The Lean Home

I’m going to geek out on you here for a bit, so stay with me.  I have a background in lean manufacturing.  If some upper level executive thought it up, I’ve implemented it: just-in-time manufacturing, kanban systems, 5S, lean office, one-piece flow, and modular manufacturing to name a few.

I work from home for the time being, and recently I started thinking about the way our family processes goods inside the home just as a manufacturer would process goods in a facility.  In a manufacturing facility, real estate costs money.  Storage costs money.  Hence the transition of “if you build it, they will buy it” to “let’s build to order.”  In a world of ever evolving technology where cars, computers, and other gadgets are pretty much outdated the minute you buy them, it doesn’t benefit manufacturers to build something and put it on a shelf.

In a typical household, we don’t think of real estate or our stuff costing us money, but it does.  If we can’t find something, it costs us time looking for it.  How much is your time worth?   $10 an hour, maybe $20, $50 and hour or more? If we purchase something again because we can’t find it, then it costs us money we didn’t need to spend and could have invested elsewhere.  If we pare our items down to the minimum, we won’t spend as much time organizing or sifting through the excess.

On the flip side, everyone likes to save money.  Who doesn’t like to stock up on a really good sale of shampoo, toothpaste, and toilet paper?  We’re going to use it eventually, right?  The problem with that philosophy is that eventually you get to the point where you can’t really know what you have and buy even more.  That may lead to excessive spending when you didn’t need to in the first place.  Here’s where lean manufacturing for the home comes into play.

 Let’s say that you have 10 bottles of shampoo that you bought on clearance.  You have to store those bottles somewhere, and it may end up in your garage because there certainly isn’t enough room in your bathroom with everything else stored there.  How long does a bottle of shampoo last you?  Maybe it will last you four months, or maybe you have kids, and it will last four days.  At four days a bottle, it may make sense to stock up 10 at a time.  However, if a bottle lasts you four months, the shampoo in your last bottle will be almost three and a half years old by the time you get to it.  I guarantee that bottle is not the same quality as when you purchased it.

So, what’s the solution using lean manufacturing as a guideline?  

 Step 1: Determine how often you like to go to the store.  I absolutely loathe going to Wal-Mart, but there are times that it’s necessary.  I live in a small town with a local grocery store and dollar store a mile away.  Wal-Mart and (my new favorite) Aldi are about 10 miles away.  I really only like to go food shopping about once or twice a week, and I can usually only tolerate Wal-Mart once a month.  Given the former, I should really only plan meals for about 4-7 days ahead of time.  I have a problem with buying produce and then forgetting to eat it.  This is my life, don’t judge.

Step 2: Determine what items would cause WW III in your house if you ran out.  For me, these include: toilet paper, shampoo, conditioner, soap, deodorant, toothpaste, and possibly laundry and dishwasher soap.

Step 3: Set up a kanban system.  A kanban system is used as a trigger to start making more of something in manufacturing.  The manufacturer uses the demand of an item along with the time it takes to manufacture and a little extra cushion to determine kanban quantities.   We can do this in our own homes.  When we are using a container/box/vat of one critical item, we can have one in reserve.  Since most household consumables typically last longer than a weekly shopping trip, the “right” thing to do is to put the item on your shopping list when there is only enough to last you until the next trip.  Yeah right.  One time my son was out of clean underwear, and I only found out because he was wearing swim trunks in the dead of winter.

Step 4: REALLY set up a kanban system.  Several years ago, all of my co-workers had to take a lean office training class.  The material tried to apply lean manufacturing to the office, and it ended up looking ridiculous.  In manufacturing, workers can cut down time spend searching for tools and parts using visual management boards, making a shadow kit, labeling parts, etc.  In lean office, you clear off everything from your desk that is not critical.  Next you outline everything with tape and label it.  That way you know if something is missing like a stapler.  See, it’s ridiculous – unless you lose your stapler a lot.

However, it doesn’t seem that ridiculous in a home when you are getting a shopping list together.  Wouldn’t you love to save some time doing that task?  If you have a place like a cabinet or container to store your reserve items, try organizing and then labeling everything.  When you are making your shopping list out, you’ll know exactly what to put on it because your kids were too busy to tell you they were out of toilet paper.

I obviously have a lot of work to do under my bathroom sink. 

I hope this gets you to start thinking about different ways to manage your household stuff.  I’m starting to shift my clearance sale mindset a bit, and I’m trying to figure out a way to live with less clutter and have more time to do the things I love.



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