In 5S, Sort comes before Set in Order

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I like to organise things. I am one of those people who will straighten the few pieces of paper on my desk and the pen alongside so that everything is, in my opinion anyway, zen and just so.

The lean housekeeping tool 5S, has been made famous by Toyota as a method for continuous improvement and workplace standardisation. It is a tool that makes problems obvious by creating and then maintaining a standard level of order. The 5Ss are derived from Japanese words but roughly translate into English as follows:

Sort – Separate what is needed from what is not needed. Remove what is not needed from the area.

Set In Order – A place for everything according to frequency of use with an eye to reducing waste of movement and transportation.

Shine – Everything is clean and ready for use.

Standardise – set a standard and make it so that anything that is outside of the standard is obvious.

Sustain – monitor and improve the systems that have been set up so that improvement is maintained.

In 2001, when I was first introduced to 5S as a workplace tool, I returned from the training course knowing that not only could I do this, I was born to do this. I completely understood the need to organise things and how that would create order from chaos in the workplace. I naturally gravitated towards the Set In Order part of 5S and from my experiences over the last 16 years I have found that people naturally tend to want to organise things. It’s fun to label jars, put floor markings on the floor and make cool looking shadow boards to hold tools. There’s something highly satisfying for many people about creating a masterpiece of organisation and order.

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I’m not saying that Sort is not also fun and satisfying. Some people love to throw stuff out as well as organise it but others really don’t feel this way and I have seen high levels of anxiety from work colleagues during Sort exercises. I have seen people climb into scrap bins to retrieve items they wanted to keep ‘just in case.’ Even for people who more easily discard things, it’s only the first layer of removing clutter that is simple. The further you get into the Sort process, the more hard questions you get and the more anxiety from removing items that ‘might’ be needed.

Since I started thinking in a more minimalist way over the last three years, my attitude to the 5Ss have changed. I still like to organise things but my focus has changed so that I pay more attention to the Sort part of the process. I now instinctively pursue the concept that it’s way easier to organise as little as possible. I also put more emphasis on not introducing new items into a system, either at work or at home, unless it’s really necessary. I also challenge my instinct to retain things just to protect myself against the unknown, a trait that I think goes hand in hand with a high need to organise things.

To counteract this, before making a purchase for my home, I will consider a number of things:

  • whether another item can do the same task
  • how often I might use the item
  • whether I need the item or just want it
  • Where I’m going to store the item
  • What might have to be removed to make a place for the new item

Following this process often means I choose not to purchase an item. The benefit is that when I do choose to bring a new possession into my house it means I don’t usually experience buyer’s remorse because the choice to buy is deliberate not impulsive.

The next time you have an urge to ‘organise’ your closet, kitchen, spare room or garage, spend some time really focusing on deciding on only keeping what is needed, relevant, purposeful or adds value to you before spending too much time or money on organising it.
After all, when it comes to the 5Ss, Sort comes before Set in Order.

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