From alancleaver_2000's photostream on Flickr at

A while ago a new colleague told me with great satisfaction that in his previous office one day each year was designated for a “clear out”.  That day no meetings were scheduled, everyone dressed in their old jeans and the crud (he didn’t use that word) accumulated over the last 12 months was sorted for filing or disposal.

As it happens (we were in the same larger organisation) I had seen the results of this annual ritual – piles of papers, files, and broken office furniture on the landing awaiting the attention of the unfortunate caretakers who were charged with removing it.  I had wondered what was going on.

He thought this was so great he submitted a proposal to the staff suggestion scheme (that’s another rant in waiting) that every team should undertake the same therapeutic annual purge.  The suggestion was (correctly) rejected.

Around the same time I read the report of a local chamber of commerce study tour of Japanese industry.  The newsletter produced on their return had the incredulous account by one delegate of how everyone in one office they visited had the same number of pencils and pens facing the same way in the same position in the same drawer of their desks.  The sub-text was the racist “only regimented automatons living in rice paper houses could accept that degree of conformity”.  Yet another example in a long list of western misunderstandings of the Japanese approach to work.

I was thinking of these contrasting tales when I was rationalising some fascinating but historical business cards I had accumulated from a happy work exchange to Calgary in Canada many years ago. They were using space I needed for something else but somehow I’d never got round to recycling them.

The truth of course is that both the annual clear out and my own modest business card sort were completely wasted effort.  The Japanese were the ones who’d got it right.

The best Japanese companies eliminate NVA (work that does not add value for their customers – see my post of 5 May on Efficiency) ruthlessly.

Space occupied by un-needed material is NVA.  It costs.  Some readers will know and others won’t that “5S” can do it for you (and for the boy in the photo above):

  1. Sort: Separate needed from unneeded items—tools, parts, materials, paperwork—and discard the unneeded (Seiri)
  2. Straighten: Neatly arrange what is left—a place for everything and everything in its place (Seiton)
  3. Shine: Clean and wash (Seiso)
  4. Standardise: Cleanliness resulting from regular performance of the first three Ss (Seiketsu)
  5. Sustain: Discipline, to perform the first four Ss (Shitsuke).

My erstwhile colleague had cracked 1 – 3 but hadn’t grasped that 4 and 5 are essential too.