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Cleaning after dinner: using Process Management in practice

Dinner parties can be great fun, but cleaning up afterwards can be a daunting affair. So, what if we use our business practices at home?


Imagine a nice weekend evening. You have eight guests joining you for dinner and, together with your spouse, you've made a wonderful three-course meal. The table is set, the finest china is laid out, there's three plates per person, all the silverware you could find and two glasses each.

It's a wonderful dinner. Everyone has a great time, with wild stories and easy conversation. Close to 11pm, your guests rise, there's talk of 'getting back to babysitters', and everyone helps to bring some plates or glasses to the kitchen. There are hugs all around and your guests head on home.

So now it's just you and a mountain of mess; the dining table's been demolished, the kitchen's a drama. But it was a wonderful evening!

In the kitchen, you find the double sink groaning and spilling over from the pans you put in there earlier. Plates have been piled on top and there's cutlery everywhere. But that's not all, the counter is full with glasses, plates, bowls and leftovers from what you made earlier.

You go to the dining room and clean as much as possible, bringing more stuff to the kitchen. The kitchen becomes unworkable, but at least the dining room is okay. You decide to go to bed and deal with it tomorrow, although you realise that all those bowls, pans, plates and glasses will be harder to clean in the morning.

It's a classic dinner party picture and one I'm sure we're all familiar with. Tackling that mountain of washing up will be no easy task, but are there any lessons that process management can teach us that could make the whole affair that much easier? In essence, yes there are!


How can process management help?

One of the most important rules is keeping the primary workplace clean and available for any use. In many kitchens, I see the pans, bowls and other wares placed in the sink during the cooking preparation activities. For example, a hot pan is taken from the stove and placed in the sink.

What does this do? The sink is one of the most generic and important working stations of the kitchen. It is used for many different tasks. When putting and leaving a pan in the sink, I make the sink unavailable for future use.

Rule 1: Keep the primary workplace tidy and available; never leave anything in the sink. This is an easy one to follow and, once you're used to it, becomes very natural.

Rule 2: When you do wash something, make sure you immediately dry it and put it back in the cupboard. Finish the task completely and instantly. The sink itself and the area around it must be kept clean.

Rule 3: One piece flow; pull system. Where? When preparing the dinner in the afternoon, you end up with dirty bowls and pans all the time. Try to wash them immediately, dry them and put them back in the cupboard. Try to do that with each bowl and pan, one at a time.

Cleaning immediately is easier; the sauces/waste hasn't had time to dry and if you do this immediately, the kitchen will stay a little nicer. This is also the case with wine glasses, for example. These are often hand washed. If you wait until the next morning, stains will have dried and they become much harder to clean.

Like all Lean efforts; there is no big bang; it is a compilation of many small things, that added together can have a huge impact.


The most important tip may be cleaning the dining table

First: resist bringing everything to the kitchen and try the following. The main concept here is the cleaning of the workspace and applying a one-piece flow:

  1. During preparations try to clean everything as and when you're done with it. You've used a bowl or pan that is no longer needed; wash, dry and store it immediately. It will feel good if you can keep the kitchen clean.

  2. Never place/leave something in the sink. If you have no time to clean it immediately, put it on the right side of the sink when it is dirty. Leave the left side for any material that is washed and needs to dry. If there are too many items on the right side, then your KanBan is full and you should wash, dry and store whatever is there.

  3. After the dinner, leave the dining table alone. First clean the kitchen completely.

  4. Start by cleaning low-hanging fruit; any material like salt and pepper shakers that you can immediately put back in the cupboards.

  5. Next, clean the sink. Take one pan/bowl at the time, wash it, dry it and store it. If you let them drip-dry, do that for two to three articles at the time, but don't let them pile up. It will be nice to see a clean sink area. You are creating a clean work area for yourself from the beginning of the process and it is much nicer to work in than a messy, piled up space.

  6. Try to clean the kitchen completely, without having brought anything in from the dining table!

  7. After the kitchen is clean, go to the dining table and fetch the easiest to collect, clean and store items. For example, the water glasses and cutlery to begin with.

  8. Complete all tasks before moving on to the next:

    a) Continue bringing a small stack from the dining table to the kitchen. But make sure that whatever you bring, you put away in the dishwasher or hand wash, dry and store immediately. Most importantly, the kitchen stays clean!

    b) Continue working on that in a pull system/one-piece flow. Bring a single load of material to the kitchen and work on that until it is clean and stored.

  9. Putting silverware into the dishwasher comes with another tip. Often, we just put all knives, forks, spoons, etc at random into the basket. However, that creates a larger task when emptying the dishwasher next day:

    a) Try to group your silverware into the basket. It takes only a little extra focus and no extra effort to put knives with knives, forks with forks, etc. However, when emptying it the next day, you can grab all the knives in a single go and put them in the drawer, without the need for finding and sorting.

  10. Avoid making the mess worse! Often this can happen during the cleaning activity:

    a) When plates are dirty with sauce, for example, do not stack them. This will make the bottoms of the plates dirty as well. This might require pre-rinsing to allow them to be temporarily placed on a countertop.

    b) Often, people group all silverware in the dining room and toss them into a dirty bowl. In the kitchen, you'll then need to fish them out of the bowl again. Do not do this!

What are the benefits?

After a dinner party, you'll have to clean everything anyway. By applying some process management tricks, you can make it a little easier and you'll find that it is much nicer to work in a clean, efficient manner.

Also, by following a one-piece flow, you'll experience 'successes' right from the start; you'll wash, dry and store the wine glasses, plates and everything else and find it nice to realise that a task is complete before moving on to the next one.

If you do this too often? Well, you'll get the responses like I get them from my kids at times. Relax, Dad, you're not at work! And yes, often they're right!

At Engage Process, our aim is to help businesses to maximise their efficiency and become more agile. If we've piqued your interest with this little tale, please download our whitepaper 'From Kaizen to Six Sigma: What process management style is right for you?' to learn more.

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