Saturday, October 04, 2008

The Noguchi filing system

I read an article a couple of years ago about the Noguchi filing system, from Japan. I adopted it almost immediately and have been very happy with it. It takes care of all the papers that are hard to file or that I worry about throwing away. It's quite different from the systems usually used in Western offices. It makes filing of random papers easier, and has important retrieval benefits too.

Here are the important characteristics of the system:
  • You store papers in envelopes. Big letter-size manila envelopes with the ends cut off to make it easier to add/remove papers.
  • You use a bookcase, not a file cabinet.
  • You stand the envelopes up on your shelf.
  • You select one end of the shelf as the front side. You add new files there.
  • When you add a paper to the system, you grab an envelope, write a title at the top, and a date at the bottom, and add it at the front.
  • Every time you pull a file, for any reason, when you're done with it, you return it to the front. As a result, frequently-used files stay at the front, and rarely-used files migrate to the back.
  • Every now and then, check the back of the system, and see what files can be purged from it.
  • If a file is really old and near the back, but you can't bear to throw it out for whatever reason, you can move it to a box. These files are considered "holy files" or "dead files". I can imagine they might be records you don't expect to reference, but keep for legal or tax reasons.
When you need to find something in this system, you just start at the front and start reading titles, working your way back until you find it. You use your intuition as to the date of the file to help you find it. 

The system is supposed to be based on the principle that it's hard to predict the best way to categorize or retrieve an item up front. 

Note that I don't use the holy file/dead file part of this. My file system has so far been small enough that I just purge what I don't need, and if I need to keep it, I keep it. It's likely that in my hybrid system, things that would normally get purged off to a holy file box are already in an existing category.  

I'm not filing a whole lot of things at work anymore. Most information is in e-mail or in computer files. But I find the system useful for things like transaction information; insurance claims; benefits information; and other random things. The virtue of the system is that when you get something that doesn't easily fit into an existing category, you don't have to go make a new category. You just stick it in the file and trust that you'll find it later if you need it, and purge it eventually if you don't.

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