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How to Organize Cables with 5S

I was sitting here looking at my computer, and my eyes wandered to the various ways my computer cables are organized. I wondered how other people organize cables and cords.

First of all, why bother to organize cables? Because an organized and clean workspace is generally an effective workspace. (Read the entry on 5S in my Lean dictionary for more info.)

Now, I’ve seen a lot of effective solutions for managing cables and wires that are static–i.e. power cords or printer cables that never move.

  • Getting right-sized cables. Obviously, no cable means no mess. Wall mounted phones normally come with a 6-inch cord to tuck in behind the mounting plate.
  • Looms and wraps. These bundle up cables and make them look better, as well as keep them from capturing dust. They also make it easy to move them out of the way for cleaning. They work best when many cables share the same route. The downside is that it is difficult and time-consuming to move cords around once they are routed.
  • Cable Tracks. These are easy to pop open to move cords around. They are less flexible than other options, though, because most are rigid and mount to walls or desks. They are also a fairly expensive option.
  • Holes and hooks. Some desks have holes in them that let you drop cables out of sight. You can then fasten them underneath or behind the work area.

It’s harder to find really good examples of how to organize cables and cords that are dynamic—i.e. that are pulled out and put away regularly, like a USB cable for an iPod, or a power cord for a cell phone.

Here’s a few examples of how to organize cables that are moved frequently.

  • Gravity. I observed a great idea by a repair technician once. He drilled a hole in his workstation, and fed his test lead through the hole. He routed it back up another hole to plug into his meter. He put a small weight on the cable to let gravity act as a retractor. When he was done taking a reading, he’d just let the lead go, and the weight would pull it back into position. He said he wore out his leads faster that way, but he more than made up for that cost in the time that he saved.
  • Retractors. I’ve used ID card retractors to pull cables out of the way, but the tension on the cord puts a little more strain on the connectors than I liked. Plus, most retractors didn’t look robust enough to use in a production environment. On the plus side, many of them are available for just a few bucks, so there’s not a lot of harm when they fail. (This method was used on a test station where several cables were needed in rapid succession to run a series of checks.)
  • Hook and pile. I’ve used hook and pile fasteners (i.e. Velcro) and color coding to organize cables and get them out of the way, but you still have to deal with the loops hanging down. With this method, you can use a powered USB hub to keep all of your product-specific cables out of the way and ready to use.
  • Right-sizing and bundling. This just reduces the problem of how to organize cables. Getting a shorter cable means less to deal with, and should be your first choice. If getting a shorter cable is not an option (i.e. the cable is proprietary and not available in a different length, or you rearrange equipment frequently and don’t want to constantly replace cables), you can bundle up the excess cable. There are many cable management products available. Just be careful that the bundling doesn’t cause interference or crack the cable.
  • Wireless. Wireless mice and printers are great examples of this method. For many items, though, you are trading a dynamic cord for a static one (i.e. a USB cable for a charging cradle). Plus wireless is still generally more expensive than wired options. On occasion, you also have to deal with configuration challenges and with interference. Plus everyone has experienced a dead battery at the least opportune time.

So, the question to you is how to organize cables to avoid the rat’s nest of wires, power cords for cell phones, USB cables, or anything else that gets pulled out and put away with regularity.

Any ideas on how to organize cables? What methods have you used successfully?


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