Doing your laundry in single item flow, in sequence, on demand

We continuously improve how we run and organize our company by applying the Improvement Kata by Toyota. I wrote several articles to explain the Improvement Kata from a technical perspective already. Did you know you could apply the Improvement Kata to your daily life too? I will show you by telling you how I do the laundry.

Owl doing laundry in single item flow
Founder / CEO / CSO
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When we talk about the Improvement Kata, we use terms like a bottleneck, and single item flow, in sequence, on-demand. My laundry example will shine a light on those concepts so they will be a bit less of a mystery.

You can use the Improvement Kata to improve any process continuously. To start applying it, you can perform the following steps:

  1. Define the result of the process.
  2. Define the process as a whole.
  3. Define the single item.
  4. Make work visible.
  5. Move to single item flow, in sequence, on-demand.

Apply the Improvement Kata to your laundry routine

Doing the laundry is an ongoing, never-ending process. Unless you earn enough money to outsource it, every household has to do the laundry, and almost everybody hates it. Let's make it better.

1. Define the result of the process

Start with defining what your process produces. In our example, the process produces laundry that's clean, folded, and stored in the appropriate place in your closet.

2. Define the process as a whole

There is more to doing laundry than you think

This is already an interesting question. Where does the laundry process start? When you get the laundry basket out and start sorting your laundry? Or does it start when you fire up the washing machine? Or does it start when the dirty clothes are put in the laundry basket? In our household, it starts when the laundry is generated when people take off their clothes.

The process could look like this:

  1. Put the dirty clothes in the laundry basket.
  2. Sort the clothes that go together.
  3. Put the dirty clothes in the washing machine.
  4. Program the washing machine.
  5. Let the washing machine run.
  6. Hang the laundry to dry.
  7. Fold the laundry.
  8. Take the laundry upstairs.
  9. Put the laundry in the closets.

There is more to doing laundry than you think :slight_smile: .

3. Define the single item

To start your improvement process you have to define the single item that will move through your process. A single item is defined as the item that can go through the process without the need to wait for another item, and the single item moves through each step as a whole. Within a step, it can be broken down into smaller items, but to move from one step to the next it should move as one.

What are your options to define your single item for your laundry process?

  1. One item of clothes.
  2. The clothes you wore that day that need washing.
  3. The size of your laundry basket.
  4. The size of one load of your washing machine.
  5. The space you have to hang your clothes to dry.
  6. The space in your closet.

It depends on your circumstance what the appropriate single item is. That’s the first interesting thing about the Improvement Kata: there is no one true process. The process depends on the circumstance and will change over time because the circumstances change. This is also one of the powerful things, while applying the Improvement Kata you will adapt to the changes in the world.

Let’s go through the options and decide what the single item is based on your circumstance:

  • Options 1 and 2 would be owlsome: if you could wash your clothes directly after you undressed, hang them to dry, and fold them immediately that would be owlsome. But maybe a bit ambitious. And you have to wash by hand or invent the small washing machine. And to be eco-friendly you have to make sure that the amount of water and detergent is in line with the amount of laundry.
  • Option 3 is a valid option, but adjusting the size of your laundry basket to any of the other options is much cheaper than buying a new washing machine or remodeling your house to get more hanging space.
  • Options 4 and 5 are the most obvious choices. You should go with the smaller one.
  • Option 6 would be another example of owlsomeness, but I will touch on that at the end of the article, see Taking it one step further.

In our household, we have enough hanging space. The load of the washing machine is the limiting factor in our throughput. We went with the size of one load of our washing machine as the single item. I didn’t tell you yet but within the Improvement Kata framework small is beautiful. The smaller the item the better. You have to improve your process to efficiently handle small items.

I didn’t tell you yet but within the Improvement Kata framework small is beautiful.

4. Make work visible

To see what needs to be improved you have to make the work (the process) visible. This means no hiding laundry baskets in closets but put them somewhere you can see them.

5. Move to single item flow, in sequence, on-demand

Now we can move to single item flow, in sequence, on-demand. Those are three different stages which I will explain separately.

Move to single item flow

The size of the single item is defined by the size of the limiting factor. Make sure that all steps before the limiting factor in your throughput are the same size as your single item. The sizes after can be larger.

In our household, I reduced the sizes of the laundry baskets to the size of the load of the washing machine. The contents of one laundry basket should be able to go directly into the washing machine without sorting clothes, then run through the washing program, be hung to dry, folded, and immediately stored away.

To do so, we defined the different washing programs and came up with 7 types of wash we do:

  1. White
  2. Black
  3. Colored
  4. Underwear
  5. Towels
  6. bed linen

For all but the bed linen, we put a laundry basket in the bathroom. The bathroom is the place where the demand is generated (dirty clothes) and by putting directly in the right basket we reduce the process with the sorting step.

The bed linen goes directly from the bed to the washing machine, being dried and back on the bed in one go! That’s reducing even more steps: folding and storing in the closet. And saving on closet space. The need for multiple bed linen sets is gone.

Save money, space, and time. Profit!

Work in sequence

We work in sequence, a single item can’t overtake another item and we can’t have two items in production. So you first have to finish the last item before starting a new one. One at a time! So, before starting another round I first have to finish the last round of laundry. Folding it and storing it in the closet.

Work on-demand

We like to work on-demand. In this case, demand is defined as a full washing basket. After I take my morning shower I check if there's is a full washing basket. If so, I take it downstairs and put it in the washing machine (no sorting!) and choose one of the six pre-programmed washing programs and make sure it ends when I get home.

What happened when I moved to single item flow, in sequence, on-demand for the laundry

A couple of things happened to our laundry process. We reduced a step (no more sorting), this makes it easy to start the process immediately when the demand is there. So you will start (and finish the process) more regularly. We greatly reduced the inventory of dirty clothes, which leads to fuller closets.

I did a small poll among family and friends and concluded that folding the laundry is mostly the problem. Two things will solve this problem:

  1. By sticking to the sequence rule you have to fold before you do to another load of laundry.
  2. By moving to a single item flow something funny happens with the folding and storing steps of the process. By forcing the single item to be able to move through the system we have more coherent clothes in one item. This makes it easier to hang the same items together on your drying rack. That will make it easier to first fold all the same kinds of items into a stack, that stack goes into the laundry basket before I move to the next type of clothes. This will reduce the number of stacks, and reduce handling time. And will make it easier to put a stack of clothes into your closet in one go.

Taking it one step further

If you have a stable and predictable laundry process set up you can make the process longer to gain more efficiency and reduce waste. Let’s look at some examples.

Reduced cycle time

By moving to single item flow, in sequence, on-demand we greatly reduced the cycle time of our dirty laundry. Cycle time is the time a dirty piece of clothing is in the process from waiting in the laundry basket to being stored in the closet. By reducing the cycle time, we reduced the inventory of clothes in the laundry process. This could lead to needing fewer clothes in general. Which will free up space in your closet, or you can reduce the size of your closet.

Reduced amount of inventory: bed linen

How we do the bed linen is the holy grail of an effective process. No waiting times, no inventory, remove more steps from the process.

Reduced amount of inventory: clothes

Or what if you would reduce your wardrobe to a couple of combinations of clothes that go well together. If you pick them such that they don’t need to go in different washing programs you will reduce the number of laundry baskets, further reducing the inventory of cloths and improving cycle time. Then you could do with only a handful of clothes. You could greatly reduce the size of your closet and use that space for something else. By reducing the number of clothes you can save a ton of money on clothes, and could even spend some more money on the clothes you buy and go with more durable brands so they last longer saving you even more money.

Closing thoughts

I hope I have convinced you that doing laundry can be a fun process and that you understand how to apply the Improvement Kata to any recurring process. I would even argue that applying the Improvement Kata to doing laundry is the best thing that happened to laundry after the invention of the washing machine.

You wouldn’t expect there is so much more to doing laundry :slight_smile:.