What can laundry teach us about systems design?

Scenario: Clean trousers fell from heated towel rail in bathroom where they were drying. They were discovered on the floor (by someone else), and put into the dirty laundry pile to be washed again. (?!)

Ok, so this just happened. Some trousers don’t like the drier and will take too long on the line, so the heated towel rail is my solution. Yet when I discovered them back in the wash I was really annoyed and it made me think about the importance of systems. But not really laundry systems, or family systems – more business systems.

Here’s today’s thinking inspired by the double-wash trousers:

1) Systems need to be transparent

As the self-elected laundry processor in our home, I know where I’m up to. I don’t love the role but I have my systems down for collection, washing, drying and folding. The problem is that no one else is interested in the process. If everyone was clued in on the process (willing or not) we might avoid processing errors, unnecessary repeats of labour and even potential conflict. If there is a system, publish it. (I’ll be following up with a chat with the kids).

2) User experience is important

When we disrupt someone else’s process or system, they can be accidentally hurt. This is the way I do it – why is your way better? Fixing a system without considering the original designer can be accidentallt diminishing. The trouser issue could have been solved with a quick conversation. Asking questions is an essential part of refining systems to benefit everyone. ‘Are these trousers clean or dirty?’ For example.

3) Stages of the process need to be outlined

Linked to the first part above, but communicating stages is useful. Once a process is broken down into steps, it’s easier to see where the waste or muda is. I once used a public flow chart to collaborate with staff and teacher aides to streamline exam delivery. It was really interesting to look at each step as a section on it’s own and collaborate together to make useful refinements with everyone’s experience on the table. It was amazing how much everyone had to add when they were given a chance to refine the system.

4) Everything needs a ‘sniff test’ equivalent

Ok, so laundry might be the catalyst but how can you tell when something is ‘done’. Laundry can be subjected to the sniff test but what about other systems? From designing and publishing to communicating and evaluating – how can you tell whereabouts within the system each item is? Changing labeling of shared files, publishing a flow chart with quick checklists or involving the team in streamlining the system design can serve as a useful user-friendly ‘where are we at’ check to save things bring re-processed, published prematurely or categorized in the wrong place. Or worse, wasted entirely.

So, with the pants back on the rail and the laundry crisis averted, what do you think? Have the trousers illuminated potential for refinement or redesign within your systems?

Flow charts are so good for systems analysis.

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