IDR Sustainable Workplace

Psychologically, commercially and environmentally viable organizations

A Compelling Advocacy for Lean Workplaces

A Croatian banker wrote mooting several powerful arguments in favour of a lean workspace. The following may be useful to you if you are considering the development of your own business.


Hi S,


You wrote:


1. Building discipline and attention to detail

I'd like to emphasize that my interest is workplace organization in banking and that I think that rule following culture and aversion to risk should come in very handy in this particular industry.

For instance, bank secrecy would mandate for a clean desk policy and a strong culture of operational discipline might have impact on reduction of exposure to risks banks face in their operations.

Here's where I find that workplace management and labor management intertwine. Some authors (e.g. Mariko Nagoshi in her „SOCIO-CULTURAL CONDITIONS OF JAPAN ... „) espouse an idea that 5S is one of „the socialization processes to transform them [workers] into efficient kigyojin (corporate person)“. This would support my hunch that one of the tenets of 5S is building discipline and attention to detail. This might actually make sense since at least one other human activity (military) depends on inculcation of discipline.

For instance, George S. Patton, Jr. considered „that a unit that fails to do the 'little things' correctly cannot do the more difficult big things correctly“. Could it be that 5S is a tool to create something we might call „lean mentality“ or even corporate warriors (kigyei senshi)? To ingrain the attitude of putting the company above the individual and putting oneself completely behind the product or service (omotenashi)?


A: There is no peer reviewed, scientific evidence that 5S/Lean improves efficiency.  However there is plenty of evidence that lean is the least efficient workspace (Reynolds & Platow, 2003). 

This same evidence also speaks to the concept of "warrior" managers imposing the recommended 5S workplace restrictions you mention. These methods unfortunately produce workers who are highly directed and lack input. And it is these twin factors of control and automata that lie at the heart of Lean's continuing popularity.  Lean focusses on managerial empowerment and their power over potentially unco-operative staff (MacGregor, 1960).  This control is to the detriment of all else.  Japanese terminology add a tone of pseudo credibility to a unsubstantiated concept drawn entirely from Taylor's 1911 book principles of Scientific Management. A book which explains each of the 5Ss in detail (Knight & Haslam, 2010).



You wrote: 2. Workplace wellbeing

I would hypothesize that viewing the mind, the body and the environment separately is in lean management considered as ineffective or at least less efficient approach to workplace design. Takami Kuwayama in her 1996 article "Gasshuku: Off-Campus Training in the Japanese School" notes that:


„Cleaning is essential to Japanese discipline, not because the Japanese are obsessed with cleanliness, but because durashinai (being untidy) is a sign of moral degeneration. Put another way, it is not the object being cleaned, but rather the mind and the body of the person who is doing the cleaning, that is important. Thus, seiri seiton (putting things in order) is considered a first step toward moral integrity in Japan.“


She goes on and pinpoints the philosophical background of this practice, namely in separating pure and impure as in misogi which is a Japanese Shinto ritual of cleansing one's body "to atone for a crime or sin one has commited. The unity of the mind and the body is observed here". I find Soichiro Honda's address to Honda's workers in 1953 indicative of this approach:


„The reason why I tell you, Honda employees, to keep our factory clean is not to look good from the outside. A mindset which neglects a dirty and unorganized factory will never generate excellent products. Our factory is where we all live. Those who have no mindset to organize this place will never be able to build excellent products. Our mindset is directly reflected in our products.“


This, I think, is a question of workplace impact on workforce effectiveness and efficiency. To the best of my knowledge, the debate on messy desks is still open. One way of framing this debate might be to quote Laurence J. Peter "If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?" Vohs et al (2013) find that it is disorder in one's environment that is conducive to innovation (think Steve Jobs in his "labyrinth" of office or notorious Albert Einstein's desk). At the same time, orderly environments "promote convention", "help people follow social norms" and „boost well-being“.



Your comment that "the debate on messy desks is still open“ is very apposite here.  The most effective workplace is one where workers as a whole have a say over its design (Knight & Haslam, 2010).  In this sense the debate over messy/clean desks is fairly well understood.  So that if Worker Z prefers a clean, swept desk, then Z is likely to perform best in that type of workspace.  You can imagine therefore, that were you to clutter Z's space this is likely to impact on performance exactly as lean predicts (e.g., Hyer & Wemmerlov, 2002).


However Worker Y prefers to be surrounded by piles of paperwork, sitting at what may look like a messy workspace.  Y is as likely as Z to perform best in the environment that is most psychologically comfortable.  Imposing a clean desk on Y is every bit as bad as imposing a messy workspace on Z (Elsbach, 2003). Every bit as bad.


It may also help to consider other industries.  Care homes for older adults provide a useful parallel.  In the UK, in 1948, the concept of a lean care home was banned by The National Asistance Act. 


A lean care home had been promulgated for the reasons advocated in your email in suport of a lean office.  A lean care home offered moral integrity (cleanlines is next to Godliness); effectiveness (easy to clean); standardization (one care home can be much like another) and better health for residents (because it is easier to scrub there will be fewer germs). 


However all of this ignores what it is that makes us human (Postmes, 2003).  Lean care homes, like lean offices, take away the stamps of our identity.  The following are all part of what ties to friends, family and colleagues:


The photographs on our desks, the way we  organize our space rather than someboy else doing it for us, the way we pile our papers, the psychological engagement we have with art or plants, the idiosyncratic arrangement of mismatched furniture. 


Take these things away from meaningful spaces, such as those in which we work, and we are psychologically and emotionally reduced (Vischer, 2005).  It is not surprising that our performances reduce concomitantly.  Lean erodes our sense of self, and of personal and group identity.  Diminished identity is detrimental to well-being and productivity (Haslam, 2004).


This was recognized the best part of 70 years ago in the care industry. It is probably about time that offices caught up.


You wrote: 3. Removing obstacles to flow

The concept of muda (or waste) in lean production systems is defined as „anything other than the minimum amount of equipment, materials, parts, space, and worker’s time, which are absolutely essential to add value to the product.“ This is common sense applied to production - it's definitely more productive to be able to retrieve a document in 30 seconds rather then 30 minutes. In just-in-time (JIT) thinking, the primary objective of a business enterprise is „to make the time between customer order and the collection of cash as short as possible“ (Åhlström 2006). The way to manage this (and other resources) in lean management is, e.g. through kaizen (small, incremental change) activities aimed at reduction of order-cash time line"by removing the non-value-added wastes" (Ohno 1988). An enterprise should focus on achieving flow (of products or services) and this can be done (says Toyota) through systematic elimination of unevenness, overburden and waste through standardisation of work, sequencing of activities and addition of value.

Especially when work is organized in shifts (when multiple operators work at the same station or office desk in our case) it makes sense to standardize not only work but the work environment also.


There is little benefit to standardization except that it allows managerial control of the production process; see your reference to "lean management“ (Hiro, 1996).  It is far better to involve workers in the development of their space (Baldry & Hallier, 2010).  There are no standard human beings so why on earth should there be a standard space in which they should work?


Again scientific evidence is, so far as we know, unequivocal.  Stripping the work/value exchange down the cash nexus or "removing the non-value-added wastes“ to use Ohno's words reduces the pleasure in work, increases managerial control, and impacts upon identity and well-being.  In so doing it is the cause of reductions in both job satisfaction and productivity (Baldry, Bain & Taylor, 1998). Homo sapiens are animals.  Treating people as units of production alongside conveyor belts and "equipment, materials, parts“ will inevitably result in erroneous data.  Lean consistently makes this mistake (Knight & Haslam ,2010)




You wrote: 4. A couple of other points

This actually reminds me of yet another point which is the company-wide visual standards (as in branding guides). I guess the C-suite might feel a danger of projecting an unprofessional image to clients, or at least an image not consistent with envisaged brand archetype or story.

Also, companies physical facilities, equipment used and appearance of personnel are considered tangible cues to judge quality (e.g. in the tangibles part of SERVQUAL model).

And finally, „Without maintenance, everything in the gemba will deteriorate over time (Imai 2012).“ Isn't this „a universal principle operating throughout the universe“ (as Philip K. Dick remarked in his „Do electric sheep...“ novel when explaining debris or kipple as he named it)? Sort of a Second Law of Thermodynamics in factory physics : )


I cannot think of anybody who would argue against good maintenance.  Similarly most people tend to prefer high quality surroundings when given the choice.  However to conflate what is essentially 'motherhood and applie pie' with attributes of tight managerial control such as deciding what constitutes an unprofessional image, the look of the brand and company-wide visual standards is specious.


It is a brave company that truly shares its decision making processes.  Yet this is a rewarding path.  However the data indicate that it is an ill-informed and increasingly delusory organization that clings to the simplistic tenets of lean production.  Lean is only promulgated by management literature and this has a clear self interest bias. It is found nowehere else. Scientific evidence advocate the avoidance of lean.


It would be a pleasure to talk further and maybe even help your organization implement worthwhile workplace policies.  Please let me know if this is an option.  In the meantime, I wish you the best of success.


Bye for now,


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