Automation & Motion Control

Slideshow: Messiest Engineering Desks

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Keith Dickens
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Organization is not optional.
Keith Dickens   10/27/2011 11:28:19 AM

There are tons of people out there willing to point out the obvious about a clean desk which include things like, cleanliness benefits the company as a whole, it makes the office more inviting, and it gives the appearance of organization, blah, blah, blah.  That stuff is all true but they are the tertiary benefits to an organized workspace.  I’ve headed my company’s 5S movement, I did so not understanding the concepts at the beginning, and I was in opposition to it in many ways. 

Until I went through it myself.  On the surface, all of those people that haven’t done 5S see are clean desk tops.  “Sterile” is often the word they use.  But that is about 5% of the total depth of the process.  In fact, I use a PowerPoint in day one of training, one slide is dedicated to the cleaning the process.  And by the end of the 3rd or 4th week, the term sterile is completely out of the picture as they have regrown their offices and workstations to be truly personalized spaces that reflect efficiency, communication, and personality.

I trained 200+ employees over the past year and continued to learn more and more. After spearheading this training with group after group of people that started day one with some of the worst negative attitudes I have ever seen in training (seriously, I was taking personal shots from fellow employees), the nearly unanimous opinion at the end of the week was that not only was this needed in our company but that it was one of the most positive experiences they had ever gone through with the company.  And the pictures in this article are very representative of many desks in our organization pre 5S, not just engineers.

And those desks don’t say genius.  People who think that they say genius are the people that don’t want to organize their desks.  Or they want to but don’t think they have the luxury of time to get it done anyway.   These desks are simply the signs of messy people that don’t like other people touching their stuff and they may even like to radiate and unwelcoming pulse in their areas.  They should put up signs that say “Here’s the guest chair, that’s where you go. Please keep your arms in at all times.”  No one in your company should be awarded this mindset.

True organization should welcome collaboration and openness in the work area, not a fear to touch anything or that you’re going to knock something important or expensive to the floor.  Cluster organization systems like the ones in these pictures are one strong gust of wind or one errant hand gesture away from being turned into another type of cluster that ends in a strong “F” word.  If you are the only one that knows how they are organized and something disorganizes them, like an open window or subtle earthquake, or angry colleague, then it sucks to be you. True organization also keeps in mind some very serious organization-wide concerns like the need to address succession planning. There are TONS of people leaving the workforce in the coming few years and an office like this says one of two things; 1) I’ll leave it for the next guy to figure out, or 2) I’ll spend the last few weeks/months of my employment handling it.  Neither should be acceptable.

But succession planning isn’t just about people retiring, it’s about anyone that needs a quick short or long term replacement. It’s great that you can find everything in your piles of work, but if someone else can’t come in and find it if you are hit by a bus then you are failing at a part of your job.  It’s also turned out that our 5S training uncovered the uncomfortable truth that all those people with organized piles couldn’t always find their own stuff as quickly as they had thought.  They were frequently telling people “I’ll have to get back to you on it” even though they were standing over their own desks scratching their heads.

Keep in mind that it may be the work area that you are assigned to but it is not your home.  You were hired for your unique talents in your field and after a time you have the right to feel irreplaceable based on those talents and skills.  You do not have the right to feel irreplaceable because you are the only who knows where the hell everything is at.  Companywide organization is no more optional than effective communication. 

In addition, there is difference between being messy and being filthy.  Those desk aren’t just messy, they are filthy.  People think they are clean because the desktop surface isn’t visible, but dust falls, boxes and engineering equipment be damned.  The dust went somewhere, and it went somewhere harder to clean like the seven-hundred plus horizontal surfaces you have created with all the piles of papers and equipment that never gets cleaned by either the cleaning crew or the workspace owner.  You will have problems with dust mites, spiders, and ants; maybe even cockroaches and mice.  And don’t think that just because you don’t eat or snack in your area that those things aren’t there because none of those things I listed above require human food remnants to thrive.  Cardboard boxes, PCB, and styrofoam are enough. 

Here are the top two things that people in my company have reported (based on survey results gathered using SurveyMonkey) post 5S training;

1.       1...Most people feel ownership of their areas for the first having gotten rid of decade’s worth of their predecessor’s (an often times their predecessor’s predecessor’s) files.  They feel that for first time since they moved into their stations that they control the workflow and storage of their workspace, not the other way around.  They aren’t simply using whatever scheme they inherited. In some cases, they inherited those schemes and organizational logic and habits from jobs in companies that they don’t even work at any more but brought them with them to a new company.  Sure, they didn’t bring the physical files, but they still brought the habit which might be worse.

2.      2... They have sense of freedom and control.  Organized and clean work areas have translated to an openness and welcoming nature to new work that is counter to the feeling of being buried every time you turn around in their workspace...there is a pile here, a pile there, and a new pile just showed up.  Most people that have offices like these will occasionally look around their areas at their “organized stacks” and think to themselves that someday they’ll “get to it”, not even know what “get to it” even means.  It means they recognize there is problem that needs addressing.  Look at those offices above; who feels more buried in work, the guys in those offices or the guy with a clean desk?  In either scenario they both may have huge amounts of work to do but the removal of the piles allows for the psyche to concentrate on the job at hand and put the stack of next actions, next tasks, and next work out sight and out of mind where they should be while concentrating on the job at hand.

I strongly urge all readers to invest in the book Getting Things Done by David Allen and seriously investigate the use of 5S/Lean concepts within their organizations.


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bdcst   10/27/2011 1:38:12 PM
That first example of a messy desk, for heaven's sake, is quite neat and organized, much like mine looks after I've cleaned up!  The difference are the walls!  Mine are plastered with notes and printouts scotch taped to them.  The most pressing paperwork is taped to the front of storage cabinets above my desk/bench in plain view so my aging synapsis will stay refreshed.  And, yes there are piles of boxes and equipment chassis on the floor and under my desk.  Eventually I'll rotate stuff down to a cellar storage area to make room for more stuff.  That storage area is organized in great piles of equipment properly categorized so I can retrieve stuff quickly without much sifting.

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I'm Amazed Sometimes...
microengineer   10/27/2011 1:58:44 PM
It never ceases to amaze me that, most unfortunately, in several companies I've worked for the engineer doing extremely technical and difficult work would not be given sufficient space and/or what they need to be productive AND happy.

It got to the point where one time I was doing embedded firmware, PCB design, prototype assembly, and debugging all in one tiny area.

And yet seemingly a guy doing paperwork all day (non-management) gets a nice office instead of a cubicle, with sufficient room for additional shelves and cabinets.

It's my nature to be organized and neat, but people quite often I find myself asking, "Why"?  Ultimately, who really cares?

However at home on my own engineering workbench, where ironically I sometimes have better tools & instruments, it's always nice, neat and clean.  Generally more welcoming, too!

Food for thought.

TJ McDermott
User Rank
There is a pattern to these images
TJ McDermott   10/27/2011 2:56:57 PM
It looked like 10 out of the 11 images shown were the desks of electrical engineers or people working with electronics.  One was covered completely with papers only.

I've noticed that electrical engineers tend to be much more chaotic with their workspace than mechanical engineers.  What does THAT say?

Alexander Wolfe
User Rank
Re: There is a pattern to these images
Alexander Wolfe   10/27/2011 3:27:59 PM
Design News readers should send their messy desk pictures to me, so we can do a follow-up slide show focused on mechanical engineerings. Mail your pictures to: alex.wolfe@ubm.com

User Rank
Re: There is a pattern to these images
corte33   10/27/2011 4:04:33 PM
It's hard to put a steam turbine on your desk.

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Judging Messy Desks
melllowfelllow   10/27/2011 5:00:31 PM
It is easy for us to post our personal opinions about 'messiness', but I tend to take a bit of a variable view towards it. Two parameters that I have used on folks that worked for me in the past. Have you 'used it' in the last 2 weeks OR can you perform direct access to anything in the pile. When things look out of hand, I have even given 'pop quizzes'. In cases where I was not familiar with the content, I would send the 'suspect' away and select [and not remove] 5 items. The quiz would be 'find these 5 things'. No formal 'grade' was given, but the process caused a few folks to clean up their act - there was always a few that could access them instantly. The long term result was not a drastic increase in 'things looking neater' [although there was an improvement], but an improvement [and consciousness of] 'relevant and accessible stuff'.

Ralphy Boy
User Rank
Re: Workbenches
Ralphy Boy   10/27/2011 5:13:14 PM
Yup… I totally agree with mid-project clean up.

My desk and workbench both approach some of these guys'... The key to deflecting criticism of this state of affairs is to explain that not tossing or misplacing something that I'll need to complete the job is very important... and since I never know what that thing is until I need it...

Then there are the projects that take years to complete… Oh yeah…

Abdullah Eyles
User Rank
small photos...
Abdullah Eyles   10/28/2011 7:22:38 AM
Great article but why are the photos so small? is there a copyright problem (maybe we're not supposed to see what's happening on those desks!)

I missed my days of working among a pile of equipment, but can't claim to have qualified for this "competition".

Jack Rupert, PE
User Rank
Re: Workbenches
Jack Rupert, PE   10/28/2011 3:13:21 PM
I think we should split the article in two:  desks vs. workbenches.  One of which by nature might tend more toward messiness.

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