Falling down the chute.

It’s been a while since I posted to this blog. I wish I could say that part of the problem is that it’s hard to both DO lean things and WRITE ABOUT lean things at the same time. But that’s not really true. I haven’t been too busy pushing the state of the art of lean techniques to find time to write about them. I’ve actually been falling off the lean wagon a bit.

For example, one little trick I’ve used quite a lot recently is taking advantage of our house’s laundry chute for the easy movement of stuff to the basement. If a hammer needs to go back in the tool room or a lightbulb in the supply area, it’s easier just to drop it down the laundry chute onto the soft pile of clothes than it is to walk down all the way down to the basement to put away a single item.

It even seems like a lean technique: By avoiding multiple trips, I’m reducing transportation waste. But what I’m really doing is slipping from a lean production flow back into a conventional “batch-and-queue” system. When I go to gather laundry from the bottom of the chute, there’s all of these hammers and lightbulbs and other non-laundry things that have to be dealt with along with the clothes. So I put these weird pieces aside to put away later in one big batch.

Here’s what that looks like in practice:

Pile of stuff

Yep, lots of junk, mostly tools, piled up on a board balanced on the edge of a laundry sink. I never quite get around to putting away this big batch of stuff all at once, so the pile grows larger and more precarious. What I’ve done is reduce transportation waste at the cost of increasing inventory waste:

  • The stuff is taking up space I could be using for something else. The sink is totally unusable as a sink right now.
  • The stuff makes it impossible to know where anything is. I couldn’t find my hammer the other day because is it in the workshop, or in the pile next to the laundry chute, or in the laundry chute…?
  • The stuff is hiding other problems. Since I don’t know where anything is, I also don’t know when anything is missing. It’s a big issue when you have toddlers roaming around whom would find a sharp awl, for instance, very interesting.

It’s amazing how easy it is to fall into these kinds of traps when you stop thinking carefully about wastes in your processes. That’s presumably why lean thinking is a continuous battle, not a one-time event, and as such it depends highly on the controls you put in place to maintain your improvements over the long term.

So I’m back on the wagon. And no more dumping stuff down the chute to get them out of the way (except for clothes, of course). Everything has a proper place, and it’s my job to get it back there, every time.


About adbenking

A journeyman sociologist living in Chicagoland.
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