I’ve noticed that I keep talking here about washing dishes and doing laundry as though those are the only two things I ever spend time on. I do this even though there are many other important processes in my everyday life that could benefit from the application of lean ideas: Finances, diet, parenting, cooking, etc.
So why do I spend so much time talking about dishes and laundry issues instead? Perhaps because:
- They are highly visible. Nothing messes up a house, in my eye, like dirty clothes and messy dishes. Worse, you can’t just shove them in a closet and forget about them the way you can with wayward books: You can’t put them away unless you process them.
- They are recurring. No matter what you do today, there will be more dirty clothes and dishes tomorrow. Since you can’t escape from these processes for any significant period of time, there’s good reason to try to improve them by getting rid of waste and making them leaner.
- They are low-hanging fruit. Although finances or diet or parenting are important issues, identifying and getting rid of waste in those areas is more difficult and less concrete than just figuring out how to keep the dishes washed.
For any or all of those reasons, laundry and dishes still haunt my everyday lean production efforts. For example, I noticed today that even when I do laundry every single day, sometimes a huge amount of clothes will appear at the bottom of the laundry chute in the morning. This is always discouraging, since it makes it very hard to level the demand for laundry, and I know it’ll take me days just to catch up on the backlog.
Why does it keep happening? Partly it has to do with living with toddlers. Toddlers require somewhat more clothing changes than adults, and at more unpredictable intervals. Leveling their demand is hard.
But that’s not all of it. Looking over the dirty clothes in the chute on mornings like this, I see adult clothes that were worn several days before, even though just I sorted the dirty clothes yesterday.
The problem is obvious: Somebody is stashing dirty clothes somewhere else instead and putting them down the chute in occasional batches! Why would anyone (or several anyones) do this when it’s so easy to just immediately put the clothes down the chute as they are used?
Over at LeanBlog, Mark Graban asked the same question about hospital employees that stashed extra supplies around the office, making it hard to really streamline operations. The simple answer was that people didn’t trust the system to provide supplies when they needed them, so they stashed supplies as a “buffer” to get them by if something went wrong. The solution to the problem, then, was to build more trust with the system. People will feel comfortable running on the thinner margins called for by lean processes when they know the supplies will always show up when they need them.
I suppose trust is part of our problem, too. Over the holidays, especially, it was hard to get all of the laundry processed the way it was supposed to be. As a result, too many clothes got washed but not dried, dried but not folded, or folded but not put away. If people don’t trust that their process will flow without obstacles from beginning to end, they feel the desire (or freedom) to build up stashes here and there rather than put everything directly into the system that isn’t getting it done anyway.
The solution to our problem, then, is partly one of discipline. The system only works if it is worked as it should be, every single day. Wavering off the path for even a short time leads to delays, mistrust, non-level demand…in short, all of the problems that lean production tries to solve.
But the problem also suggests that there are still kinks in the system that we still need to work out. It’s futile to try to overcome a bad system by just increasing your personal discipline. As Graban suggested in relation to the hoarding by hospital workers:
Fix the system, THEN eliminate the hoarding. Until you build trust, you’re just punishing people for trying to do the right thing for the patient. Hoarding is a workaround – eliminate the need for the workaround…
In other words, I’m not done thinking about laundry yet.