What is Lean Housekeeping (with 5S)?

Cleaning Fork. This image is CC0!

You may have guessed it already: Even for such mundane things like housekeeping there exists something in the Lean world. It is 5S, which I explain in this post.

As many other topics in Lean Self, 5S comes from the world of business and production. Hiroyuki Hirano developed its principles for the improvement of production, but essentially it contains rules for good housekeeping (see for more details at Wikipedia).

5S is achieved in five steps, called phases:

  1. Sorting
  2. Straightening
  3. Systematic cleaning
  4. Standardizing
  5. Sustaining

By applying these five steps, you can streamline not only production of goods but also your personal life. Before going into the details, one word of warning: The five phases look a lot like good old virtues. In Lean Self, it is important that virtues as such are not important as long as they do not contribute to value or reduce waste.

In production, this is about processes and tools. In Lean Self this means that you remove everything that does not add value. Mostly, this will be about inventory waste. Here are some things you might want to remove from your home or workplace:

  • Unused kitchen tools (e.g. the second toaster or the nifty food processor you never use)
  • Unused DIY tools (e.g. that cool laser meter or the rusty saw)
  • Unread books (remember the inventory waste discussion)
  • Broken things
  • Kitsch

The core question is: Does it add value?

My wife will laugh at me for this one; she knows this is my weak spot. Well, there is always room for improvement. This phase of 5S is simple: Everything should be where it belongs, so that you find it easily. And for everything you should know, where to put it. Indicating the storage place for everything is also important. Some examples:

  • Always put food and drinks into the same tray of your fridge.
  • Mark the places for your DIY tools with the silhouette of each tool and always put tools into the right place after use.
  • Put desktop utensils like pens into containers.
  • Keep an organized wardrobe.
  • Put labels onto food containers.
  • If you have a backpack with many compartments, always put things into the same compartment. Bags without partitions are not advisable.

The core question is: Where do I find my stuff?

Keep your home and your workplace clean and tidy. At the end of each (working) day, clean everything and put everything to its place. Make this cleaning and tidying your standard routine and keep everything well organized. Again, some examples:

  • When going home, make sure your office desktop is empty and everything is at its place. Just throwing things into a drawer is not the intended solution.
  • After cooking, clean up the kitchen at once.
  • Before going to bed, make a short round and tidy up. This need not take long; once you have a basic order, tidying up takes only some minutes each day.
  • After working on a DIY project, always leave the workplace tidy. Do this especially, when the project is not finished but needs to be interrupted. Make it easy to start off from where you finished.

In the original 5S context this phase is about standardizing routines and processes. A lot of this is about jobs that are done repeatedly by more than one person. Processes and work stations need to be standardized, responsibilities clearly defined.

Looking at it from a Lean Self perspective, we need to give this a different twist. Whenever you need to do something often, create a repeatable habit out of it. For example:

  • When cleaning your house or apartment, always do it in the same order of rooms.
  • At work, establish a standard daily and weekly schedule.
  • Use the same type of coat hangers for all your clothing. This may sound minor, but you should give it a try. Take a before and after picture. Now, look out for similar standardizations.
  • Define clear responsibilities at home: Who is responsible for which job? Stick to your own responsibilities.
  • Whenever you establish the first three phases of 5S, consider how to standardize them.

Doing things always the same can stifle your creativity and can make you feel depressed, because there is so little change in life. While I’m advocating repeatable and firm habits here, you need to address this risk. I suggest the following three strategies:

  • Define two or three alternative habits which have the same effect and switch between these alternatives from time to time.
  • Set up explicit “routine skipping.” Now and then you should allow yourself not to stick to the standard habits at all. However, do not make it a routine to unlearn good habits.
  • Preferred strategy from a Lean Self point of view is continuous improvement. Always look out, how you can improve your habits. Then the change you apply will not be for its own sake, but will systematically improve your situation.

After you have established the first four phases, define the achievements as a baseline. You should never fall back behind this baseline. This sounds trivial, but as everybody knows, unlearning good habits is easy. Learning new bad habits is even easier.

In general, any deviations from the routines you have established so far contain the danger of deterioration. Therefore it is important that you regularly monitor and review your habits.

You can use visual self management and quantified self techniques for monitoring your habits. Furthermore set up regular habit review events in your schedule, for example:

  • Daily review of your habit skips. Where did you be sloppy?
  • Weekly review of your to-dos. Did you accomplish everything in time and with the expected results?
  • Monthly e-mail habit review. Do you have your inbox under control?
  • Monthly work place review. Is everything still where it belongs?
  • Monthly continuous improvement review. What could you do better in the future?

For every deviation from the first four S’s, look for root causes. If required, make an improvement plan.

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