5S isn’t just for screwdrivers and hammers anymore.
Some people see 5S as just a matter of physical cleaning and
organization of one’s workspace. But it’s not only about the physical space, and it’s not just about neatness for neatness’ sake. There’s a bottom-line benefit as well. Rigorous application of 5S principles for knowledge workers reduces costs and improves productivity.
According to a Wall Street Journal article, Chevron and Credit-Suisse are taking a new approach to data storage. Chevron noticed that digital files (including emails) stored on their servers were growing at 60% per year, with negative effects on the business:
Besides the cost of buying new storage systems, Chevron’s employees were spending between 1 1/2 to three days a month just searching for the correct information they needed to do their jobs, taking a toll on productivity, the company found. "We haven’t adequately managed all our information," says Lynn Chou, Chevron’s general manager of global technology and strategy, adding that the 59,000-person company processes one million emails a day. "There’s been a digital tidal wave."
(For those of you who need help with the math, that’s from 35-70 minutes per day looking for critical information. Or from 18-36 work days per year. Think about the muda from the customer’s perspective. Hell, think about the fun stuff you could do with that time.)
There’s no stopping the increase in information, of course. So these companies are changing the way people manage their information:
Credit-Suisse, for example, began categorizing its data into different "tiers" of importance in 2003, with critical information such as stock-trading information classified as tier-one data while personal spreadsheets might be classified as less important tier-three data. Tier-one data can be accessed at all times and also more quickly than tier-three data "in recognition of the fact that not all data is created equal."
And Chevron is doing something similar:
Chevron’s system will require new office documents to be tagged according to their type and importance, such as noting whether the document is confidential, classified or just informational. As a result, the company expects to delete some documents of lesser importance as soon as 90 days after creation.
Although neither company uses lean terminology, they’re really applying elements of a 5S program.
They’re setting standards for sorting and organizing their information
so that employees can immediately retrieve the critical stuff. The
less-important information — tier-three, or just old reference
material — is moved elsewhere or deleted so that it doesn’t impair
employees’ ability to work. (It’s gratifying to know that this approach is very similar to my recommendation for managing both paper and electronic files. Read about it
While the specifics may vary, Toyota applies 5S principles to its employees’ files as well. The former president of the Toyota Technical Center in Michigan used to do spot checks of file cabinets to ensure that information was organized properly. And even now a vice-president audits each employee’s email system to ensure that messages are well-organized and that old messages with no value are deleted.
Of course, lean is all about the people. Lynn Chou of Chevron says,
Half the battle will be changing people’s behavior. That makes this project bigger and more complex because of the human side.
Can Chevron pull it off? The company is planning on extensive training for employees over the next two years, and that’s a good sign. However, they’re fighting deeply ingrained habits. Being an electronic packrat is so easy when storage is cheap and people are afraid to discard anything lest they need it one day. But the costs to the company (even an oil company!) are real.
Now, how do you handle your information?