Kitchens are already Lean

I’ve been reading Jay Arthur’s Lean Six Sigma Demystified, which makes an interesting point: Most kitchens are already arranged around some lean principles:

  • Small batches. People don’t make hundreds of meals at a time and only eat the first meal after the final meal has finished production. They make one meal at a time and eat it immediately.
  • Work Cells. In kitchens with a good work flow, the food flows from one station to the next (fridge, counter, stove, table) in a smooth progression. The tools are arranged by where they are needed in the flow of cooking rather than by their function. For example, the microwave and the stove aren’t always next to each other just because they are both “ovens,” they are placed wherever they might be used in the process.
  • Small inventories. With the exception of people buying in bulk, it is not traditional for families to purchase a full year’s groceries at a time and then store it. They buy what they need for a week or two at most, then use it up quickly. There’s no need (and usually not much room) for huge inventories.
  • No wasted motion or transportation. A well-arranged kitchen will have the appliances arranged in a convenient triangle pattern so there’s only a step or two needed to get a plate anywhere in the kitchen.
  • Right-sized equipment. The stove or blender is big enough for the family’s needs, but small enough that maintenance and upkeep are minimized.

Unfortunately, these observations are only true for “well-arranged kitchens.” Many kitchens are poorly arranged, with wasted space, counter-productive layouts and little difficult-to-reach storage areas where items can go hiding.

Our kitchen, for instance, is not laid out in the most functional pattern possible simply because the architecture won’t allow it. (This is true for most people who don’t design their own kitchens as Arthur did.) There are five doors and two windows, which severely limit arrangement options along the limited wall space.

Even when you can design your own kitchen with lean production in mind, it’s easy to veer off track as impressing people can be almost as important as getting things done. Modern dream kitchens, with their huge floorplans, massive central islands and huge rows of cabinetry, will inevitably be cursed with large amounts of wasted motion, an over-accumulation of inventory, and an over-sizing of common tools (e.g., using a massive professional stove for a small family’s cooking needs).

So are most kitchens lean by nature? No. In fact, I’d guess that very few of them are, even in the best of circumstances. But they can all get leaner, even in the worst of circumstances. Our kitchen is proof of that.


About adbenking

A journeyman sociologist living in Chicagoland.
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