Around the house, we’ve always had a problem with laundry. There’s always a heap waiting to be ironed, hampers are overflowing, and many morning a search for clean socks would necessitate a trip to the basement to dig out a fresh pair from a laundry basket that was washed a week ago but still waiting to be folded.
So, finally, we decided to take a step back and look at the problem, and see where the flaws were. What we discovered was like a textbook on process improvement, right here in our own house.
The obvious problem, of course, was the backlog of clean laundry waiting to be ironed, folded and put away. It piled up constantly, even when it seemed like we were trying like hell to get things washed on time. Every now and again, a whole day would be devoted to laundry just to get us caught up. ”Laundry Day” would come about once a month, no matter how much effort was expended.
That was just a symptom, however. The real problem we were experiencing, I decided, was a misalignment of priorities. Simply put, we were putting the people in our house (Mom, Dad & the 2 kids) in a position where everyone would wake up in the morning wondering if they had clean and ironed clothes to wear. That’s bad. Just really, really bad. Why? Because it placed undue burden and stress on people – the people in our house shouldn’t have to worry about whether or not they will have clean clothes to wear. That just plain inconsiderate and unfair. Also, it required getting up 15 minutes early sometimes when we knew things weren’t in order, just to run downstairs and iron a shirt or pair of pants for the day. Simply put, everyone ended up with a lot of last-minute panics just to get something simple done. So, we committed ourselves to a different premise: That laundry would be available when it was needed, and in the right location (closet or drawer) in order to prevent people from having to worry.
With our newly found dedication, we then looked at why the backups were occurring, no matter how hard we worked. It was easy enough to find: the hampers were the problem. We have a hamper for each of the four people in the house. When a hamper was full, it was laundered. This works great, until you realize it’s just another batch-and-queue system that inevitably fails if 2 or more hampers fill up simultaneously. When that happens, all the laundry that needs to get done simply can’t squeeze through our bottleneck: the washer and dryer. That necessitates choosing one batch over the other, which also means that someone’s laundry simply doesn’t get done. So it backs up. While it’s sitting, backed up and waiting for the machine, people keep wearing clothes, so the hamper gets more and more full. Meanwhile, someone else’s hamper that was only half full at the start is now at capacity, so you now have one full hamper and one extra-full hamper, and the problem just keeps growing.
The first reaction could have been to get another hamper, but that just catches the overflow. We weren’t about to go out and buy 2 washing machines, either. What we needed was to reduce the batch size and increase the frequency of was cycles. What that required was something quite simple: Don’t wait for the hampers to be full.
“What??!!” you might be saying. That’s a waste of water! Well, maybe, but not much – there’s nothing that says you have to run a full load and use an entire tub full of water. What we decided to do was to set a schedule and stick to it. No more 1 person = 1 hamper, either. We noticed we have more “darks” than “lights” so we set up a schedule to accommodate this. On Tuesday, we gather darks and wash them – no matter how much there is. On Thursday, we do darks again the same way. Saturday is another round of darks and, on Sunday, we do lights. No load can be started until the one before it is completely folded and put away, too. No “I have a load in while I iron this” happens here and no load sits, unfolded, while another is in the wash.
We’ve been doing this for a month now. What we realized is that there’s never a completely full, overstuffed hamper…..ever. Nothing is sitting in the dryer waiting to be ironed or folded for more than half a day. Since it’s not sitting in the steamy air, getting compressed over time, it’s easier to iron, too. Smaller loads take less time to fold and put away as well.
The end result? Happier workers (Mom & Dad) who have a lot less stress over getting the laundry done. Happier “customers” – the kids (plus Mom & Dad) who know where their clothes are and don’t ever think about whether or not there’s something clean to wear today, and a much simpler chore since the material is easier to work with and comes in smaller chunks.
While a lot of folks might point to large-scale factory-wide process improvement efforts that take months to design and implement, I’m pretty content knowing that I was able to take all those concepts and apply them right here…….at home…..where it counts.