Toward a Lean Laundry (Part 1)

Laundry is one of the most mundane tasks that people deal with in everyday life, but it’s also one of the most rewarding. Who doesn’t get a pleasant feeling from looking at a closet or drawer full of clean, folded clothes? There’s so much… potential there.

Unfortunately, it’s easy for laundry processes to get messed up. Things can get so bad that you never seem to get that pleasant feeling anymore because you never are done with your laundry, even for a single day.

I’ve been there. In our household, the laundry system went like this:

  1. Pile up dirty clothes in various places around the bedrooms. Baskets are nice, but are often filled to the point that you can’t see them anymore below the piles.
  2. When the piles get too annoying, dump them down the laundry chute.
  3. Soon the bin at the bottom of the laundry chute becomes overfilled and its door pops open, spilling dirty clothes onto the basement floor.
  4. Take the piles of dirty clothes in the laundry chute bin and on the basement floor and sort them into still more piles (on the floor) by color, fabric, etc.
  5. Wash a load and try to remember to transfer it over to the dryer within a day or so, before it gets mildew-smelling.
  6. If you forget to transfer them over, run the wet clothes through the washer again to get rid of the mildew smell. Then run them through the dryer.
  7. Get the clean clothes out of the dryer within another day or so and put them in a basket.
  8. Take the basket upstairs and leave it around when something else inevitably distracts you.
  9. Eventually fold the clothes in the basket that’s been sitting on an ottoman for two days and try to remember to put the clothes away.
  10. Eventually put the clothes away and leave the empty basket lying around a bedroom.
  11. Return to step 1.

Yes, it was not a great system. We were constantly running out of clean clothes that were folded, put away and ready to go. We never had any idea of whether certain clothes were clean or dirty and where to find them. And we had a very messy house (nothing looks as messy as laundry, in my opinion).

The solution to our laundry issues was to make the laundry process more like a Japanese car factory, i.e., a lean production process. To make the process leaner, the first step was to identify the muda, or waste, in the process. Let’s quickly run through the seven wastes (muda) identified in lean production and see how our laundry system measured up:

  • Defects – Defective laundry was unfortunately visible and common in our system. Forget taking care of stains or anything unusual: We were struggling to simply get the laundry clean and put away. We’d sometimes even get stuck wearing dirty clothes again because there was nothing appropriate clean, a great example of people just ignoring defects rather than dealing with them.
  • Inventory – We had piles of clothes (clean, dirty, or somewhere in between) lying all over the house. This made for a messy home with a lot of wasted space, and good luck finding your nice pants before you need to leave for work!
  • Movement – We spent a lot of time traipsing up and down stairs trying to find clothes and laundry baskets. The laundry chute saved us virtually no effort at all, as any load would end up involving multiple trips up and down the stairs anyway.
  • Overproduction – We seldom generated clean clothes faster than we needed them. The opposite was almost always true. However, our production was extremely un-level, with us usually being WAY behind in laundry or, after a massive days-long binge to catch up, having far more clothes than we needed right away.
  • Overprocessing – Failing to change clothes over from the washer to the dryer promptly meant that we were washing many loads twice to get rid of the mildewy smell. Failing to get clothes out of the dryer promptly left us with a lot of very-wrinkled clothes that needed to be ironed or run through the “fluff” cycle again. For all of our failure to do enough laundry, we were washing some clothes a lot more than they needed to be.
  • Transportation – We moved clothes around a lot as they went from dirty to clean to dry to folded to put away. We did the same thing with laundry baskets, moving them from place to place as we processed clothes. This often lead to the baskets being misplaced for their next use: We’d need an empty basket in the basement to put a load of clean clothes in, say, and it’d be up in a bedroom on the second floor.
  • Waiting – Piles of clothes in various states spent a lot of time sitting around various spots in our house waiting to be dealt with. We often had more clothes to wear, but they weren’t always the right clothes. The right clothes were too often in a washer or dryer or pile somewhere, rather than in our closet.

It’s obvious that there was a lot of waste in our laundry process, which is why I’m talking about it in such detail. The more waste there is in a process, the greater the potential for improvement by  adopting lean methods.

I’ll explain how we “leaned” our laundry in the next post. For now, to start lean-ifying a process that you are unhappy with, a good first step is to think it through using the checklist of wastes (muda) above. When you focus on the right problems, obvious solutions start to present themselves.

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About adbenking

A journeyman sociologist living in Chicagoland.
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One Response to Toward a Lean Laundry (Part 1)

  1. Pingback: Toward a Lean Laundry (Part 2) | Everyday Lean

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