someday/maybe” folder and onto a a multitask operation that requires
corresponding list. Everything else is deleted. tracking to conclusion. An email
Further, under the shine principle, anything deleted also should be might be stored in Outlook, but
reviewed to see whether it can be avoided in the future (that is, eliminat- it also may be a task item associ-
ing the source)—for example, by unsubscribing from an e-mail list. For ated with a specific project. A key
organizations with email governance policies that do not permit simple challenge to information 5S is consol-
deletion, the email could instead be routed to an “archive” folder for idating the information into a simple
retention. and portable dashboard.
Items requiring action are addressed differently during the organi- Fortunately, many tools are
zation stage. If the item requires action by another person, it should be available to provide this dashboard.
delegated and placed on a “waiting for” list to track it to completion. Remember the Milk⁶ is a simple,
Otherwise, the options are to complete the action immediately or to web-based task tracker that is well-
defer it until later. Tasks that can be completed in less than two minutes suited to use on smartphones and
should be done immediately during the organization stage. All other PCs. Trello⁷ is another similar applica-
tasks are placed on a to-do list for future action. tion that also allows multiple people
The third and final phase of the process is execution. In this stage, the to maintain parallel to-do lists, which
worker reviews the to-do list and selects the most appropriate item for may be useful for collaboration. Both
work at that moment. “Appropriate” is chosen deliberately to reflect the tools allow tagging so that an item
self-direction associated with knowledge work. Choosing the best task on the list can be identified as being
to perform at any given moment requires consideration of priorities and stored also in an email program and
goals, available resources and even personal energy levels. For example: associated with a specific project.
++ The highest priority task might require more time than is available
between that moment and a meeting. The final S
++ A lower priority task might be completed in the same time window. This tracking process is important
++ A highly creative and challenging task might not be the best option in the final S in 5S—sustain. Just like


Results of audit scores

Average audit score Maximum and minimum audit score
100 100
80 80
60 60
40 40
20 20
0 0
Audit 1 Audit 2 Audit Delta Audit 1 Audit 2 Audit Delta
−20 −20
−40 −40
−60 −60
−80 −80
Average Maximum Minimum Survey maximum Survey minimum

20 QP February 2018 ❘

any other 5S system, the information The fundamental concept of
Each project is also management system requires mainte- 5S, like that of other lean tools, is
checked to ensure that nance. This maintenance occurs on a reducing waste. By returning to this
there is an open action daily and weekly basis. Each day, the fundamental principle, the concept
item or upcoming meet- calendar for the day is reviewed and can be extended to workstations of
ing to keep the project any tasks needed for that day moved all sorts—either physical or virtual.
moving forward. to a “today” task list. The open task list Organization of the basic work in
also is reviewed in case any tasks were a process enhances focus, lowers
completed and not removed from the stress and improves throughput
list (which happens more often than you would expect). compared to a disorganized and cha-
In addition to this daily review, a more comprehensive review assesses otic workflow. Using a flowchart for
the whole system on a weekly basis. This includes reviewing the “waiting processing inbox content provides a
for” list to ensure that the current status of all delegated tasks is known, quick way to begin organizing work-
as well as comparing tasks to projects and repositories. For example, flow and producing a 5S information
the email folder for open tasks is compared (via tags) to the list of tasks space.
known to have email items, and the two lists synchronized.
Each project is also checked to ensure that there is an open action 1. Drew Willis, Process Implementation
item or upcoming meeting to keep the project moving forward. If there Through 5S: Laying the Foundation for
isn’t, a task should be generated. The calendar is reviewed back a week Lean, CRC Press, 2016.
2. Can Akdeniz, Lean Management
and forward two weeks to see whether any tasks must be added, and a Explained, Bad Bodendorf—Best
short brainstorming process also reveals forgotten items. Business Books, 2015.
Finally, the “someday/maybe” list is reviewed to see whether items on 3. Mark Graban, Lean Hospitals, CRC Press,
that list should be activated as tasks or projects, or whether they should 4. David Allen, Getting Things Done,
be deleted because they are no longer relevant. This critical review Penguin Group, 2001.
process helps minimize the risk of an important activity going unnoticed 5. Leo Babauta, Zen to Done, Brilliance
Audio, 2008.
or unaddressed. 6. For more information about the
Executed properly, this method provides substantial improvement in Remember the Milk application, visit
throughput for knowledge workers by minimizing multitasking and the
7. For more information about the Trello
sense of feeling overwhelmed that comes with a barrage of incoming application, visit
requests. Placing trust in the 5S system to maintain the backlog of tasks 8. Dan Markovitz, “How to Make an Office
helps the worker focus on the immediate task at hand and minimize Lean,” Industry Week, Aug. 23, 2007.

Occasional audits
As with other 5S programs, an audit process can track improvement
over time—data from a knowledge 5S training program show substantial
improvement in organization and effectiveness as a result of the training.
Table 1 (p. 18) shows sample questions that can be used in such an audit.
Figure 3 contains the before-and-after results of 5S audits for a group
of 30 trainees and shows a significant improvement in the organization
of the workspace and the corresponding effectiveness of work. The
first bar in the figure in each graph shows the results of the pre-training
audit, while the second shows the post-training results, and the third the Scott Marchand Davis is director of
difference between them. The overall average score and the minimum quality assurance and regulatory affairs at
score increased after training. The max survey and min survey lines show Microline Surgical in Beverly, MA. He has
an MBA from Babson College in Wellesley,
the highest and lowest possible scores. MA, and a master’s degree in regulatory
Similar results occurred with implementation of this method in a New affairs from Northeastern University in
York City municipal government office. Among other positive benefits, Boston. He is a senior member of ASQ
and an ASQ-certified manager of quality/
the time required for workers to locate information decreased by 36%, organizational excellence and Six Sigma
and overtime dropped by 35% as productivity increased.⁸ Black Belt. ❘ February 2018 QP 21