Lean in everyday life - The mysterious case of the messy kitchen

Lean in everyday life - The mysterious case of the messy kitchen

This is the first post of a series that tries to encourage Lean thinking. Unfortunately, many Lean principles are counter-intuitive and I've been struggling to find an effective way to convey them.

I believe we as humans learn best through stories we can relate to. Using everyday life examples may help us in feeling the nature of the most important Lean principles. Let me know your thoughts on this attempt…


A friend of mine moved with his family to a big house near us. Great location with plenty of space. They were very happy of course apart for the eye-wateringly expensive rent. Our families spent a very pleasant afternoon at their place but I could not help noticing the total mess their kitchen was in. Now, nor me nor my family are particularly successful in keeping our house in good order so I’m in no position to criticise anyone. However, the rest of their house was immaculate. While the kitchen… dirty plates, any available surface filled with bits and bobs half dirty and half in some sort of half-done state. Working in the kitchen was excruciatingly complicated for the couple: even making a coffee presented clear difficulties in trying to find a clean cup in the mess and at least three steps in moving something dirty to a different place then something else dirty in the space just freed up and finally placing the cup in the just cleared space. Oh well I thought, they just moved in, they’ll sort it out.

The kitchen - Drawing by Lorenzo Volpi The Kitchen - Drawing by Lorenzo Volpi

Looking deeper

As it happens we went back and guess what this old git was curious to check? Was the kitchen going to be any better? As it turns out, no. Actually, it was worse because this time around they were being more adventurous with the cooking. Cooking that had to mostly happen in the dining room because any clean surfaces were as scarce as before. Intriguing. I had to find out what was the reason for this incongruous state of affairs. In these cases, we all know what to do: Gemba! Go see where everything is happening. Observe, observe and observe again. In this instance, the job has been facilitated by a Bloody Mary and quite a few olives but dry Gemba works too.

Flow analysis

At first I thought that there was a clear bottleneck: in the sink, I could see multiple layers of dirty crockery. Very visible WIP and inventory. Someone must not like cleaning dishes. But there is a dishwasher! In the value stream the dishwasher usually comes after the sink: items are rinsed and then placed in the dishwasher. Could the dishwasher be the bottleneck? After a while someone opened the dishwasher. I was really surprised to see more inventory there of cleaned dishes and forks and glasses and serving spoons and so on. Invisible inventory in this case: when the door is closed, the dishwasher vanishes completely from your consciousness. Interestingly, our hosts would only take a few clean items when needed, leaving the others there. Of course, no dirty items could go in the dishwasher to avoid mixing dirty and clean and having to re-clean everything. The dishwasher was clearly as blocked as the sink was.

Arriving at the root cause

OK so the bottleneck had to be after the sink and after the dishwasher. I gently probed asking if I could help emptying the dishwasher and finally found out the root cause of the whole issue! When our friends moved in, because of work commitments they have separately unpacked part of the removal boxes. As a result, one person knew where some items needed to be stored and the other person knew where some others went. Now, here I must explain that they are Italian too. For some Europeans including myself, the correct positioning of cooking tools is fundamental, it’s like positioning spanners for James May. As a result, no one by themselves could empty the whole dishwasher! Well, without risking a divorce at least.

Improvement action

Now, it can take courage to mention to dear friends that they have a tidiness issue. It would take courage with any friends but especially so with friends that can cook this amazingly. Alas, I must admit I did not raise the issue or propose a solution in this case. Eventually our friends moved home and this time the unpacking was done differently and the kitchen is much less of a problem! The proposed solution could have been to pair-empty the dishwasher a few times and then anyone could have done it anytime. Empty dishwasher means empty sink which means tidy kitchen which means space to cook. Pull system.


This story gives quite a few useful teachings! In no particular order:

Gemba - If you want to optimise flow you need to understand EVERYTHING about the flow. Not just the value stream but also the implicit and explicit policies, the nature of the work items and most importantly observe the people that are part of the flow and the technical details.

Don’t stop at the first discovery - We could have stopped at the sink and just reason that well our friends needed to be less lazy with the dishwashing. That would have been completely unfair and most importantly would not have helped the flow much as the dishwasher would still be under-utilised and block inventory.

Invisible inventory is bad! - No news here: inventory is usually bad and invisible inventory is worse because you are less likely to do something about it. My grandfather had an impressive dishwasher with a transparent door. Fascinating to look at when turned on, great for knowing what’s inside at all times. We need transparent doors for all invisible inventory: the number of check-ins not yet tested or released for example.

Cross-functional teams inherently avoid bottlenecks - What if both our hosts had complete knowledge about the location of every item in the kitchen? The issue would simply have not happened. In general, cross functional and empowered teams make things happen for a more resilient flow.

Stop and fix! - If you see a problem, stop the flow and resolve it. Don’t continue for months and months to put up with an awful flow with workarounds, frustration and pain. Stop and fix is done extremely rarely, with individuals and teams papering over long standing technical and organisational issues with complicated procedures and other kinds of waste. They are not doing a favour to anyone, especially not to themselves.

Constructive criticism - If something does not sound right in somebody else’s process, find the courage to mention it. It can be done carefully and you’ll regret not doing so. I can attest to that.