The Lean Office Blog

Office 5S

For anyone who has spent much time on the Lean journey, 5S is one of the first tools taken out of the toolbox. There are many practical and cultural benefits of applying 5S concepts to your manufacturing space, but people seem to struggle when taking those same concepts into the office area. This blog post from Mark Graban’s blog does a good job of highlighting how “not” to apply 5S in your office. So if the purpose of office 5S isn’t to keep your desk neat and tidy or to completely standardize work spaces (and dehumanize your team in the process, which really hurts morale), what is the purpose of 5S when applying it in the office? And how does a lean manager help her/his team apply these concepts every day?

According to Gemba Academy , the real purpose of 5S is “to be able to immediately identify abnormalities.” Taking that into the office environment, the abnormalities that most impact work are most often not physical in nature (think monitor or mouse placement, pen location, etc.), but rather electronic. There are a ton of ways to apply 5S concepts by looking at how we treat the tools of our work – computer programs and files. Below are just a few examples of how to approach office 5S. If you need a primer on the definition of 5S (Sort, Set, Shine, Standardize, and Sustain) , head on over to this page from the Kaizen Institute.


In my experience, people have just as much trouble getting rid of old, unused files and emails as they do getting rid of odds and ends on the shop floor. Luckily, we have an objective measure in the form of dates that reveal when files were last opened or saved. Play around with your file view office_5s_sortstructure to make those dates stand out. And sorting old from new doesn’t mean deleting the old, it just means removing it from immediate view. Add “archive” folders and remove clutter from your electronic work space. Which one of these screenshots to the right looks better for identifying abnormalities?

The same strategy can be applied to your emails. How often do you need to reference something from 2014? If it’s less than once a week, the added time to search through all of those emails (either by hand or using a search function) is wasteful. Make use of auto-archive features that regularly move emails to a separate file. Again, it’s not about deleting the old, just removing it from immediate view.

Set / Straighten

Ever spend hours looking for a file, only to find out that it was named something different than what you were looking for, or in the wrong folder? Take the energy you feel from that frustrating experience, and apply it to developing some file naming and folder organization conventions. The benefits of doing this are even more apparent if you work with a larger team where many people regularly use the same files and folders. Here’s a great post on tips for file naming conventions.

Also, consider building a standard folder structure based on value stream, project, or account. For The Lean Office, we organize our work into sprint folders. Within each folder, we have the same basic layout, along with any additional, sprint-specific files. For instance, I know that the “Sprint #9” folder will contain a project document, a requirements document, and a screen mockup file, at a minimum. How do we ensure those files are present in every case? We built and continue to maintain a template version of this folder structure (along with the most up-to-date version of each of those files I mentioned), and every new sprint starts with making a copy of this template folder and renaming it.

One final note here – please add signatures containing your contact information to emails. The amount of wasted time spent searching for this information would definitely make the top 10 list of wasteful office activities. I’m begging you – please help solve this epidemic!


While I would love to say that our folders stay clean and organized, the second law of thermodynamics tells us that processes tend to break down over time. Identify a specific time once a month and walk through the first few layers of your file structure, looking for abnormalities. Sometimes, those abnormalities will reveal a better process for setting up your electronic 5S. In that case, update your file naming and folder structure conventions.

One good strategy here is to use new employees to conduct this exercise. Not only are they the most likely candidate to suffer from poor electronic 5S practices within your office, but they often have the least fear of disrupting the status quo. Of course, be careful to ensure that they feel empowered to ask questions and recommend changes.

Standardize & Sustainlean_manager

A main role for the lean manager is helping the team understand the benefits of office 5S. Reinforce good behavior by calling out examples of the above concepts in action and celebrating the team’s progress. Also, share personal experiences and the resulting frustration of times before these principles were in place. Reminding people of the old days, and how far they’ve come, is a powerful way to reinforce the new approach. This will also help newer employees understand how things were before, and why everyone in the office seems to care a lot about keeping things organized.

There are several tools available for helping you set up standard, sustainable checks on 5S in the office. In addition to setting up calendar reminders for teams and individuals to conduct audits, make use of auto-archive functionality in email inboxes and the last opened/created date options mentioned above.

If your desk looks like the one at the top of this post, clean it up. However, I’ll wager you waste more time searching for files and emails on your computer. Use the above concepts to help immediately identify abnormalities, and help your team become more efficient and effective at the same time. What about your experience? Any additional tips for aspiring lean managers for applying office 5S?

Do you have specific questions, or want help applying 5S in your office? We’re here to help! You can reach me here.

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