Kanban for Dishwashers

(image by Peter & Francesca)

No, this is not a blog post title just to attract your attention.  I’m truly going to explain how the ideas behind Kanban helped us doing the dishes more efficiently during our camping trip in the south of France.  How geeky can it get?!

The joy of camping is living in harmony with nature, spending most of your time outdoors. Southern France has an ideal climate for this. BUT, since you’re doing everything yourself (cooking, cleaning, buying groceries…), the dishes have to be done once in a while too.

So after our first day of camping, we were off to the central sanitary bungalow with our pile of dirty pots and pans.  When we arrived, I saw that we there were 6 adjacent sinks available.  Immediately an alarm went off inside my head : “FLOW !!!”.

So I said: “Hold on for a second guys, let’s take a look at how we can organize this in a way that we can do the dishes twice as fast as our wives and have some time left for a beer”.  That’s right, we’re new men!  We can do the dishes and iron our clothes!  I don’t care if you call us whipped 🙂

Which different activities do we need in order to get this pile of dirty stuff fresh and shiny back into our tents?

  • Well certainly someone needs to clean them with water and soap.
  • And someone needs to rinse the dishes.
  • Maybe we want to dry them as well?

OK, so why don’t we use 3 sinks?  One for washing, one for rinsing and one for drying?

The washer feeds the flow by pulling new dirty items from the pile and starts to clean them.  As soon as he finishes an item he moves it to the input pile of the rinser, who pulls an item and sprays the soap off.  On his turn, he moves it to the input pile of the dryer who pulls an item and dries it with his kitchen towel.

Great system, not that revolutionary, but we were ready to give it a try to see how it felt.

So we were off.  The first guy starts cleaning an item from the pile and moves it to the rinser.  He takes a new one from the pile, etc.  Very soon, our flow is filled with work, and I already see some bottlenecks appearing.  Apparently, our rinser has excess capacity.  He’s often waiting for work while the dryer and the cleaner are struggling to keep up.  But hey, that’s fine, this is our first attempt.  So we keep on going and finish the dishes in a nice time with still some time left to drink a beer.

Off course we bragged to our wives about our genius system, so the next day they sent us off to do the dishes again (what did you expect?).  Instead of blowing our horn or cursing our wives, we said to ourselves: “Let them laugh, we’ll show them!  We’ll improve our system until they admit that they underestimated us! [evil grin]

Let’s see, what can we learn from last time?  Right!  We experienced some bottlenecks in our flow.  How can we fix them? Our rinser didn’t have enough work, how can we optimize that?  This time, as soon as the rinser has nothing to do, he helps the drier by loading the finished dishes into our giant box that we carry from and to our camping ground.  That will free up capacity for our drier and leads to a more continuous flow.  This results in a more efficient use of our available capacity AND we now have time left to drink two beers.  Good times!

In the next week we tried some other set-ups until we came to a point up which we realized that the only way to improve our speed and efficiency was to scale up by using more people or different lines, which in our case was not realistic (or even fun).

I can honestly say that experimenting with a flow system in this physical way, was really fun and made me more confident about the value of a well designed delivery system.  By being critical to ourselves and looking at the system as a whole, we were able to drastically improve our efficiency in a short amount of time.  Sure, the other campers looked at us if we were nuts.  But hey, we had fun and finished a dreadful task much quicker as they did!

About Nick Oostvogels

Hi, I'm an independent management consultant. My biggest strengths are located in the fields of teamwork, motivation, leadership and continuous improvement. In the IT industry you find a lot of these values in the agile movement, in which I often act as a project leader, product owner or coach. My interests go a lot further, into other industries where we find these values in lean production. Besides that, I try to broaden my horizon as much as possible, always looking for better ways of doing business.


  1. That’s how serious games work! You can smell and feel the process while having fun (or in case washing dishes probably sort of fun 😉 ).

  2. Pingback: Kanban for Dishwashers « Sumu's Web Link Collection

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