How to set up a knowledge work space

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The 5S method is a way to organise work spaces in manufacturing – and is a core part of the concept of lean.

It uses 5 Japanese words: seiri, seiton, seiso, seiketsu and shitsuke. They can be translated as sort, set in order, shine, standardise and sustain.

It’s easy to see that having an organised workspace makes a difference in physical work.

But what about knowledge work? Can it be used there as well?

Bradley Staats, David Brunner and David Upton looked at whether lean principles could be embedded into a software company.

Staats and Upton write in the Harvard Business Review that lean projects don’t necessarily produce better quality work but do come in on time and under budget.

Knowledge work has specific aspects that make it different from manufacturing, such as uncertainty over the tasks that need doing, the fact that a lot of knowledge may be inside people’s heads as tacit understanding and that how things are done may change during the projects as requirements evolve.

In manufacturing, we usually know what we need to do, how to do it and in what order we should do it.

An assembly line designed to make cars doesn’t usually end up producing pizzas. But that seems to happen quite often in knowledge work.

So, how might we apply 5S in knowledge work?

Sort is all about removing obstacles. It means getting rid of piles of paper, books that we are never going to read and clutter that gets in the way.

The things that are in front of us or on our desks should be the things that we use every day. Everything else should either be discarded or be put somewhere where we can get them when we need them.

Set in order is then about arranging things in the way that makes it most efficient for us to use them.

For example, if you are right handed and your office phone is on your right side, the chances are that you’ll pick up the phone in your right hand, and then move it to your left to take a note.

When you put the phone down, it will probably introduce a kink into the cord – and that’s why so many office phones have such twisted wires.

Putting the phone on the left should sort this out.

Shine is about keeping our desks and workspaces clean.

Standardise is about doing things in a particular way – that’s crucial in manufacturing so that variation is minimised and everything comes out the same.

In knowledge work this is sometimes taken to mean that everything should be documented and made explicit so that people can follow a set of instructions and do things.

This is something I disagree with. If you can make something into a procedure then it should also be possible to automate it and remove the human element.

Instead, standardise in the context of knowledge work should be more about getting ourselves in the right frame of mind to do creative and innovative work.

We should aim to set ourselves up to get into flow with what we are doing, so standardisation should really mean things like checking email at set times, doing timed pieces of work, creating spaces for deep work without interruption and so on.

Finally sustain is about what we do every day.

Because knowledge work is so intangible, it’s easy to get bogged down in day-to-day firefighting and forget that we also need to innovate and create.

And that takes time and energy.

Which we might be able to create if we use the 5S method to address the things around us getting in the way and grabbing our attention.

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