FEATURE – The Japanese organizing guru has become very popular in recent years, but what does Lean Thinking tell us about her approach?
Words: Dave Brunt, CEO, Lean Enterprise Academy
We have all learned a lot during the Covid-19 crisis. A lot has changed over the past few weeks, including – for many of us – the way we work. For millions of people across the world, home working has become the norm. It may even become the “new normal”. During this transition, as I hunkered down in our home in North Wales, I reflected a lot on the learning and benefits folks new to remote working might gain from applying Lean Thinking.
Coincidentally, I had just started reading Joy at Work: Organizing Your Professional Life, co-authored by Marie Kondo. I admit, I’d never read her previous books, but her name comes up quite frequently these days in discussions on 4 or 5S. For those who don’t know her, Marie Kondo is a Japanese organizing guru. She has a popular TV show and a couple of best-selling books that focus on de-cluttering our homes and lives. In Joy at Work, Kondo and her co-author Scott Sonenshein, an organizational psychologist and professor at Rice University, have written specifically about the workplace. In terms of timing, it appears the pair have hit the jackpot – what better occasion to bring the “KonMari method” into our homes and our home working environments than the lockdown the pandemic forced us into?
As I read the book, I asked myself whether the KonMari method might offer anything additional for seasoned lean thinkers and, conversely, whether Lean Thinking might provide additional value to anyone following Marie Kondo’s teachings.
LEAN THINKING AND HOME WORKING
First of all, I think it’s important to highlight that, when it comes to safety, remote working is no different to working in or at an organization. The lockdown came upon us quickly and there was little time for us to plan. Indeed, many had to “make do” with the environment they have – whether or not it is safe for them. Just think about the many video calls you will have participated in during the lockdown. Some people often place themselves in front of their bookcase (does it make us look clever?), others work in their kitchens, some sat on their couches, others hunched over laptops, tablets or even phones. In the short term, that’s okay, but ergonomic considerations are really important for our long-term physical health. Everyone working from home should assess how the changes in our lifestyle have affected or can affect them and organizations need to think about the impact too. For example, Google recently announced it was giving each employee a $1,000 budget to buy the right equipment to work from home. Personally, at the start of the lockdown I did most of my conference calls on my laptop (using my desktop computer to access materials during a call). After a few days, I realized that with the increased number of calls, my posture was giving me back and neck pain. I changed the position of my desktop computer and now use that for conference calls, using my laptop for additional documents. An important thing to remember is that safety applies to all 4Ms in an Ishikawa diagram: both physical and mental health (for men/women) and it applies to methods, machines and materials.
The KonMari method doesn’t start with safety. The method in Joy at Work begins, instead, with tidying. When this word is mentioned in a work context, many people wrongly think about 5S – the lean workplace organization method based on five Japanese terms all starting with the letter ‘s’. But 5S isn’t really about tidying it is a discipline often seen as fundamental to building problem awareness and developing improvements in a workplace. I will use the 4S terminology from now on as I prefer 4S to 5S (I personally feel that the 4th ‘s’ is about standardizing, about the management of the previous three s’s, and that if we get that right we will achieve the 5th ‘s’ – sustain – anyhow). If you are interested, you can read a little on the history of how 4S became 5S in Taiichi Ohno’s Workplace Management.
The most important s’s are the first two: Seiri and Seiton – sorting (“purging” may be a more literal translation) and setting in order (establishing a place for everything and putting everything in its place). John Shook and Katie Anderson have recently reminded me that 2S is a cultural activity in Japan, developed from an early age in elementary schools. Torbjorn Netlan also has a nice article on this topic. There are examples in Western cultures, too. In fact, Ford’s workplace CANDO (Clean, Arrange, Neatness, Discipline, Order) process pre-dates Toyota’s activities. I’m quite sure someone might be able to provide an even earlier example. There are bound to be military cases illustrating the importance of workplace organization and discipline.
For those new to home working, creating an environment conducive to work and the ability to focus are fundamental basics that we must address. I wonder how many organizations will help their employees find a way to develop the right working environment rather than just let them get on with working from home with what they have. Perhaps some of you will be drawn to the KonMari method. After all, joy at work sounds a whole lot more appealing than what Kiyoshi Suzaki called the “back to basics discipline” of 5S!
To work with joy, Kondo suggests there are three types of things you should keep:
- Things that spark joy, like a favourite pen or a family photo.
- Things that are functional and aid your work, such as a stapler, a hole punch or a computer.
- Things that will lead to future joy, like papers relating to a project.
In addition, she suggests you should work through in the order of books, papers, komono (miscellaneous items such as office supplies, electrical items, job specific, etc) and finally sentimental items. A golden nugget is that you should make sure you work on an area you are responsible for, rather than a shared space. When reading this, I was reminded that so many lean thinkers don’t take lean home for that very reason.
Marie Kondo’s book is light on the perennial problem most lean practitioners will have faced of sustaining the changes brought about by the workplace organization practices we use. It’s easy to see “sorting” and “setting in order” as one-off events. Starting to work at home may be one such example: once the work environment has been organized, we see an improvement, but without maintenance and a proper process in place regression is bound to occur as soon as things change (when we are faced with a new problem, have to perform a different job, or even interact with different people). Standards and routines should not be set in stone: they help us to question current performance and highlight opportunities for improvement. Frameworks like 4S can act as a lens that helps us see problems more clearly.
A good example is Toyota’s Parts Storage technique, used in spare parts distribution warehouses (and even in the parts departments of some car dealers). The seven points of the technique are:
- Group similar parts together (by shape or type);
- Store parts vertically;
- Store within easy reach of workers;
- Store heavy parts low down;
- Have a separate location for each part number;
- Visually grasp those parts with irregular movement;
- Store according to moving class.
Kondo actually suggests some of these ideas but doesn’t offer an ongoing process for revisiting them. For example, storing your papers vertically means that you can easily deploy a first-in, first-out sequence in your paperwork. She also groups similar things together. Keeping items that we use most frequently close by is common sense, but quite often we feel we are too busy to follow good basic principles. Developing Toyota’s seven points to make remote working more effective would hold great lessons for organizations, too, once individuals who have worked from home for months go back to work and experience similar problems there.
SUMMARY AND CONCLUSIONS
Since the Covid-19 crisis began, we have all had to cope with change in one way or another. For some people, working from home may have come as something fresh and new and their initial home office set-up may have appeared as an exciting, even beneficial development. For others, it will have brought challenges. As we move forward, it’s important we remember the mantra “safety first” and take steps to recognize the physical and mental health issues that such big changes in our working life can bring about. Being mindful of the situation is key. For some of you, the lockdown has provided the opportunity to experiment. You may well have 5Sed your home office or assessed “what sparks joy”. Either way, there will be lots more for all of us to learn as we move forward.
We need to be cognizant of the problems we are trying to solve, the work to be done and the skills we need in order to be able to move forward. As we navigate the new normal, I am sure we will encounter lots of problems to solve that weren’t initially apparent – how to separate work life from home life, learning how to better interact with colleagues virtually, figuring out the best way to on-board new starters or to assess whether we are behind or ahead when we are working remotely, and so on. Lean Thinking can help enormously to tackle these challenges. But tread carefully and be wary of the actual purpose of the tools we use, no matter how shiny they look. Rediscovering the basics may well help.
Dave Brunt is the CEO of the Lean Enterprise Academy in the United Kingdom.