Mise-en-place, 5S, and why tape outlines on the desk are stupid.

Karen Martin, Mark Graban, and Kevin Meyer have been tweeting over the past couple of days about a hospital in New Mexico that — sadly — is putting tape outlines on people’s desks in a misguided implementation of 5S. This nonsense has enraged the nurses who understandably see this as irrelevant to their ability to get their jobs done.

Confusion about how to apply 5S in a knowledge environment is rampant, as these stories of “lean as misguidedly executed” (LAME) attest. I believe that’s because people focus on the easily visible, outward trappings of 5S without understanding the purpose of the tool.

In his book Kitchen Confidential, chef Anthony Bourdain explains the function of a cook’s mise-en-place. His description gets at the heart of 5S better than anything I’ve read by any lean consultant:

Mise-en-place is the religion of all good line cooks. Do not f**k with a line cook’s “meez”—meaning their set-up, their carefully arranged supplies of sea salt, rough-cracked pepper, softened butter, cooking oil, wine, back-ups and so on. As a cook, your station, and its condition, its state of readiness, is an extension of your nervous system—and it is profoundly upsetting if another cook or, God forbid, a waiter—disturbs your precisely and carefully laid-out system. The universe is in order when your station is set up the way you like it: you know where to find everything with your eyes closed, everything you need during the course of the shift is at the ready at arm’s reach, your defenses are deployed. If you let your mise-en-place run down, get dirty and disorganized, you’ll quickly find yourself spinning in place and calling for back-up. I worked with a chef who used to step behind the line to a dirty cook’s station in the middle of the rush to explain why the offending cook was falling behind. He’d press his palm down on the cutting board, which was littered with peppercorns, spattered sauce, bits of parsley, breadcrumbs and the usual flotsam and jetsam that accumulates quickly on a station if not constantly wiped away with a moist side-towel. “You see this” he’d inquire, raising his palm so that the cook could see the bits of dirt and scraps sticking to his chef’s palm, “That’s what the inside of your head looks like now. Work clean!”

Want to know what 5S is and why it’s important, without resorting to all those difficult-to-pronounce Japanese words? It’s mise-en-place. (Of course, I’ve just substituted French for Japanese, so this may not be an improvement.)

Doctors and nurses (mostly) embrace 5S when it comes to the tools of their care-giving trade. Take a look at any surgical tray, and you’ll see that’s true. Physical organization — 5S — is essential to being able to deliver care smoothly and efficiently. Supply closets are perfect examples of places that benefit from 5S. But organizing the stapler and 3-hole punch on the desk? That’s asinine and pointless. No one needs to find the stapler with their eyes closed.

When it comes to the office environment, it’s more important to apply 5S to the information people manage, not the tools they use. The issue isn’t where the stapler sits; the issue is where critical information resides. Can people find it quickly and easily on the file server — or on medical forms?

Making information flow faster, with less waste and greater clarity — that’s how 5S should be applied in the knowledge workplace. The nurses at the Covenant Health System in Texas understand that. They didn’t mess around putting tape outlines on their desks. But they did reduce the amount of time they spent filling out paperwork by 50% by simplifying, standardizing, redesigning, and eliminating all their forms. That’s 5S intelligently applied to a real problem.

Tape outlines around the stapler? Diktats concerning the maximum number of pens a person can have at his desk? Please. They’re not going to get rid of the mental equivalent of peppercorns, spattered sauce, bits of parsley, and breadcrumbs that litter the brains of knowledge workers.

The gemba for a knowledge worker is inside her head. Let’s make sure that the information that goes in there is well-organized and easily accessible.

15 thoughts on “Mise-en-place, 5S, and why tape outlines on the desk are stupid.

  1. By the same token, are tape lines in a factory any less stupid? An assembly line worker who believes they are a master of their craft would (and does) argue that they don’t need to be told where to put their tools, how many extra wrenches they need etc. Is it simply a matter of defining “wrenches” as essential tools that must be 5S-ed, but staplers as not?

    The chef’s mise-en-place comes from practice and refinement, a sort of mastery. However, if an objective analysis using IE tools revealed that the chef’s kitchen workflow was preventing him from serving 30% more customers with the same time effort, would they object to tape lines or the kitchen equivalent as visual guides until the new routine became habit?

    We don’t know what guided those tape marks around the stapler. It may sound stupid, but then again, much of lean looks simple, stupid and counter-intuitive. We need to keep an open mind that it may not be misguided.

  2. Well put. I still have many conversations with people in an office environment that are upset because people try to dictate where the stapler goes and the phone, etc… In an office environment, the places that should be that prescriptive are shared spaces. If you are a supervisor that has to share a desk with the other 2 shift supervisors then 5S of the work area is a good idea to identify if something is missing. Another common area would be the copier area.

    Nothing is more frustrating than 5S misunderstood and misapplied.

  3. Matt — agreed. When people share a workspace, or when dealing with community spaces (kitchens, supply closets, etc.) it makes sense to standardize tool location.

    Jon — I think that tape lines in a factory, while useless to a master craftsman, would be valuable for transmitting & communicating standards to new(er) workers, who don’t have the expertise. With regards to your point about the kitchen, the key difference is that mise-en-place primarily organizes the material that the cooks are working on, not the tools they use to do the job. In other words, mise-en-place organizes the garlic and parsley, not the knives and towels (although those are certainly organized in a kitchen). The equivalent for a knowledge worker is the organization of information, not the organization of the stapler. And that’s where you really see waste — looking for information, not looking for the tools to manipulate the information.

  4. It’s true that designated home positions are very useful for shared work spaces. The key is the mental discipline that 5S can develop if properly trained and used. Once people “get it”, they raise their standards in other operational areas.
    But tape on personal desks, no real need, unless it’s a manager / supervisor wishing to set an example of standards to subordinates.
    Tape on a kitchen or hospital surface – probably harbours bacteria!

  5. Can you please add tape around my comment here? Productivity would be affected if this comment goes missing. ha ha ha

  6. The Japanese jargo of Lean is the single biggest turn off of implementing these otherwise good ideas. I reframe 5s as “workflow” and people seem to embrace it with more enthusiasm.

    Further the LEAN, TPS, Six Sigma people become silly zealots, and forget that we are actually trying to find better ways to achieve results, or “effects” as the six sigma mob would say.

    Dan, Alan’s philiosophies are often more “lean” than the Lean people themselves.

    Full disclosure I am LSS black belt, so that I think gives me the credibility to criticize, I come across this sliiess on a regular basis.

  7. I’m guilty of having my main essential desk items magnetic taped up on part of my white board with a marking behind saying what should be there. Overkill? To every other person I work with – yes. But I hate clutter and find it a major distraction. Oh and I never have to ask where my Sharpie is and people no longer skulk away with my white out when I’m not around. I keep only what I need on hand. This wasn’t born out of a need to perform a 5s assault. It was born out of a need to kill clutter. No more desk filled with office supplies that slid around when I open it (drives me nuts). And when you make what you really need visual, it allows you to see what you don’t need. Junk breeds – like bureaucracy.

    I’ve heard of examples where companies had employees do exactly what this blog is saying and even better – enforced the rules. It gave lean a bad name. I work with someone who came from that company and they have a bad reminder of 5s because of that.

  8. Steve — if tape outlines works for you, that’s great. The autonomy to make your workspace support your efforts is important. When tools such as outlines are imposed from above, without regards to solving a particular problem, that’s a major issue.

  9. I have found it helpful when doing the 5S process to remind people they need to ask themselves (so they own the answer and accountability)….do these items add value?

    And also, people need to get the big picture that their desk or work area is part of a process and that facilitators are only pointing out not what goes where, but what is cluttering your desk is part of the process that happens at your desk or work area and either creates one of the types of waste or adds value to the process.

  10. Beyond a certain point, standardization becomes regimentation, and it kills initiative. Ask anyone who’s done military training.

  11. Martin — it’s a fine line, I suspect. Not having been in the military, I don’t know where it is — but perhaps it’s enough just to be aware that there’s a point at which you’ll destroy initiative if you take standardization too far. And in any event, if you make the people responsible for designing the standardization, you can have your cake and eat it too.

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