The development of physical workplace optimization started shortly after the launch of the first industrial revolution more than 250 years ago. When production moved from small workshops to factories, it became apparent that the workplace needed to be organized beyond what employees were doing naturally. Managers looked for ways to improve the way work was done. As a result, methods like flow production, just in time manufacturing or total quality management improved productivity, reduced costs or increased quality of both product and services in ways never seen before.  

But can you apply any of these methodologies when building or refining a digital workplace? Is there anything worth learning from the hundreds of years of trial and error in this field?

Today we will be looking at 5S, a Japanese workplace organization method.  

What Is 5S?

5S is based on the idea that to have a productive workplace, it must be a clean, well-organized and well-maintained place. 

The name of the methodology comes from the five Japanese words that describe the steps required to optimize a workplace: 

1. "Sort" (seiri): Means to go through all the items present on the workplace (tools and equipment, materials or furniture) and sort them to facilitate their findability. Things that do not belong should be removed. 

2. "Set In order" (seiton): Each item in the workplace belongs in the best location based on frequency or type of use.

3. "Shine" (seisō): It starts with the physical cleaning of the workplace, but it extends to regular equipment maintenance so everything in the workplace is in good working order. 

4. "Standardize" (seiketsu): Procedures, responsibilities, daily routines and checklists must be created to support the system.

5. "Sustain" (shitsuke): Refers to all the actions and activities needed to ensure the 5S approach is followed in the long term: training, regular audits, having feedback loops being open to improvement ideas are ways to ensure 5S's long-term success.

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How Can We Use 5S to Optimize a Digital Workplace?

Organizations can apply 5S principles to the digital workplace as well, but first they have to map the physical and digital environments. 

What is the equivalent of a physical workplace in the digital workplace? 

A physical workplace is where a worker performs a set of related and similar operations. In a digital workplace this equates to the place where similar tasks can be performed.  

Think of a banking product such as a credit card. The employee should be able to supply customers information related to their card, to request a credit card, to replace an expired/stolen card, to cancel one or to issue a statement.  

To do this, the employee will need access to:

  • Specific business apps (preferably with deep links to the specifically required functionality). 
  • Support information such as the latest news related with the product, applicable product brochures, training materials, procedures, active campaigns, FAQs. The user should be able to easily find the find people in charge for support or to send feedback to product or process owners.  

Ideally, all these would be accessible from a page that I call a topic page. Such a page would group together information from several repositories (and information owners), link to the specific application functionalities and support several related tasks. 

organize workplace

In reality, the information is scattered in various repositories and large applications with numerous, complex functionalities. The managers assume each employee will figure out how to find the information they need to properly perform a task. This makes it rather complicated for the employee, and ultimately generates errors, costs and delays.

messy workplace

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Learning Opportunities

What Can We Do Better in Our Digital Workplaces? 

Topic Optimized Architecture 

5S focuses on each individual workplace within the factory and makes sure each is well organized so the worker can be as productive as possible.  

For each topic, the digital worker needs to know how to do the work (forms, procedures, manuals, FAQ, support contacts) and which application to use (preferably a deep link to the exact application page). 

Traditionally, most digital workplaces focus more on tools (you might have seen a list of apps on the first page of an intranet) and less on a topic (credit cards / how to block a stolen credit card). 

Topic pages can ergonomically gather all the required information around a topic and make it a lot easier for employees to remain productive. 

Comprehensive Approach 

When you apply 5S, you apply it to the whole factory floor, looking at each physical workplace and you make sure it is well optimized.  

The same applies to the digital workplace. All relevant topics must be identified and addressed with the same attention as one would do for a physical workplace. These topics are in fact internally provided services. They have a service owner who should be in charge of the way his or her service is presented internally. 

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Consistent Approach 

There must be consistent standards and best practices when designing a physical workplace or a digital topic. 

Since digital workers will more often change the topic they are working on, standardization is even more important in the digital space. Workers using a digital workplace need a consistent experience when working on different topics, because it will help them find the required resources faster and easier.

(Digital) Experience Matters

5S manages the experience a worker has with his workplace. All tools are at hand, everything is properly labeled, everything has its place.

In my years of working with corporate clients, quality issues often arose because the information was poorly organized, tools poorly documented or recent changes were disregarded.  

When you apply the same attention that goes into physical workspace optimization to the digital space, to each topic relevant for the company — what employees have to do, how to do it and why to do it — work will suddenly become easier for the employees, quality will improve, costs will go down.  

And this will make everybody happier.

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