The 5S Process for Getting Organized

Here I go again, writing about organization. This time, though, it’s not because I’ve found a great new app to help me. You see that picture? It’s my inbox, aka my “to-be-dealt-with” pile. And there are two more like it. If only there were an app that could help me!

It’s so much easier to stay organized when everything is virtual. Or, if the files on your hard drive aren’t organized, at least you’re not tripping over them on your way to the kitchen. The moment I have to deal with something tangible these days, I seem to get in trouble. I used to be organized, but my life changed. So I need to get re-organized.

Part of the problem is that when I came to Paris from the U.S., the physical space I could use was drastically reduced. Another part of the problem was adjusting to the organizational methods — if they can be called that — of my office mate (husband).

Just as I was reaching the point where I could no longer tune out the chaos around me, when it was getting really oppressive, I discovered the 5S methodology. You may have heard of it if you’ve ever worked in a place with lots of equipment and people. It’s a five-step program that originated in Japan and was designed to get a work environment organized and keep it that way, all in the interest of maximum efficiency. I’m going to see if I can apply it to the occupational hazard I currently call my office.

The 5S Process

The five steps of 5S, and their approximate English translations are: seiri (sort), seiton (straighten), seiso (shine), seiketsu (systemize), and shitsuke (sustain).

1. Seiri (Sort): Get rid of anything in your work space that is not absolutely necessary for your work.

This first step is supposed to enable you to simplify tasks and use space effectively. It’s also supposed to help you be more selective about what you introduce into your work space and keep the number of work-related items around you to a minimum.

Frankly, for a personal office, I think this is a little extreme and bad for morale in any circumstances. I have a couple of things on my desk that are just there to give me something fun to look at. They’re staying. But the rest can go: the Advil, CDs, business cards (the bane of my existence), masking tape, Christmas postcards I meant to send to the two people I know who haven’t discovered email… There are a few other trouble spots I need to hit too, like the top of the filing cabinet, and that box of cables taking up space I could use. Step one is going to take me a full day at least.

2. Seiton (Straighten): A place for everything, and everything in its place

This step is about efficiency. It encourages you to make optimum use of your work area and to outfit your space with functional storage. It is also important for everything you use for work to have a convenient and appropriate home to which it is returned when you’re done using it.

This is how I used to operate, back when I had a lot of space. Once upon a time, I knew where everything I owned was. The fact that I couldn’t find a recipe last night, despite having paper files for my old, pre-computer recipes, may be the very reason why I’m writing this today. (Getting them onto the computer is on my to-do list. I have gotten as far as comparing recipe management software.)

3. Seiso (Shine): Clean up after yourself

This third step is about being responsible for keeping your own space neat. Most importantly, it doesn’t work unless everyone who shares the space does the same. The idea is to treat your office as if you might have a client drop in at any moment.

OK, once I get all the junk off of my surfaces, I will clean them. Regularly. There’s no way I can begin to do seiso without getting through the first two steps. Until then, no clients allowed.

4. Seiketsu (Systemize): Make it a habit

This fourth step is about establishing standards and a system for organization, and integrating them into your workflow in order to maintain a high level of neatness.

Some time last year, I stumbled across the concept of the “unpleasant task day” on the blog of a management consultant, and thought this would be a good way to approach this step. Michael Wade, the author of that blog, suggests you pick one day a month to do the things you hate to do. But since the 5S process is about neatness and efficiency, I’m thinking it should be more frequent. Maybe I’ll have a weekly “terrible task afternoon” for cleaning up and filing instead.

5. Shitsuke (Sustain): Prevention of backsliding

This last step is more accurately translated as “discipline.” It’s about making yourself maintain the neatness standards and system you’ve put in place.

Because I was once very organized, it shouldn’t be too hard for me to get back in the habit. I’m not so sure my husband is going to like this whole 5S thing though, even though he has the most organized hard drive I’ve ever seen.

The Reality

Clearly it’s unlikely that any of us could strictly adhere to a system like this, especially given the constantly changing nature of our work. Plus there may be uncontrollable factors (like husbands) that can toss a wrench into the works. But I’ve always found that a little structure never hurts when it’s used as a guideline, so I will try it out and see how it goes. Then I’ll try to apply it to my computer files, emails, etc. Anyway, it’ll be fun to say “Seiton!” the next time my husband puts the pliers down on the corner of my desk.

How do you stay organized outside of your computer?