Envisioning your dream system
Before you begin gathering your belongings, discarding, or reorganizing, Marie Kondo asks you to envision your dream lifestyle. She insists that this is the critical first step to ensuring success with her method, and she provides some guidance on how to do so and examples from her clients. The example she uses in her book is a young woman who lives in a tiny apartment, typical of Japanese cities. Her floor is covered with things and her bed is a storage space when she isn’t sleeping on it. She comes home from work tired and her living space compounds that exhaustion. Her dream is simple: to have the space be free from clutter, like a hotel suite, where she can come home and relax with tea and a bath before bed.
While the situation may be different for someone who has responsibility for stores of corporate data and systems, the process of envisioning your ideal environment is not. As you begin to examine your systems, information architecture, data—an information landscape, in general—it’s absolutely critical to have in mind what you want. Having in mind “better” or “new technology” leads you towards trends and vendors with cool product features that may meet your needs, but more likely will end up contributing to the data and system clutter in the long run. It may seem like a simplistic question, “What do you want?” but your efforts in defining that will help you navigate the marketplace of emerging technology. At this point, it is important not to focus on the process or the items in front of you that you may or may not want to keep; rather, envisioning your ideal end-state, be it a living space filled with only things you love or a database filled only with data that supports your business, is what empowers you to move forward.
If you’re a savvy tech professional, you’re already thinking, “This is the requirements gathering process,” and you would be right. There is no shortage of requirements gathering methodologies out there and most of them are pretty good. If it gets you to envision an ideal that is vendor and tool agnostic and is based on the needs and desires of your key stakeholders and end-users, your method is fine. If your requirements include things like, “better search functionality,” or, “more insight into what data we have,” it’s very likely that you’re also in need of some data decluttering.
Get started by defining your categories
Marie Kondo’s method requires you to see your belongings in two overarching categories: things that spark joy and everything else. Everything else should be discarded. For our purposes, datathat sparks joy is data that serves your business. It is helpful to look at the antithesis of joy to get an idea of what should be kept or discarded. For example, if you are facing an audit, the antithesis of joy is not being able to produce the documentation that the auditor needs to conduct the audit. That could be because you can’t access it, because what you have isn’t what they need, you don’t have what they need, or what they need is too difficult to find amidst data and information that you have. In this example, the information that allows you to have peace of mind during an audit is what you should keep. The bigger pattern here is that it’s important to know what business processes, data flows, decision points, and dependencies are impacting your business, and what the inputs and outputs are to those process steps.
Before you can begin to discard by category, you must know what categories drive your business. Marie Kondo starts by outlining a series of categories that guide her clients through the process of discarding. She starts with clothing, then books, then papers, then everything else. She breaks down these categories even further, allowing people with astonishingly large and complex collections of things to take a systematic approach to decluttering. With organizational data, this approach will work, but the way you define the categories depends on the kind of organization you are.
The categories you need should emerge out of your efforts at process improvement. From Investopedia: “Kaizen is a Japanese term meaning ‘change for the better’ or ‘continuous improvement.’ It is a Japanese business philosophy regarding the processes that continuously improve operations and involve all employees. Kaizen sees improvement in productivity as a gradual and methodical process.”(1) Often, semantic work is done alongside large-scale business process improvement efforts. Businesses want to know what the information inputs and outputs are, and they want to know how that information influences decisions and actions. These efforts are often iterative, and it’s not uncommon to uncover conflicts in how people understand the data, or what they use it for. I remember working with a team of medical experts who all used “normal” as a data point in their diagnostic processes. It took our team years to come up with a good way to encode “normal” because each expert meant something different by the term. There were heated debates about whether or not “normal” meant within the context of a patient who might be legally blind, in which case a low visual acuity score might be considered normal, or if normal was a cohort or population average, in which case that patient’s low score was not normal. These conflicts and pain points are like mismatched socks and poorly-fitting jeans: they’re your clue about where you need to look at your data. This is also the starting point for determining which categories you need to use to evaluate your data. Do not strong-arm your conflicts into silence; use them to light the way ahead.
Building the categories that matter to you
The KonMari method categories are presented in an order that begins by teaching us what it means to feel that spark of joy (clothing) and works through household items that might be useful but not particularly exciting, and ends with items of sentimental value (photos and heirlooms). One of the big challenges of applying the KonMari method to organizational data is that this rubric and categorization doesn’t easily map to things like clothing and photos. However, the underlying idea of what is essential to our survival and our comfort does easily translate to data. Don’t get bogged down in the details too soon. Kondo advises that you create subcategories according to your need.
When I was organizing my miscellaneous items, I uncovered some camping gear I had purchased a couple years ago with the intention of going on a long bike ride that involved camping at night. I was unable to go, so I packed the gear away for another time. As I went through the process of evaluating my belongings using the KonMari method, I decided I’ve always enjoyed camping and I was going to make space in my life for it. I booked a camping trip for a few days, loaded my gear into a rental car, and put my gear to the test.
This camping trip was rich with lessons, pleasant and painful both. I took the gear I had bought for the bike trip, but since I had a car, I also supplemented it with larger and heavier items I knew would be useful now that I had the space. Things I thought would be overkill turned out to be very useful: extra flashlight, large water container, spare book of matches, extra pillow, folding chair, extra plastic tub, etc. Things I was certain I would use ended up coming home unused: pancake mix, spare sleeping bag, two changes of clothes, packets of sample skin and hair products, etc. And I found there were things I needed in the moment that I didn’t have: a lighter, fire starters, strong bug spray, an umbrella, and 4WD. The underlying lesson here is that your gear should enable the activities you want to do. And different types of gear serve different types of experiences, even if they’re categorically similar. If you look at the gear belonging to someone who likes glamping and compare it to someone who likes to through-hike the Appalachian Trail, there may not be a whole lot of overlap in the specifics, even though the categories are the same. This is because your process determines your needs.
Camping gear is often designed to meet basic human needs and provide basic creature comforts. Complex business processes can draw from this analog example, in that your categories are going to appear around the essential tasks of your business. In many of the projects I’ve done in the past, some effort has been made to identify key information areas that need development using Continuous Improvement or Kaizen principles. Information artifacts, key concepts, subject headings,however you choose to refer to them, are the overarching conceptual subjects that drive your business. Using the camping example, this might look like the following: Sleep, Food, Hygiene, Recreation. If you break down sleep, the process could be as simple as laying out a tarp and a blanket and wrapping yourself up in it and going to sleep. Or it might be as complex as building a platform, building a tent, constructing a bed frame, unfolding sheets, pillows, and blankets, securing the tent, and finally going to sleep. In both scenarios, there are categories for sleep surface, shelter, and bedding.
Another key comparison comes up when considering duplication and re-use. Chances are, you aren’t going to need a different sleeping bag for each camping scenario. It’s interesting to note that if you go into an outdoor supply outfitter looking for sleeping bags, you will find a range of options based on very specific situations. If your business is camping, you just might need several different bags! But for most people, this just adds complexity and expense. You do want to make sure the zipper works so you can control the amount of body heat you’re trapping in the bag, and if you’re camping in the cold you might add a blanket. But otherwise, a multi-season sleeping bag that’s comfortable and easy to care for is going to be re-used over and over in many camping scenarios.
For a business, the examples might range from a child’s lemonade stand to Starbucks. The information objects are going to be similar: menu, supplies metrics. Once you’ve established these categories, you can look at your data systematically. Coming up with these key concepts allows you to define the scope of your work and priorities for development.
Now that you’ve got a sense of how to create a list of categories based on your business processes, you can begin the process of discarding. As with the process so far, it’s not as simple as it is for your possessions at home. Disposition of data within an enterprise, large or small, comes with politics and legal requirements. In part three, you will see some ideas about where to start with data disposition and how to use your company’s data disposition strategies to your advantage.
From Peter: One thing that strikes me is that the Japanese lady with the messy room knows more about what she doesn’t want than exactly what she does want, and so it might be for people with their information systems. It might be useful, and perhaps easier, to start off with a list of what you don’t want and then shift emphasis to what you *do* want. Just a thought….
Another is that in Kaizen there is the notion of Kaizen Blitz, where we don’t do the change over a protracted period of time but get all the players into place and then move with speed (usually well under a week) to reach the goal. Perhaps you can bring this in as well.