The three types of organizational clutter found in most organizations (physical, institutional, and mental) and why cleaning up your clutter is important
“It’s kind of an embarrassing story, but I must admit that many years ago, I had an extremely cluttered desk,” said Bill, our BlueDragon VP of Research & Development. “One day, my boss walked into my office to talk to me, and the clutter in my office had become really conspicuous.” He said, “your desk is a mess, and you should spend time organizing.” I said, “yes, I really need to clean up my desk,” and he responded with something interesting and insightful: “I don’t know how you can focus and get anything done.” Bill continued: “The implication was that I had so much stuff crowding the very limited space I had to work in, and the clutter was limiting my productivity. So, I cleaned it up so I could see the top of my desk, giving me some elbow room, and the cleaning and organizing helped me with my focus and productivity.” This story exemplifies the first type of organizational clutter we often see; the spatial clutter in our physical spaces, causing us to be disorganized, lose focus and limit individual productivity.
A trendy author named Marie Kondo calls herself an “Organization Consultant.” She wrote the bestselling book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up (Kondo, 2014) and has sold millions of books, and she also had her own TV show on Netflix. And what we’re discussing here in an office environment resonates with what she’s trying to do, although she’s doing it in a domestic setting.
Spatial clutter in our organization prevents our effective movement. It causes distractions that can cause us to lose focus on safety, security, and many other aspects of performance within an organization.
A second type of clutter is institutional clutter which can develop over a period of time. Let’s say we purchased a new piece of equipment, and we had to write procedures related to that equipment. And at some point, we stop using that equipment, but the procedure stays on the books. Over time, we do many things institutionally, such as developing policies, procedures, instructions, or even organizational structures that eventually lose all relevance. But we don’t go back and “clean up” the books or update the operational documentation to reflect our current situation. In the United States legal system, we can find laws that are no longer relevant (although some are very amusing) but are still on the books and can get us arrested:
In Indiana, it’s illegal to ride a horse above 10 mph.
In Oklahoma, tripping a horse is outlawed.
In Arizona, it’s illegal for a donkey to sleep in a bathtub.
In California, it’s illegal to whistle for a lost canary before 7 a.m.
In New York, slippers are not to be worn after dark.
In Oregon, it’s illegal to go hunting in a cemetery.
At BlueDragon, many of our clients suffer from both types of clutter described above. An example of how institutional clutter diverts focus and attention from what personnel should focus on can be found in the corrective action databases. Whenever there is an event, non-conformance, or non-compliance with requirements, the organization generates corrective actions. Over time, an organization can end up with hundreds or even thousands of open corrective actions in its corrective action program databases. In studying the distribution of those corrective actions at many of our client sites, over 90% of those corrective actions are administrative in nature. These corrective actions and their associated policy and procedural changes create an enormous amount of clutter made up of new procedure enhancements, additional training requirements, and other programmatic actions and activities that are continuously being institutionalized.
To make matters worse, the analyses for most of the issues described above lack sufficient depth and do not identify the deepest-seated causes of these issues. The subsequent corrective actions are merely “band-aiding” symptoms and will not prevent the recurrence of the problems. This situation nearly guarantees that the organization will generate hundreds or thousands of new corrective actions each year. These “legacy” corrective actions require scores of individuals to divert their attention from everyday work, to figure out how to address the issues, how to close them out, to document and support the closure of each issue, and to obtain management approvals to close out those issues. Dealing with large corrective action databases is typically not budgeted (i.e., they go on overhead). This use of time and resources take away from mission-critical tasks: they add tremendous institutional clutter to the organization.
There is also a third type of clutter that dramatically hinders an organization’s overall effectiveness: mental clutter. And an excellent way to highlight mental clutter is by discussing Dr. Ellen Langer’s work on “mindfulness” (Langer, 1989). Dr. Ellen Langer is a professor in the Psychology Department at Harvard University, where she has been described as the “mother of mindfulness.”
One of the most important things to point out about Ellen Langer’s work is her idea that “mindfulness” is being able to focus on mission-critical tasks. To highlight Dr. Langer’s distinction between mindful tasks and less mindful tasks, let’s use the example of driving a car with a manual stick shift. If we’re driving a car with a stick shift, pushing the clutch and shifting through the gears must go into muscle memory. Developing competence in manually shifting gears allows us to focus on the more critical “mindful” tasks, such as keeping our eyes on the road, paying attention to oncoming traffic, obeying traffic signals, and navigating to our destination. We can’t be mindful of oncoming traffic and navigating if we’re looking down to see exactly where the clutch is and where the gearshift goes; we want those to be less mindful tasks (i.e., committed to muscle memory). In our organizations, it helps to distinguish which are the less mindful tasks requiring competency and which are the mindful tasks essential to operations and the safe completion of mission-critical tasks.
Understanding mindfulness helps us describe a third kind of organizational clutter: mental clutter. We should strive to train our organizations (from a competency standpoint) on activities and behaviors that need to go into muscle memory so that we can pay more attention to our mission. A great example would be industrial safety practices that keep us safe in the workplace. Another would be understanding what constitutes harassment, intimidation, and discrimination in the workplace, harmful behaviors that organizations must avoid. Committing these activities and behaviors to “muscle memory” will not only result in a safer and more effective organization but will also reduce the mental clutter of having to deal with a steady stream of injuries and allegations so that the organization can be more mindful of the things they should be doing; the mission-critical tasks.
Let’s summarize the three major types of organizational clutter we have identified in this paper:
Physical Clutter: clutter in our physical spaces that can cause us to be disorganized, lose focus and limit our productivity. In the worst of cases, physical clutter can manifest itself in our spaces, causing situations like an amount of combustible material allowed in a room that exceeds fire loading limits.
Institutional Clutter: clutter that can develop over time when organizations institutionalize programs, policies, and procedures without periodically re-evaluating whether they are needed. In many organizations, this is true of procedures, training programs and corrective action databases.
Mental Clutter: clutter from not committing certain activities and behaviors to “muscle memory” (another term for less mindful tasks), causing the organization to divert their attention from minding their mission-critical tasks to correct those behaviors.
The BlueDragon® Integrated Problem-solving System (IPS™) can identify and eliminate the causes of these types of clutter by investigating the symptoms that are the visible manifestation of clutter and by proactively conducting self-assessments, program reviews, vulnerability analysis, and threat assessments that evaluate the effectiveness of an organization’s defenses (i.e., the administrative requirements, physical and cyber barriers that should be preventing issues and at-risk behaviors).
To help your organizations, tidy up your workspace to improve your focus and avoid distractions; avoid institutionalizing scores of new procedures and training requirements to reduce institutional burden; and develop proficiency in activities and behaviors that we ingrain in our “muscle memory” to avoid having to deal with issues that distract us from our mission. Decluttering is hugely important, and BlueDragon IPS can help.
And to wrap up, we’d like to reach out to Marie Kondo: we only know her by reputation but admire her reputation and the great following she has established. If she would like to write another book and work with two organizational consultants that are experts in cleaning up organizational clutter, we would be very excited to work with her (call us!).
- Kondo, M. (2014). The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing: Ten Speed Press.
- Langer, E. J. (1989). Mindfulness. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.
William Toth, Ph.D. – BlueDragon VP of Research & Development
Rob De La Espriella, BD3 – CEO and Founder, BlueDragon IPS
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