Lean Thinking Beyond the Workplace

  by Tom McBride, Partners for Creative Solutions, Inc.

Many of us are becoming increasingly familiar with lean thinking as it applies to business.  In their book Lean Thinking (1996), Womack and Jones introduced five guiding principles distilled from their study of successful companies using methods similar to those pioneered by Toyota in the development of their automobile production system.   These principles include specifying value, identifying the value stream (series of processes) that creates value, ensuring that flow through the value stream is uninterrupted and occurs at the pull (need) of the customer, and continually striving toward perfection.

For a product, a customer might specify value in terms of features, price, availability, perceived quality, or even the buying experience.  By thinking lean we first strive to understand what is important to the customer and then use the principles to produce it well.

These principles are also valid in non-business environments.  A busy family used lean thinking to reduce the time required to do the laundry so that they could spend more quality time together.  In the typical three-step laundry process (wash, dry, iron/fold/hang/put away), drying usually takes the longest and is therefore the constraint.  No matter how fast one can wash or fold, the job cannot go any faster than the dryer.  To resolve this problem they installed a second dryer, nearly doubling throughput and cutting laundry time in half.   

In this example the family was the customer, and value was defined as reducing interruptions to improve quality of family life.  The value stream was the laundry process, and the solution improved flow and reduced the time to meet the family’s laundry needs (pull).  This solution required an initial investment but did not increase operating costs.

Other alternatives might come a step closer to perfection.   In shopping for new laundry equipment last year my family discovered that front load washers are usually more energy and environmentally friendly than their top load counterparts.  The one we purchased uses significantly less water, less detergent, and reduces drying time because it spins out more moisture.  While the wash cycle takes longer than a top load model, drying time is substantially reduced.  In our new system, the drying cycle takes about half as much time as washing.  By adding a second washer, our throughput could compare to the one-washer, two dryer, solution described earlier, while yielding significant savings in energy and water. 

The intent of this article is not to increase sales for washers and dryers but to illustrate that lean thinking is useful beyond the workplace.  Are we going to buy a second front-load washer?  No, increased speed would not produce value for us.  Maybe we could find an automatic folder?