Conquer Household Chores using The Ironing Approach

Small batches work really well in manufacturing and product development. Let's try them out around the house.

Let's talk about small batches. If you've been around lean manufacturing, lean thinking, lean startup, or any other practice in the lean family, you've probably run across the idea of small batches.

There's a popular anecdote to describe the power of small batches that comes from Lean Thinking and is mentioned in The Lean Startup. Eric Ries, author of The Lean Startup tells the story in a blog article. It's worth reading, but the gist is:

A father and his two daughters need to stuff envelopes. The girls think they should do each step (fold, stuff, stamp) one at a time. The father disagrees -- he wants to do one at a time, all the way through -- so they race. He wins, but not because he's better. It's because when thinking about this process, our mind ignores the time it takes to sort, stack, move piles, etc. And when we work in small batches we get better at the process.

Look, I'm not about to start pushing using lean principles in the household. I think you should be efficient where you can, but your house doesn't need to run like Toyota's plant floor. Yet there are some principles you can use to make your life easier without making it inconvenient or annoying.

That's why I call this The Ironing Approach.

For years I hated ironing. Hated it! I was doing laundry about every other week. I'd come up from the basement, fold clothes, put them away, and then stare at this pile of button-downs and sigh. Then I'd drag out the ironing board and get to work. Ironing 10 shirts at one time became one of my least favorite things to do.

One day I decided to try something different. I ironed my shirt right before I put it on. It wasn't as painful as doing 10 at a time, although I didn't consider the efficiency at that time. It just felt better. Still, a few years later, I'm following the same practice.

I can tell you in my case, it is more efficient for me to iron one at a time. Why? Because the ironing board doesn't move. It's in its ironing position all the time. And while the iron heats up, I'm usually brushing my teeth. It means my setup and tear down is basically negligible. So when you compare that to having to move and organize 10 at a time, the overall system benefits if I only iron one at a time.

I know, it feels completely backwards, but it works!

This probably wouldn't work if I had to set up my ironing board every time or if I couldn't find a task to fill the warm-up phase of ironing.

We've thought way too much about ironing at this point. Let's move on.

Think about some of your household duties. Sometimes this works and sometimes it doesn't. And it really all comes back to the setup and teardown time. If you can minimize that, you should probably take the small batch approach, otherwise do it all at once.

When you think about how household duties have been designed over the years, most of them never considered this small batch idea. Laundry machines, dishwashers, water heaters -- they were all designed with the (popular-at-the-time) Industrial Revolution's influence of large batches. And while we are, to some extent, prisoners of the tools we use, we need to think about opportunities to outsmart them. For all of those tools that don't need to be used with large batches in your house, like your iron, consider whether a small batch approach would make you more efficient or hate the task less.

Reading mail, paying bills, and handwashing dishes all have the potential to add efficiency and decrease anxiety by using small batches. It might not work as well for other tasks, like watering plants, mowing the lawn, vacuuming, etc.

If you hate doing something around your house, consider if breaking it into smaller pieces would lessen your anxiety without removing (or while adding) efficiency.

Try it! I'm curious to learn what you find.

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