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Can you apply Lean 5S to your PC?

When I was running a series of 5S workshops recently, it became obvious that not all the clutter in the workplace was visible.  Several people talked about not being able to find stuff on their computer and the amount of junk that had accumulated in their e-mailbox.

So, I’ve been thinking about how 5S might apply to that situation… 


The people I was working with had an office “shared drive/directory” in which they filed information of interest to everyone on the team.  Unfortunately, this was now a complete mess and virtually unusable because they simply couldn’t find stuff.

The 5S Sort approach is to do one of the following…

  1. Assume that virtually everything in the shared drive is obsolete and make a decision to remove it.  Don’t necessarily delete it, but archive it, perhaps onto a CD or back-up drive.  That leaves you with a “clean” directory to start again in.
  2. Trawl through the entire contents and Red Tag obsolete items by moving them to a newly created Red Tag folder.  Apply the Red Tag approach and revisit these items in a week and see if any of them are actually of any value.  If not, archive or delete them, as with option 1.

You can do the same with e-mail folders.  If you’ve not referred to e-mails recently that are sat in your folders recently, archive them or delete them.

As with an office or factory Red Tag Sort event, you need to take time out to do this.  It’s not something that you can just fit into your daily routine, otherwise it probably won’t get done at all.


This means having a suitable filing structure for your e-mails and your files.  In a perfect world, everyone would use the same structure and your PC would be set up with that when you arrived in your job.

This could be a massive task for a team in an office, so you’ll have to prioritise.  It’s probably best to work on setting up the shared folder structure first and making sure as much useful material gets put there quickly.  Some organisations develop hierarchical numbering systems for folders, but you will need to remember to allow gaps for folders that may need to be created in the future (i.e. number 10, 20, 30, rather than 1, 2, 3).

Set in Order needs to be done for e-mail folders, local drives and shared drives.

An alternative (lazy?) approach which might be viable in some organisations is to use an indexing tool such as Windows Search or Google Desktop.  In theory, all your files could be in one folder and you just need to be able to search for a filename.


Shine is easy!  It means keeping your e-mail system and folders (either personal or on shared drives) clean and tidy.  E-mail management needs to follow the time management rules of:

–          Deal with it (now)

–          Delay it (deal with it later)

–          Delegate it (forward it to someone else to deal with)

–          Dump it (delete it immediately)

Dealing with an e-mail means acting on its content appropriately AND filing it immediately afterwards.  You also need to file any attachments immediately.  That’s why SET IN ORDER is so important; you have to have a filing system/structure that can be used intuitively and quickly.

If you have to “delay” action on an e-mail, use the Reminder function of your e-mail software to set a date/time/alarm to bring the item to your attention again.  Then , file it, ideally in its correct folder, or if you must, in a “bring forward” or “awaiting action” folder.  

Use the Auto-archive function of your e-mail to carry out regular clean-ups and to move old items into an archive folder (or to delete them).


I set a target to have no more than a dozen e-mails in my Inbox awaiting action at any one time.  That’s my “standard”.  My other standards are to file all attachments immediately and to delete attachments from items in my Sent folder; they take up space and I know they are available in their correct folder, so why keep another copy?

You might also need to standardise on the frequency of archiving and back-ups.  Setting mailbox quotas is another good way to encourage people to manage their e-mails more effectively.

Of course, the file structure you created is also a Standard and any additional folders or sub-folders should be added in accordance with the agreed structure. 

Daily routines (personal time management) for dealing with e-mails can also be considered as Standards.

The idea of using regular audits will also help to reinforce this element of 5S; get staff to carry out audits of the shared drives as these are the most important from a knowledge-sharing perspective.


In 5S, sustain usually involves using the results of audits to drive further improvement as well as initiating further Red Tag events when necessary.  You need to find ways to keep yourself and everyone in the team motivated to improve continuously.  That might mean you need to have some team sessions to share good practices, swap ideas and ensure the file structures still work well for everyone.

If you can do all this, and if everyone is disciplined about following the standards, you should reduce the amount of time wasted looking for information and reduce the amount and cost of storage space.

 Read more about Lean and other approaches to improve processes.

Download our 5S Checklist for staff.  5S Summary for staff



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