The Awkward Engineer Makes Laundry Better with Lean Manufacturing Principles and Pop Psychology

I have a personal household Nirvana of sorts that I'm currently questing after (and I also think my wife is questing me to quest after) where laundry and dishes are no longer burdensome unpleasant chores, but rather, are transformed into pleasant activities that can bring a sense of satisfaction. Of course, to my wife's great satisfaction, this means I do a lot more of them.

The problem historically, for me, has been that dishes and laundry simply aren't fun. This blog post is about analyzing why and then bringing several principles to bear on the problem, using tools from psychology and lean manufacturing.

The punch line is to run small batches, leverage existing routines to drive habits, and make it a skill developing activity, but half the fun is in the details of all that, so read on.

Background

To understand the analysis of the chores problem, let's take a crash course in a couple key topics.

Flow - When you can make an activity goal directed with the opportunity to develop your skills and get better at it, you can make it enjoyable.

From my friend A.T., who's profession involves designing products that positively impact human behavior - The best way to start a new habit is to piggy back and uses a trigger from an existing one.

From Principles of Scientific Management - From Fredrick Taylor, the father of modern industrial engineering / human factors engineering - paying attention to the ergonomics and steps of the job can make it faster and more efficient.

From Product Development Flow, The Toyota Production System, and The Goal - The concepts from these three books are all related and I'll bullet out the key principles that apply here.

  • reduce work in process
  • focus on idle work, not idle machines
  • reduce batch size
  • for a queue with randomly arriving jobs of random sizes, the cycle time and "wait" in line will be proportional to the utilization of the process. i.e. a heavily utilized machine has no capacity to absorb a big job if it arrives unexpectedly and a line will build up.

Of all these, the principals from the last set of books are probably the most important, because much like they turned my concepts of manufacturing efficiency upside down, they completely changed my approach to home chores. Like Ford motor company, I too once thought that cranking out a giant batch was the most efficient way of doing things. Run the dish washer when it's full! Do all the laundry on the weekend! This may be most efficient for the stamping press or the dishwasher, but it's not most efficient for the system as a whole (meaning me), which is the key here.

The Analysis Part 1: Dishes

Now let's revisit the laundry / dishes problem and take a look at how I did things in the past and break down why it was so unpleasant for me, (and also how I drove my wife nuts).

By far and away, my least favorite part of dishes and laundry was the interruption that it caused me.

It'd be typical to wait to run the dishwasher until it was full. If we forgot to run it, or we were busy after a meal, dishwashing now became a two batch job, as the dishwasher was full and we'd then have overflow. That would mean dishes would sit on the counter while the first batch ran, which also meant I also had to remember to stop what I was doing an hour later and run a second batch, or risk having the dishes sit on the counter overnight. This may sound petty, but for someone with a strange attention span that can easily get "into things", this interruption is truly unpleasant.

I also note that dishes sitting on the counter was something my wife didn't like. It's now what I've learned to identify as "idle work", a unique part of the cycle time for the dishes. If the dishes are either clean in the cabinets, in use, or in the dishwasher, with no idle time in a dirty state on the counter, it makes it seem like the kitchen is clean, which makes my wife happy.

The Analysis Part 2: Laundry

In a similar fashion, we ran laundry in one series of big batches on the weekend. This keeps the machine running at capacity, but it makes the interruption problem far worse. Moving laundry from washer to dryer, returning to start another batch, and then another, meant constantly interrupting my weekend and needing to be near the house, or risk delaying all the subsequent batches until the next day.

We would then run folding as one large batch (by which I mean, to my shame, that my wife would do the vast majority of the folding), often while sitting and watching TV or a movie.

For me personally, the amusement from the TV took away from the monotony of the job, but sitting on the floor and stretching between the unfolded and folded piles was physically uncomfortable.

The Fix

The fix to all this is to piggy back off existing habits, run small batches on a more frequent basis, and turn chores into a game where I can use the principles described in the background section to make the jobs as easy as possible.

For dishes, I now piggy back off the children's morning routine. We were already using the completion of breakfast as a trigger for brushing teeth and getting dressed. Now we add the "dish mish" (short for dish mission) to the routine. My almost 6 year old helps unload the dish washer, which is a good habit for him, and I help him and put away the high up glasses, cups, and mugs where he can't reach.

We run the dishwasher every evening, regardless of how full it is. Starting the dishwasher is now part of our existing "put the house to bed" routine, where we make sure all the lights are out and the doors are locked.

Dishes

Because we aren't running the dishwasher at max capacity, if we have a meal that somehow uses more dishes (dessert plates!), or the children had an extra snack, we can absorb the additional load.

The dishwasher routine was already established when I decided to piggy back on it further and add "laundry mish" to the existing dish mish. Every morning, I start a load of laundry. I'm still experimenting with how I run this, but between two adults and two kids, it's possible to generate a reasonably sized batch every day.

My least favorite part of laundry, the interruption, is now addressed, because we don't have the pressure of needing to move the laundry on the hour, or risk delaying the 4 batches behind it. I can move the laundry to the dryer in between meetings, right before dinner, etc...

As an added bonus, because the batch size is smaller, it's now possible to use otherwise idle time to fold everything. We're lucky that our washer dryer is in the upstairs bathroom, so it's pretty easy to fold the laundry right there while the kids are taking a bath.

Chores have now been transformed into an activity where I can flex my human centered Design muscles, my Industrial Engineering muscles, and apply some management principles that I use at work. I'm now interested in investing in new rolling laundry baskets that look better and are more ergonomic so I don't need to bend over so far.

So far, I'd say things have been going well. As a bonus, I think my wife is more willing to humor my industrial chic taste for using open front stackable parts bins to organize my closet. I also want to use them for the kids toys, too. We'll see.

Parts Bin Closet Organizers

Best Regards!

- Sam
aka THE Awkward Engineer

p.s. My wife Sarah wanted to comment after I wrote this and added the following:

Let's be honest, I was responsible for all the laundry before...ok maybe not all, but like 90%. (Sam's note - "Babe! You're making me look bad. 80/20. C'mon!") This process has reduced the "chores" on my plate as well.

I am a mom with two young kids (almost, 6 and 2.5) and hold a full time job out of the home (but WFH). As any mom can tell you, being a full time mom is hard, being a full time working mom is hard, and being a full time working from home mom is also hard! (F U, Covid!)

We are pulled in multiple directions all the time sometimes at the same time. Wife, mom, employee, keeper of the house...so when my husband started with the "Dish Mish" and involved our son, I was like, "have at it"!

A few months later after me doing 4 loads of laundry and the last batch sitting clean in the hallway for well over a week, Sam decided he wanted to apply this process to laundry as well. He started with towels then sheets then clothes. While the method is still being ironed out (no pun intended), these "chores" that primarily fell on me are now activities we do together. I have also started applying some of these practices to cleaning the house. Shh...don't tell Sam, but he is going to get roped into Engineering that one too.


1 comment

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