How many of us find ourselves in the morning battling with closets so jammed packed with clothes that we cannot find the particular white shirt we want to wear to the office that day? Half the clothes in there have not been touched for years, but could be worn if shoulder pads ever come back into fashion or if one lost 10 kilograms all of a sudden. The train is coming, so we end up wearing what we wore two days ago, hoping no one will notice. We run out the door, holding our satchel in one hand and a piece of toast half-buttered in the other, making the resolution to be more orderly tomorrow.

Imagine if this lack of order got into the workplace. The problems would be far more serious than a wrinkled shirt: hours of productivity lost because an order form can’t be found, useless time spent walking back and forth due to inefficient plant layout, non-standard and low quality products and services, creating dissatisfied customers.

There is a tendency now to ship these problems off-shore. Take the recent trend of sending customer service call centres off-shore to reduce costs. Is this move really addressing the problem, or is it simply fire-fighting? Companies should be addressing is the real issue – that is, why customers are calling with complaints in the first place. Business consultants claim that companies spend 60-80 per cent of the time solving problems in their workplace. If this is the case, when does a company focus on improvement?

Domestic chaos has given rise to the new profession of decluttering, which seems set to become a new philosophy of life for some people. One puritanical stream of this movement involves a pledge to cull your belongings to a mere 100 items. Organizing experts say that the key to a successful purge is defining what your ideal life should look like and then deciding which of your belongings still fits in the picture.

A business solution

The business world has its own tailor-made solution to clogged and inefficient systems — or rather, to the prevention of such disorder. It boils down to keeping things clean and tidy, with a place for everything and everything in its place, just like mother said. You’ll find this age-old wisdom operating in some of today’s most successful companies — BP Solar, Cochlear, Qantas, and Unipart, to name a few.

The basic principal of keeping clean and tidy is the foundation of Lean, a management philosophy that promotes continuous improvement to achieve a job well done. Lean was created by the Toyota Motor Corporation in Japan after the Second World War. With heavy competition created by Henry Ford’s conveyor system and limited resources, Toyota developed a shop floor method that made use of every bit of material whilst wasting nothing.

Lean is more than a management theory; it is a way to transform an organisation into a learning factory through continuous improvement, which is achieved by eliminating waste or non-value added activities, as seen from the customer’s perspective. The systematic structure of Lean is what makes it unique.

The director of Lean Australia, Brian Levitan, describes Lean as a house. The foundations are made up of tools such as 5S – making your workplace clean and tidy; Visual Workplace – creating visual standard operating procedures; and Load Levelling – spreading the work load evenly among employees. This foundation can be used by any organisation, no matter whether it is an accounting firm or a detergent manufacturing plant.

On top of these foundations are two pillars: Just In Time and Error Prevention. Each pillar is defined by four to five tools. Companies can select the tools that best suit their work place.

Finally the house is crowned with the roof which represents the fruits of implementing the system: delivery of the best product and service at the lowest cost and in the shortest time, elimination of defects, increased customer satisfaction and sky rocketing employee morale. The upshot? An efficient business.

More than spring cleaning

The surprising thing about Lean is that it appears to be mere common sense. Take one of the foundation building blocks, 5S. This is a systematic process for cleaning the office and keeping it that way. It involves five steps:

Sort removing unnecessary items – “When in doubt move it out!”

Set In Order – arranging remaining items in a way that makes them easy to access “A place for everything and everything in its place.”

Shine – keeping everything clean – “To be lean you must be clean.”

Standardise – Creating visual guidelines for keeping the area clean and orderly, for example, a poster which shows you how your desk should look “Standardise or you can’t improve.”

Sustain – Auditing areas to ensure standards are maintained and improved “Maintain the gain and forget the blame.”

Sceptics might ask why such basics need to be taught when continuous improvement should be part and parcel of any global company’s objectives. But experience shows that a professional approach to organisation does make a difference.

Take Unipart, one of Europe’s leading independent logistic companies and a pioneer of Lean thinking, as an example. Unipart took over Airbus’s supply chain operations after they saw the need to improve efficiency and shorten lead times. The company implemented many Lean principles, including the introduction of standard operating procedure, visual controls and work load planning. Airbus saw incredible results, including reduction of inbound processing by 70 per cent, the saving of 16,000 man hours in the internal supply and manufacturing departments and stock integrity improvements of 30 per cent.

Home improvements

There could even be spin-offs for those cluttered closets at home. The Wall Street Journal reports that the garment-folding methods used by Gap and other clothing chains in the United States have found their way into countless homes through employees past and present who simply can’t get that neatness out of their system. One of them says; “I like the idea of having a perfectly folded closet. It’s kind of like my own little retail store.” And that was a 24-year-old male speaking.

Is Lean enough to get international firms through this year’s financial crisis? Many would argue this kind of approach is essential because it forces managers and workers to constantly improve and change as the environment changes. This is so engrained into the culture of a Lean workplace that its prime key performance indicator is the number of improvement suggestions per employee per year.

Can the economy afford to put its hopes in a management philosophy whose foundations rest on the virtue of being clean and tidy? Can it afford not to?

Pamela Golamco is sales co-ordinator of a Lean workplace. She writes from Sydney, Australia.