Chaos, My Desk and Dilbert

The Wall St Journal covers the latest management fad in “Neatness Counts at Kyocera and at Others in the 5S Club:”

5S is a key concept of the lean manufacturing techniques that have made makers of everything from cars to candy bars more efficient. The S’s stand for sort, straighten, shine, standardize and sustain. Lately, 5S has been moving from the plant floor to the cubicle at hundreds of offices around the country, adding desk cleaning to the growing list of demands on employees.

That means companies like Kyocera Corp., Mr. Scovie’s employer, are patrolling to make sure that workers don’t, for example, put knickknacks on file cabinets. To impress visitors, the company wants everything to be clean and neat. Meanwhile, doctors in Seattle are relearning where to stick their stethoscopes. And output from the printer at Toro Co., a Bloomington, Minn., lawn-mower maker, is sorted daily and tossed weekly.

In a hospital, I can see value in neatness in shared space, and knowing where the tool is in the nearest cube. For a hospital, crash carts are always bright red, and are organized pretty much the same everywhere. That doesn’t mean you have to forbid pictures on the wall. For a knowledge worker, if you make the environment lifeless, you get lifeless output. World leading design companies like Ideo have offices which are personalized, chaotic and emergent.

The value of anything is the foregone alternative. These companies are spending money on, well, I’ll just use this neat little anecdote:

When [Mr Brown of Kyocera] got to the accounting department, he discovered a hook on a door and told cash-management assistant Deanna Svehla that doors are supposed to be free of such accouterments. “But that’s where I hang the Christmas decorations,” she said.

“C’mon, like there aren’t plenty of places to put decorations,” he said, nodding at the orange and black Halloween tinsel strung along the outside of her cubicle. That’s OK, it turns out, because it isn’t permanent.

They do try to defend it a little:

While that may sound authoritarian, it’s not the initiative that’s important, it’s how managers communicate it, says Gary Hayes, managing partner at Hayes Brunswick & Partners LLC, a leadership advisory firm in Bronxville, N.Y. “If managers clearly explain why they’re doing something, I think most people will understand the rationale. But if you say, ‘We’re doing this because 14 efficiency experts say it increases productivity,’ then it becomes kind of Dilbert,” he says, referring to the comic strip of satirical office humor.

No Gary, it never becomes kind of Dilbert. Dilbert-ness is the very core of 5S. 5S advocates, please call the outsourced layoff call center. Your 3 approved desk items will be sent to you.

(I was going to tie this to security, but I have to go change my password.)

4 thoughts on “Chaos, My Desk and Dilbert

  1. Throwing out accumulated printer crap makes good security sense, regardless of whether you want to pointlesly instill learned helplessness and management-hatred among your employees in a misguided attempt to earn 10 minutes of fame as a HBR case study.

  2. A number of years ago, one of the networks (I think it was CBS) made a rule that employees could not have any personal items on their desks and that their desks had to be completely clean when they left at the end of the day. Needless to say, this rule did not apply to the CEO, who had a very elaborate office with lots of stuff everywhere. The rule may be silly and anal, but I hope it is being applied to everyone, not just the people who cannot fight back.

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