A few years ago I worked in a department with a dozen or so Project Managers who were all highly qualified Six Sigma professionals. They were a great bunch to be around and during my time there I did learn a lot about the dark art of project management! Many of the department’s projects aimed to improve the business and eliminate wasted time, effort and general errors. The PMs all had tools and techniques in their skill set which allowed them to identify critical issues and then resolve and improve the process. One of the projects I worked on used a methodology called ‘5 S’ which was used to improve the overall office environment and to learn how to organise your office and keep it that way!

How to organise your office and keep it that way!

I would imagine a lot of assistants, as I did in the past, use the quieter holiday period to sort all of their offices out, clear their drawers and chuck away all of the rubbish they’ve accumulated over the year. This exercise tends to incorporate not just the workspace but other parts of the department too, and it can be quite a messy job. So I thought I’d share with you the knowledge I gained from the 5s project, how to adapt the methodology for assistants and office managers so that you don’t have to have a big sort out at the end of each year.

So to start, what exactly is 5s?

Well according to Wikipedia 5s is the name of a workplace organisation method that uses a list of five Japanese words, they all start with the letter “S”. The list describes how to organise a work space for efficiency and effectiveness by identifying and storing the items used, maintaining the area and items, and sustaining the new order.

The five words (translated into English) are:






And, this is how you use the method to organise your office and keep it that way!


This is usually the hardest bit but also the most rewarding. The ‘sort’ part of the process means you have to sort through all of your stuff! If your office is out of control, there are things in the cupboards dating back to the 1970s (literally the case when I did this exercise) and folders of paper that are using up valuable space then they need to be CHUCKED AWAY! Or at least put into archive storage somewhere away from your office. This part of the process does take quite a bit of time, and you will need to get help from your colleagues, which can be tricky so my advice would be to have a sorting day led by the office manager or Director. That day should be dedicated to sorting only with lots of bins provided for all of the rubbish which is bound to appear. The goal of this stage is to get rid of as much stuff as possible however there will be stuff left. This should be organised into two areas – things that will be used every day and the stuff that is used occasionally. Remember to be ruthless!


So by this stage, all of the unnecessary clutter has been removed from the office and you are left with the things that you use on a regular basis. The next exercise is to create a system that enables you to retrieve your things quickly and efficiently. So store all of your everyday items within easy reach, this could be anything from a stapler, to active files to a printer. The point of doing this is that you are reducing the time you waste getting the things you need to do your job. All of your files and papers etc. should be labelled and that label should be easily viewed. Items that are used less frequently but are still essential should be placed neatly in storage near to your workspace. Make sure everything has a location that it returns to after use so that you can keep the area organised at all times.

At this point I should mention that the 5s approach also works for all electronic items, so make sure you declutter your email system and your electronic files too!


This is the point where you have everything you need in its right place, and you’ve rid yourself of the rubbish, so the next step is to make everything look nice and clean. You might not necessarily do this work yourself because at no point in your career should you be responsible for maintaining the cleanliness of the office but once you have a clear space, you could ask the cleaning staff to give everything a thorough once-over and invite your colleagues to maintain this standard.

Part of the ‘5 S’ methodology is that by standardising the work environment habits will form that cement the organisation of the space. So, in other words, make a habit of quickly sorting through items that clutter up space such as the incoming mail, magazines and other items that can be left about the office. Once clutter starts looking out of place, your colleagues will feel uncomfortable leaving the office in a mess (well they should!)


So now that you have the first three phases completed the next stage is to make this standard practice across the department. You may need to create a set of rules for everyone to follow or add the details to an established department guidebook. However, you instigate the process your aim is to standardise the office space so that everyone is keeping it clean, efficient and fit for purpose.


Eeekkk! Now comes the hard work. The office looks lovely, everything has a home, and the waste has been dealt with, but this has to be sustained. How do we do this? Well, you could carry on with sorting days possibly once a month or every six months depending on your colleagues. Scheduling time in for them to remove any unnecessary clutter that has built up over that period might help them make the process a habit. Alternatively, you could have a monthly inspection of the shared space (cupboards/drawers etc.) and remove any waste that has been left there. This may seem a bit harsh so I would suggest you send a warning email to your colleagues before you throw any paperwork away. Regardless of how you sustain the process, you will need to be in charge of it and put yourself up as a role model for your colleagues to follow.

By instigating the 5 S methodology, you will be surprised at how rewarding it is for you and colleagues to have a tidy and well-organised space. Productivity should increase, and you will have a nice, clean and clutter-free environment to work in. It is well worth the effort to gain the results. For more articles on productivity check out the key skills section of Practically Perfect PA.