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.