How Many Chaotic Islands Do You Have?

Dusty Bottles - This image is CC0!

Living on a tropic island is a dream for many people. Living with chaotic islands, on the other hand, can be a nightmare.

In Lean terms, it is something like the opposite of 5S. In this post, I want to share some examples and ideas to fight them.

Have a look at these typical chaotic islands:

  • A drawer in your cupboard into which you throw stuff that is in the way.
  • Socks lying around in the bedroom.
  • A dirty spot on the floor.
  • The part of your wardrobe with clothes you do not wear anymore.
  • Paper lying around on your desktop.
  • The broken cup you wanted to glue but never had the time to do it.
  • An unmade bed.
  • The tool shed or garage full with unfinished DIY projects.

I think you get the general direction. Before somebody shouts “cleaning mania” or “bigot,” I want to make a confession: it was easy for me to come up with this list, because I have my own chaotic islands. Everybody has them. Avoiding them is a constant fight one cannot win. You can try to keep the upper hand for as long and as consequently as possible:

OK, this may sound depressing. Here are some recipes to get or keep the upper hand.

Before you start, put a regular task on your to-do list or personal Kanban board. This task is “identify and remove chaotic islands.” It will be a daily or at least weekly task. Look out for chaotic islands at least half an hour per week and remove them.

Depending on the size of your chaotic islands, you need different strategies. You have a trade-off between transportation (time and distance) and inventory with all chaotic islands. Therefore, I roughly define the size of a chaotic island by the time it takes to clean it up. You need not stick exactly to the numbers given below or may want to define you own limits.

Enough preparation, this is what you can do: whenever you find a chaotic island, do one of the following:

  1. Less than two minutes: Remove small chaotic islands at once. Pick that piece of paper that is lying around. (My wife will love that one. I am an expert in walking past a paper on the ground five times. Without officially noticing, that it exists at all…)
  2. Less than ten minutes: Remember the drawer full of stuff I mentioned above? Make it somewhat smaller by working two minutes on it. Throw away at least one unused item immediately. Then mark the island with a sticky note, which says “clean me up.” This note is called “red tag” in 5S slang, so preferably the sticky note should be red. (Actually, the red tag is for unused inventory items and tools, but it works fine for our purpose.) Clean it up when you do your regular chaotic island removal task.
  3. Less than an hour. A good example is throwing out some old clothes. Mark the island with a red sticky note and put a task on your to-do list or personal Kanban bord addressing removal of this particular chaotic island. For our example that task would be “throw out clothes I have not worn for more than one year.”
  4. Anything larger needs more planning: Mark it with a red tag. Maybe it should be slightly bigger than the typical sticky note. How about a sign at the door to your garage “Needs clean-up urgently”? After having marked the chaotic island, create a task, e.g., “Plan the garage cleaning project.”

Besides, you can use the 5D methodology for to-dos created from your chaotic islands session: Do, Delay, Delegate, Delete, Divide.

Posted in Action, Lean Tools, Waste Tagged with: , , ,

2 comments on “How Many Chaotic Islands Do You Have?

  1. william on said:

    Does my unsorted 1 cubic metre postage stamp collection count?

    • Jens R. WoinowskiJens R. Woinowski on said:


      I’m not sure how much “tongue in cheek” your question is. So I pretend not at all.

      Yes, of course that collection counts. An unsorted collection of any stuff is inventory. Not sorting it is waiting waste. It might might also be, that your stamp collection does not add much value to your life. Why else would you wait to sort it?

      From my point of view, there are two options: Give them away (unsorted) or pick a handful each day and sort it into the right place…


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