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Written by Charmaine Cunningham
Have you ever joined a queue not knowing whether you are in the right queue because there is no signage….whilst simultaneously fighting the urge to jump in and sort and simplify the workspace?  You see many papers, duplications, thousands of notices, just not the one telling you whether you are in the right queue. And so, the signs that are there are rendered useless. You are surrounded by noticeboards with notices going back several years and unused equipment taking up space. I could go on, but I am confident you can relate and are picturing your own experience of such a frustratingly disorganised moment in your mind.

queue 2Queues can be frustrating if signage is dated or incorrect.

By sorting out the workspace both the customer and employee will feel happier and know what to expect.  The sorted workspace is not cluttered and it is easy to see where to go and what to do.

We also have moments when we are disorganised in our personal lives and from time to time we need to take action to remedy this. A while ago I joined a ‘simplify your (personal) life’ challenge.  On the first day you are required to throw out one item. On the second day you throw out two items. On the third day, three items and so on, and you continue to do this for a month.  At the end of the 30 day challenge you will have thrown out 465 items.  That sounds easy, right? Well, yes it was….for the first few days when I was throwing out the items that I was comfortable getting rid of. But when I had thrown out the obvious items, but still had to complete the ‘simply your life’ challenge (and therefore I had to find many more items to discard) I became uncomfortable.

I was forced to ask myself critical questions like, ‘do I really need something that I’ve had for 20 years and not yet used?’  ‘Do I need the things that I kept for “just in case”?’  Possibly the toughest decision I faced was whether or not to throw out books.  I have a lot of books. I love books. But, I had to ask myself ‘did I enjoy reading every single one of them?’  ‘Did I find value in every single book?’ By the time I’d finished my sorting exercise, I had given books to the library, paint, paper and pens to a local school, clothes to one charity and kitchen utensils to another charity.  Once this was complete I had a great sense of achievement, but it took hard work to get there.

messy bookcase sorted bookcaseSorting brings order to your work and personal life.

So here is what I’ve learned
It’s easy to sort and simplify on the surface, but we usually stop before it becomes uncomfortable.  Yet, as soon as you cross that level of discomfort it becomes a liberating habit.  At both work and home we accumulate stuff, even if we are not hoarders.  So we need to consciously make time to clear out, sort out, and tidy up.

If organisations can push team members to sort beyond the comfort level, a new sense of pride and space for new things is created. It creates flow. Sorting is a decision-making process and team members have to decide what is needed and what is not needed. Regular, routine sorting stimulates critical thinking about different ways to perform a task, equipment that might need to be replaced, or moved closer to a work space, whether there are unnecessary duplicates, etc.  (In other words it helps us to identify not-so-obvious wastes).

Regularly creating flow and simplicity in life creates space for better planning, and may identify new improvement projects.

Organisational wish lists and budget motivations can be toxic; they create a culture that says ‘we have to purchase more’ and add more equipment every year. Moreover, most organisations are not good about enforcing strategies to throw out the old and introduce the new.  In the end we keep the old, the broken and the new. Perhaps organisations should develop the courage and common sense to buy only that which is required. Or, we need to sort more efficiently.

The last and hardest lesson is that there is attachment and reluctance to let go of certain items.  We need a strategy to make peace with letting go.  This is where making sorting and sifting a daily habit is helpful.  When we continuously strive to sort, tidy and get rid of unwanted items it becomes a habit, not a rare, overwhelming and stressful event.

data-sorting-legoSorting does not need to be overwhelming if it becomes routine.

You don’t have to get rid of 465 items to begin feeling the positive impact of sorting, but I would challenge you to get sorting as a routine, and allow flow into your life and work!

Written by Charmaine Cunningham, a Lean Institute Africa (LIA) Collaborator, currently collaborating with LIA on the Lean Management Development Programme at Groote Schuur Hospital. This post is also published on Charmaine Cunningham’s blog page at