Thursday, 31 May 2007

Get Rid of Clutter

I once read in the Readers Digest of a profession known as Clutter Consultants. These are people who you hired to come into your homes to help you to literally put your house in order. And yes, you might have guessed as the author did, that this could only happen in America, the land of plenty.

The first thing this clutter consultant is likely to do is to get you to practise what in 5S is called Seiri, or Clearing. You have to sort your stuff into necessary and unnecessary; and get rid of the latter. Give, sell, throw; it doesn’t matter. Just don’t keep them lying around. And as one Japanese author put it; you have to be ‘ruthless’.

This is the most fundamental first step towards higher productivity. Many of us have a habit of keeping things which we cannot decide whether or not we needed. In other words, we procrastinate. The first rule in 5S is; When in doubt, get rid of it. Of course this may sound a bit extreme. At the very least, I would say, you should make a decision to decide later. By that I mean, mark those things that you cannot confirm are truly unnecessary. Come back to it X number of months later, and if you still cannot find any use for it - dump it!

But what if I accidentally throw away something that I later discover that I actually needed? Well too bad. It’s a risk we just have to take. The alternative is to keep on procrastinating until we have accumulated a mountain of junk; and then the task simply becomes too daunting, and we give up altogether.

Here are some tips for carrying out Seiri.

1) Do it regularly; daily or weekly or monthly depending on the item. This will prevent the problem building up into a gridlock as mentioned above. For example, for emails, we should delete the obsolete and junk emails at least once a day. A manager once told me he had a subordinate who actually kept several hundred emails in his In-box!

2) Apply Seiri to everything; not just at work but at home. Not just physical things but also intangible things such as emails, addresses/contacts, steps in work procedures etc. One writer even said we should get rid of useless thoughts and habits! I say, don’t forget your own body. Get rid of the useless fats.

3) Set some rules. For example – No more than 10 emails in the In-box. Create a separate KIV folder. File all read emails required for future reference in separate folders and review them once a month.

4) Practise prevention. Think of ways to prevent junk from appearing in the first place. Timely advice you may say, considering that the Great Singapore Sale has just started. Those of you who use emails regularly must have learnt some tricks about how to prevent spam. Anyway, techniques for preventing clutter actually belong to the 4th S which is Seiketsu. More about that later.

In conclusion, I have only this simple advice. Do it now. And start with those places that you have never looked at for a long time. You will be surprised just how much junk you have acquired. Even for stuff which you use regularly, the stationery tray in front of you, the book shelf next to you, your CD collection etc. I guarantee that you will be able to find some junk if you looked hard enough.

And you will also surprised how good it feels to be rid of these junk

This picture is from an August 2006 Straits Times article about cluttered homes belonging to some old folks which are fire hazards and breeding grounds for bugs. Volunteers visit these homes and try of help the owners to clean up. But “getting people to part with their possessions can be tough”, wrote the reporter Yap Su-Yin.

Friday, 4 May 2007

Where’s the Stuff? (东西在哪里?)

I think many Singaporeans remember this very funny advertisement from Ikea. A group of thugs breaks into a house and confronts a young man.

Thug (menacingly):
Where’s the stuff? Hand it over quickly! (presumably referring to drugs)
Young man:
I don’t know.
Thug gets impatient and repeats question:
Young man (in exasperated voice):
I don’t know. I really don’t know.

And then the camera zooms out and we see the young man’s room is in a complete mess with things strewn all over the place.
And the message from the advertisers says: "Storage problems?" ..… I think you can guess what they are selling.

I love this advertisement. It’s funny and it brings across so graphically the basic message of 5S, which is:

Good housekeeping makes it easier to find things and thus improves productivity.

But what happens when you get to the workplace?

Over the past 20 years, I have amassed literally thousands of photos of cluttered, messy and dirty workplaces. Most of the time, people know that it is important to practise good housekeeping, but they are too busy and have ‘no time’. Unfortunately, these people will wait till a crisis arises before they try to put their house in order; such as in the event of an accident, or a warning from the authorities or an impending visit by their customer. In other words, they think that housekeeping is important but not urgent. We will do it when we have time. But the longer you delay, the dirtier the place becomes and the more difficult it is to put right.

In his outstanding book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Steven Covey says that a highly effective person is one who is 'proactive' and 'puts first things first'. He distinguishes tasks that are urgent but not important, from those that are important but not urgent, and consciously sets aside time for the latter. Good housekeeping, or what we call 5S belongs to the second category. My Japanese teacher, Mr Motomu Baba puts it differently; "Do fire-preventing, not fire-fighting."

So take a good look at your workplace. Is it like the photos below? If it is, in Steven Covey’s book, you are not creative but ineffective.

003a - messy desk

003b - messy store room

003e - messy store room

003f - messy work table