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« Overcoming Procrastination Over Decisions | Main | Good News and Bad News »
Monday
Jun092008

Noguchi Filing System

A remark today by a reader in my Discussion Forum reminded me of something which had intrigued me in the past but which I had never followed up. This is the Noguchi Filing System. I was intrigued by it because it is in some ways similar to the filing system which I use myself and often recommend, though I developed this before I had heard of Noguchi.

In both systems the idea is that files are put on a shelf rather than in a filing cabinet, and the most recently used file is always replaced at the left end of the shelf so that files are in the order they were last used. This results in much faster retrieval of files because the most used files are always to be found towards the left of the shelf.

Where the systems differ is that I keep papers in fairly conventional subject files, while Noguchi suggests opening a folder (actually a cut-down large envelope) for every document.

I was very interested to know how this would work in practice. It is one of those counter-intuitive systems which can only be judged by trying it out.

So having armed myself with a large number of C4 envelopes, I started filing the Noguchi way this afternoon. And actually my first impression is that it works quite well, especially with the type of document one never quite knows what to do with. 

817805-1632812-thumbnail.jpgLooking at my shelf, from the left I now have the following documents each filed in its own envelope with a description written down the right hand edge, where I can see it easily:

  • A leaflet giving changes to my bank’s standard tariff
  • A pamphlet from my bank giving “important information” about my business account
  • A pamphlet giving the Terms & Conditions for my business bank account
  • My list of commonly used phone numbers
  • A newspaper article about “Discretionary Portfolio Management”
  • The latest copy of my Parish Magazine
  • The latest weekly “pew sheet” from my church
Since I’ve only just filed these, they are not yet in “last-used” order, but I feel that I am now in control of them and can retrieve them easily. As you will have seen, none of these are the sort of thing which fits easily into a conventional file (which is the reason why they were lying around in the first place!) So far then, a definite improvement.

Reader Comments (27)

Hi Mark

I was interested in this post not so much for the filing method itself but for the fascinating idea of replacing an item consistently to the left hand side of the shelf. I thought it would translate brilliantly to my book shelves.

I have many and varied interests which means an awful lot of books and whenever I try to slim down my collection I always get worried about getting rid of books that I may want in future (this has happened a number of times already after clearouts!). So when I saw this idea I thought it would be a brilliant way to actually find out exactly which books I do use and which remain untouched.

Obviously if an area of interest hasn't been in use for a while then I may have to wait until it has been used to get a better picture of which books can stay and which go, but for those areas I am currently using it will be a fantastic way to get immediate feedback on which are the books I really use. I can also see how it would work in the same way for music or film collections. The only drawback I can see is that any existing organising system might get a bit muddled but taking a little longer to relocate an item is a small price to pay for the information it will give on what you actually use as opposed to what you think you use.
June 13, 2008 at 21:48 | Unregistered CommenterHannah
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June 15, 2008 at 15:21 | Unregistered CommenterFrank Severino
Dear Hannah

I've used the "replace on the left" system with the books in my office for a long-time now. It makes finding the books I refer to most often very quick.

The main disadvantage with such a system (which applies to the filing as well) is that it only works for one person. If you are filing or running a library which is used by more than one person, it doesn't work.
June 16, 2008 at 10:35 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
When we saw your similar system with Lever arch files described in "Do It Tomorrow" we thought it a good sign as my wife and I have been using Noguchi for over a year.

We made some refinements, however. It is an onus to have to label each file, so we use transparent plastic wallets which usually makes the contents clear.without a label.Also because of the quantity of files, we separate them into categories by colour coding them with an A4 card - a stiff card helps prevent them collapsing from the shelf. Each colour represents a Covey-type role,the main roles are followed by the Sharpen-the-Saw ones. Thus all the housekeeping ones are together, all the Community ones together, etc, and new files are placed at the left of the appropriate role. In appearance the shelf of files is rainbow-like. The system works quite well and we have emptied and removed a number of filing cabinets.

Although we are using Stephen Covey's system of classifying roles, the above method of filing should be generally applicable.
June 23, 2008 at 6:46 | Unregistered CommenterLaurence
Laurence:

What you are doing sounds interesting, but I'm not quite clear from your description what you are doing with the most recently used files. Are they going back on the left end of their colour-code, so that rather than the one "left-end" envisaged by Noguchi (as I understand it), you have the same number of "left-ends" as you have categories?
June 23, 2008 at 22:48 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
That's right, after using a file, we put it back at the left hand side of the collection of files of that colour, so essentially we have about a dozen Noguchi systems side by side. We started off with just the one as he recommended but it turned our to be more practical to have "similar together".

So looking at it now I see to the left of the shelf the collection of Housekeeping files (Red), next to them the orange ones (Creativity), and so on. We use the rainbow ordering just to remember the order to place the colours in and we restart it (with paler colours if possible) for the Sharpen the Saw roles, To Covey's 4 roles of Physical, Mental, Spiritual and Social/Emotional we added Financial and Community.

We get the stationary in bulk at Staples and insert the coloured cards in the transparent wallets in advance. We have a third "rainbow" of empty files standing to the right of the Sharpen the Saw files. So filing a sheet of paper is as simple as selecting the appropriate colour of empty wallet, inserting the page, and placing it to the left of the appropriate section. To this system I owe the pleasure of sitting typing this at a clear desk, which several months ago used to be piled high.

Where the items are oversize, we use a larger transparent bag and place the appropriate colour of empty wallet inside it, and put the items in the bag and file it.
June 26, 2008 at 6:52 | Unregistered CommenterLaurence
Thanks, Laurence

I'm a bit handicapped in that I have never read what Noguchi says (since it's in Japanese) and so I only know his system from other people's quite short summaries. But my understanding is that he would use colour-coding in much the same way that you do, except that he would not group all the files of one colour together. Instead he would have one row of files and would put back all files regardless of colour on the left of the row. The colour-coding would still allow him to see where, for example, all the Creativity (orange) files were even though they were dispersed among all the other files.

I would be interested to know whether you tried it Noguchi's way before adopting your amended system. If you did, what do you see as the main advantages and disadvantages of the two different ways?
June 26, 2008 at 12:39 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Actually we did it Noguchi's way for quite a while, always filing to the extreme left of the shelf.

Since we adapted the system to separate the files into colour categories, it became faster to retrieve files, and the added focus made it feel better, with one specific new benefit: sometimes one may wish - if one is, for example, an artist - to take any relevant Creativity (orange) papers to the studio, without having any specific ones in mind first. It is much quicker to quickly leaf through the recent orange-backed wallets when they are all together, than if they are interspersed with other roles. It also helps focus the mind on that role and refresh what the most recent issues are. Similarly I find it quicker to retrieve a document even when one has a specific item in mind, as it is a question of heading straight for the colour section for the document, where, as often as not, it is the most recent.

On the other hand filing takes marginally longer as one has to select the boundary between two colours and insert the wallet there, whereas a Noguchi purist would immediately place it on the extreme left.

Perhaps the fact we use transparent wallets rather than opaque envelopes make these points more significant, as seeing the contents brings the file more to mind than a labelled envelope would.
June 27, 2008 at 16:59 | Unregistered CommenterLaurence
Thanks, Laurence

That's very interesting. Actually I haven't yet done any colour coding at all - I've not found it necessary with the present volume of papers. But then I've only been using the system so far for papers which don't fit easily into my formal filing system.

I'd be interested to know whether you use Noguchi for everything, or do you have "ordinary" files for things like bank statements, tax records, client correspondence and so on?
June 29, 2008 at 9:36 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
We use Noguchi for all documents - receipts, bank statements, tax correspondence. Of course there is a similarly ordered bookshelf

Laurence
June 30, 2008 at 16:05 | Unregistered CommenterLaurence
Sorry to keep asking questions about this, but I am genuinely interested in your experiences.

How far do you group similar documents together in one folder? As I understand Noguchi each document is supposed to have its own folder. To me it would make more sense to have a folder for "June receipts" or similar. How do you work this?
June 30, 2008 at 17:11 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
I think it's important to be able to file without it being a chore. In using Noguchi the way I have described, each act of filing should take a few seconds without giving it any thought.

In your example, filing a receipt, I would not keep in awareness any need to file June receipts together. I would look in the pink section (colour code for Finance) for a transparent wallet of receipts near the left of that section. I pull the file out, place the receipt in it, and put the file back at the left of pink. If the file is getting too full or unwieldy (or if there is no such file present or visible), I take out a new pink file and place it in that instead. It’s important not to be thinking at this stage about "June receipts". The beauty of the system is that it does not require thought.

The most I would do in conjunction with filing a piece of paper is note down an associated action (if there is one), in my MLO Inbox, which I process every day sending appropriate tasks to the Task Diary. (MLO is the software I use for planning - it has a hotkey facility for quickly noting new tasks.) This part only works if one has a trusted system for processing noted tasks, D.I.T. is much appreciated here.

The thinking comes when you need to collate the June receipts. If this is a monthly procedure, it might entail taking out the left-most Financial wallet that contains receipts, removing the July ones and placing them in a new file, which you would use for receipts until you did the same procedure in August.

I have also read somewhere the dictum that there should only be one piece of paper filed in each envelope, I had forgotten about that, and multiple documents in each wallet works better for me. Also, the more files, the more work, and I have tried to minimise the work involved.

So to summarise, I freely place multiple documents in the transparent wallets (this helps identify them visually too), and file without thinking (which is easier once one trusts the system).

Would it be helpful if I sent a photo of the files arranged on the shelves?
July 2, 2008 at 11:42 | Unregistered CommenterLaurence
Dear Laurence

Thanks for the further explanation. I don't expect you thought you would have to explain it at this length when you made your orginal post. However I am very grateful to you for doing so.

Yes, do please send a photo. Presumably you would be happy for me to publish it on this website? Please tell me if you're not.
July 3, 2008 at 14:29 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Yes it has been a long thread, and I'm delighted to have contributed. The photos are on the way, feel free to use them..
July 7, 2008 at 18:12 | Unregistered CommenterLaurence
Although intended to replace the filing cabinet, the Noguchi Filing idea also works quite well with conventional filing cabinets. In much the same way, I put the folder I took out latest at the front of the top drawer and when it gets tight move files from the back of the top drawer down to the front of the next one down and so on. Once a year I put a year marker in and sort alphabetically the files behind the year marker up to the previous year marker. The old stuff gradually makes its way to the bottom drawer and the advantage of alphabetically sorting the older years is it's easy to lay ones hands on older material if it becomes relevant again (although most of it doesn't).
July 16, 2008 at 23:28 | Unregistered CommenterChris Warner
thanks for the great information�
July 18, 2008 at 5:38 | Unregistered Commenterdthcnine
Laurence, this is definitely not for me. All these plastic bags. What a mess!
July 21, 2008 at 21:07 | Unregistered CommenterCarina
I have thought several times about using this kind of system for non-reference open ended things, or things I am still working on. My hat goes off to Lawrence for sharing his adaptation. I like the idea, though I agree with Carina that looking at all those plastic bags would make me feel like my office was a mess. If plastic sheet protectors or another kind of clear folder wouldn't work, I guess I'd have to stick to traditional folders or envelopes...

I do have some awesome LabelOnce stickers that work kinda like a wipe-off board that might be good. If I complete or read and discard whatever is in the file, I can re-use the folder by erasing the label. Or I can give it a more complete title and file it in my reference file.

Anyway, I'm willing to give this a try. Thanks for the ideas!
July 23, 2008 at 15:52 | Unregistered CommenterKyotocutie
Kyotocutie:

Thanks for your comments. Does your name imply that you are Japanese? In that case have you ever read any of Professor Noguchi's writings about his system - either in book form or on the web?

If you have, we'd all love to know whether we're doing it right!
July 24, 2008 at 8:17 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Dear Mark,,

Thanks for sharing your way of doing Noguchi filing. I read your book DIT before reading Noguchi's original book in Japanese (http://www.amazon.co.jp/gp/product/images/4121011597/sr=8-1/qid=1217699130/ref=dp_image_0?ie=UTF8&n=465392&s=books&qid=1217699130&sr=8-1). There, Noguchi introduces the concept of "average access time". He said when retrieving files, his system has a shorter average access time when comparing to the traditional filing systems. However, he admitted that when there are lots of files which are not "recently used", his system might become slow when comparing to traditional filing systems.

Another Japanese author, Osaka Betsuneo, who are a medical doctor, pointed out an additional problem with the Noguchi system recently at http://cobs.jp/interview/column/power/cat717/

He thinks the Noguchi filing system works best with a small amount of "working files". When volume grows, arranging envelops in temporal order might not be effective (similar to what Noguchi himself have said). Osaka has proposed his WI system which tried to combine the Noguchi system with the traditional alphabetical system, via what he calls double-indexing. (Hope can share his design later with you and other readers.)

By the way, there is another filing system from Japan that follows the Noguchi design, but with a more sophisticated indexing system (http://www.plaha.jp/).
August 2, 2008 at 19:03 | Unregistered CommenterClaudio Li
Sorry to have missed the "additional problem".

What Osaka finds problematic with any filing system based on temporal order is that files which are related are scattered around and hence become difficult to retrieve.

Noguchi has suggested to put files which are "used together" into the same envelop. However, he has not mentioned how to trace the linkage between Envelop X and Envelop Y, both of which contain documents say related to Project A, but only one of them are being used recently.

Osaka's system is trying to solve this problem.
August 2, 2008 at 19:13 | Unregistered CommenterClaudio Li
Claudio:

Thanks very much for the additional information. I would certainly agree with Osaka that the Noguchi system works best with a relatively small number of working files. I do hope you can share more about Osaka's methods with us.
August 3, 2008 at 12:40 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
I do this with my closet, and then I know what clothes I can get rid of at the end of a season...
August 11, 2008 at 19:41 | Unregistered CommenterHRW
I have read this post with interest but after seeing the pictures of it and the description I have decided it's definitely not for me. For a start I have to have something that looks good. I can't imagine how many folders I would have if I filed every bit of paper in a separate file. I thought the images looked a real mess and not very attractive. I have to have something that visually tells me what it's about - almost at kindergarten level - I have my car insurance papers in a clear box file with the word car on it and a pretty sticker in the shape of a car. Basic but it works because I know where to find all my car papers. I don't like the idea of changing the position of the files by having them constantly shifting by "last used". I like keeping files in the same place each time because I have a visual memory of where they were and it just confuses me to have them keep moving.
The other thing I wanted to understand is - why is it so important to have the most recently used papers closer to hand? Just because I used something recently and I put it to the left of the shelf - how does that help me any faster than if I put it back in the same place each time and I know where that is because I am used to it? For me I can't see the advantage.
September 10, 2008 at 11:33 | Unregistered CommenterNicky
Maybe you should be an affiliate for American Folder
They still don't get it though
September 10, 2008 at 16:05 | Unregistered CommenterKofi
Nicky

Well, my version of the Noguchi system is a lot tidier than Laurence's - but then I'm only using it for the type of document which doesn't easily fit into a filing system.

As far as the advantages of "last used" goes, you have to try it out to find out if it works for you. If you've got a filing method that works fine for you already then I wouldn't change it.

Personally I've found that it does increase the speed of both filing and retrieval, but I agree with you that I wouldn't want my car documents scattered over a large number of different files in different places.
September 10, 2008 at 16:47 | Registered CommenterMark Forster

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