This is an excerpt from The Simple Leader: Personal and Professional Leadership at the Nexus of Lean and Zen
The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak.
– Hans Hofman
Look around your office, your factory, and your home. What do you see? Do you really need all of that stuff on your desk and shelves? Is there a purpose to each item? Does it need to be available now, or can it be put out of sight for a few weeks, months, or even forever? How much time do you consume (and stress do you create) by looking for the appropriate tool, book, or utensil? Does your kitchen really need three beat-up measuring cups of the same size? How much does it cost to maintain and clean all of your extra stuff ? What does the space, additional complexity, and distraction cost?
Over time, things in our lives (and our companies) accumulate, and we end up wasting a lot time and effort managing them. To reduce the cost of unnecessary stuff, we use a core tool of Lean called 5S. The term 5S comes from five Japanese words that roughly translate to sort, straighten, shine, standardize, and sustain:
- Sort: Review each item, ensure it has a purpose, remove what isn’t needed
- Straighten: Find a defined location for what remains, preferably as close to where it will be used as possible.
- Shine: Clean and polish the newly uncluttered area.
- Standardize: Create a checklist or other method to ensure the area doesn’t revert back to how it was.
- Sustain: Create a habit, routine, or daily activity to keep the area clean and neat, and to audit that it has stayed that way.
In short, you remove what isn’t needed, find a defined home for what remains, clean up your space, turn the activity into a habit, and find a way to ensure it continues. Using 5S ensures that your factory floor has only the tools that are needed, in just the right place, and are always returned to that place.
On the best factory floors, and in the best restaurant kitchens, you will often find shadow boards where every required tool is hung on a wall with the outline of the utensil tool behind it. Everyone knows where to go to get the tool there are no extra tools that need to be sorted through to find the right one. It is visually obvious when a tool is missing.
Decluttering also has a Zen component. I encourage you to find one room, or even one shelf, and evaluate the objects you see. Challenge each one. Why is it there, and what is its purpose? What would happen if it wasn’t there? If it has a reason and has real value, then find and define a home for it.
Cleaning can become obsessive, so be sure the effort adds value and aligns with your principles. Does marking the location of your phone on your desk truly add value? Probably not. However, having a clean, neat environment will help give you the focus and strength to tackle more important challenges. Once you have your workspace in order, you will soon realize that simplifying and decluttering doesn’t just apply to physical stuff.
To be most effective, the cleaning needs to be targeted, not indiscriminately applied. The same boss I described earlier, who asked his employees whether they were “incompetent or just incapable,” also had a painful (for us) Friday afternoon cleaning routine. Around three or four o’clock, he would take a look at his desktop, decide that any paperwork on it he hadn’t already looked at must not be important, and sweep everything into the trash can. This was three decades ago, when most reports were still typed on typewriters, so recreating them was difficult. His staff soon developed a routine of going to his office around two in the afternoon to retrieve any unread reports and paperwork from his desk, just to redeposit them there on Monday morning.
Understanding value is critical before tackling a decluttering project.