Messy or Neat?

I worked with a guy once who kept the cleanest desk. The surface contained:

  • 1 computer
  • 1 phone
  • 1 pop-up post-it dispenser
  • 1 pencil cup with 1 red pen, 1 blue pen, 1 black pen, 1 mechanical pencil

(He also had a unique method of filing: first, he threw almost everything away – “If I need it later, I’ll ask the person who sent it to me to send it to me again” – and, with few exceptions, everything else just got stacked in a file drawer. When the drawer was full, he removed the contents, flipped it over, and discarded the oldest half, and put the other half back in the drawer. You laugh, but I eventually tried it, and it works – especially since almost everything can be retained by scan now.)

At first, I didn’t know how he did it. My desk was not, well, messy, but I had a whole bunch of piles with different projects on top and another half-dozen stacks on my credenza. Then I challenged myself to join him in the clean-desk club and I loved it. My concentration improved, I was calmer, and I was more productive. But my shadow-self still creates multiple piles on the desk and credenza when things get busiest.

I’m seeing a lot of articles out there about how clutter makes you more productive. I don’t necessarily buy that – yes, I’ve known some clutterbugs who, when asked for a number, could reach into a mound (and I mean a mountain with sloping sides, not a neat stack) on their desk and pull out exactly the green bar report that they needed. So it is possible that some people find that the energy required to keep their areas neat drains them of their creative juices – or maybe they get new ideas by seeing all their earlier work around them or something. But I think it’s ridiculous to say one size fits all.

At one point, I thought everyone should have a neat workspace – I even asked entry-level candidates to describe a workspace in their home, how they had it organized, etc. (In addition to revealing whether they were a clean-space or a messy-space person, it told me about their organizational skills.) Eventually I stopped asking that question and just set the standard that their space had to be organized enough that the rest of us could navigate it, in case they won the lottery and moved to Tahiti or something, and we had to keep the work going without them.

But those are office people. In stores, it’s different, because everyone shares the same workspace. In most stores, the managers share an office and, if the store is large enough, another, separate, cash room. The receiving crew shares the stock room; and these areas require a level of organization beyond personal preferences.

I’ve been part of these efforts in the past. In the mid-90s, I was project manager for a plan to update and standardize the file-systems for the manager’s offices. My VP tested it in a couple of stores: they opened every file in every file drawer, looked at the contents, determined whether the law required that it be retained and, if not, tossed it on the floor. I remember seeing mountains – literally as tall as my VP – of obsolete documents and records.

Then we took the remaining forms and records, organized them, created color-coded folders and labels with retention requirements, refiled the forms and records that needed to be retained, and tested that. Once it proved out, I put an assembly line together to assemble and ship pre-organized kits to 900 stores.

Was it worth it? Well, it made it much easier for the store managers to find what they needed and, when a manager transferred to a new store, they could easily put their hands on the things they needed on day 1. So, it saved time. And it made it easier for managers to see what forms they had enough of and what they needed to reorder, so it saved money. And it kept managers from throwing away necessary records (and/or keeping unnecessary records), so it lowered our risk.

Later, I managed a team that was responsible for updating the ISO for the stores. This team and I would visit stores, look at stockrooms, and recommend changes to organize them for greater efficiency (and, often, spread great ideas from successful receiving managers). In my mind, there is nobody, hands-down more efficient and organized in store than an effective receiving manager – they just hate wasted effort so much. Logistics managers are overlooking an untapped pool of talent in retail receiving managers.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on all this – what’s your preference – clean desk or messy desk?

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