5S at Google?

In How Google Works, on p. 38, executives Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg wrote:

“When offices get crowded, they tend to get messy too. Let them. When Eric [Schmidt] first arrived at Google in 2001, he asked the head of facilities, George Salah, to clean up the place. George did, and was rewarded with a note the next day from Larry Page, saying, ‘Where did all my stuff go?’ That random collection of stuff was an icon of a busy, stimulated workforce. […] It’s OK to let your office be one hot mess.”

So the company whose mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” has no use for 5S in its offices. The explanation they give is that Google employees are “smart creatives” who do their best work in a messy environment, like Pablo Picasso in his studio. But I can think of another reason: the information that matters to the googlers’ work is the stuff behind their screens, not on their desks. It’s in Google’s data centers, and they work on it with Google’s software.

The following picture is from a web page about the 15 coolest things you get as a Google employee:

Office at Google in 2014

Office at Google in 2014

As an layout, it is reminiscent of the traditional Japanese office:

A traditional Japanese office

A traditional Japanese office

One difference with the Google picture is that, in Japan, each row of back-to-back desks ends with one facing the row, for the department manager. The Japanese desks also usually have drawers. The Google desks don’t but, on the other hand, the googlers each have two 27-in screens, a tower computer on the floor and, among the miscellaneous objects on their desks, not a single paper document.

This is Google, and not every Silicon Valley company celebrates messy desks. Intel, for one, requires employees, before leaving, to lock away all documents, clear their desktops, log out of their systems, and erase all white boards. This is to make sure that no competitor’s spy, posing as a janitor, can abscond with intellectual property, and it is rooted in Andy Grove’s conviction that only the paranoid survive. As part of this “Mr. Clean” program, every facility is routinely audited, and violators written up. This is how it is explained in a handbook for contractors:

“Mr. Clean” is a team of two people sometimes consisting of a Senior Manager and SMS/GSS representative who inspect our buildings once a month to insure that all facilities meet the Intel standards for cleanliness and safety. These inspections are for your benefit to aid in improving working conditions and keeping watch on safety hazards. Some common safety/clean problems:

  1. Items stored on floors or above cubicle walls.
  2. Posters and hand-written signs taped to walls, windows, doors, and equipment.
  3. Papers, books, coats, hats and umbrellas lying on top of bookshelves. 4. Loose cables or cords. Clutter.

6 comments on “5S at Google?

  1. Comment in the TPS Principles and Practice discussion group on LinkedIn:

    If lean were a religion or a cult, 5S would be a fundamental tenet or commandment requiring absolute obedience and compliance. Those of us for whom it is not would base any answer on a consideration of how systems deliver value.

    In an environment full of tangible, physical things, the strict separation of those that promote production and those that impede it appears to be a very good idea. Clutter affects flow in so many, and obvious, ways. In an environment full of symbolic things, that separation line is difficult to draw.

    Any meaningful object, alone or in arrangements with others (words; words in texts; paperwork; stacks of books) can promote the creation of more meaningful objects, so collocation and historical accumulation may well be helpful in intangible production.

    The Internet is information chaos that can yet be searched in an instant, pulling out what is relevant in any desired combination. Who would you trust to 5S that?

  2. Comment in the TPS Principles and Practice discussion group on LinkedIn:

    As long as there is flow, no searching time and shared information is available to relevant parties I have no problem with a messy office. The purpose of office 5S is not to have a clean office but an effective office.

  3. I consider 5S to be a countermeasure to be done when problems are caused by a lack of organization, although 5S can be used proactively to prevent problems from occurring. Unless there’s a need, though, I do not consider 5S as a first-step – or a requirement at all – in a lean transformation. There should be a clear reason to do it.

    With that said, one has to wonder if Google team members may perhaps be unconsciously ignoring problems caused by a lack of organization. It’s easy to become so accustomed to waste that it’s no longer seen as a problem. I can’t imagine that searching for something or tripping on a cable/cord helps drive creativity. Google is an impressive and highly respected company but they are not perfect. There are always blind-spots and better ways to do things that helps in the achievement of the purpose. I’m guessing and hoping that they realize this.

    When I look at the picture, though, it really doesn’t look that bad . . . I’ve seen MUCH worse. What I notice the most is the guy in the front of the picture hunching over to look at his screen. If he does this for too long, he’s going to start feeling it in his neck and shoulders – and highly creative or not, this is a problem.

    • I agree that the picture doesn’t look that bad, but I assume that, being meant for publication, it doesn’t show the worst office at Google. It certainly doesn’t show cables running across a walkway that would be a trip hazard.

      As indicated in the post, I don’t think they are indifferent to organization, but that what needs organization is the data in their systems, not their physical desktops.

  4. Comment in the TPS Principles and Practice discussion group on LinkedIn:

    I’m willing to presume Google follows similar principles as 5S with their databases. As production occurs in the virtual environment in place of the physical, it is only logical to apply 5S to the virtual and not physical.

    Example: an archived database would be similar to a red tag area as it will house previous versions and non-current data and information.

    Definitely need additional information and perspective.

  5. Comment in the TPS Principles and Practice discussion group on LinkedIn:

    I understand the approach of foregoing the effort to stay organized in order to let ideas make themselves clearer. When the mind rambles, there is no clear process to organize for. This is liberating, and probably necessary when thinking of something new. But even though a rambling mind creates,

    I don’t think that a rambling mind creates actual things. And, genius entrepreneurs also seem to have people who clean up after them – if not for money, then for love. Either way, there is cleaning and tidying going on. 5S is based on certain principles such as defining is good and repeatability is good.

    If you want others to pay you for things you make, it’s better if those things are not falling apart, and are not in a mess. 5S is a good summary of how to avoid messes and maintain a stable process. If it does not work for some minds in the throws of creativity, it would not surprise me. But it might work for other minds.

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