After nearly 2 years, Leanable Moments are back, taking you inside my personal and family life to show you how I apply Lean-inspired problem solving to take the waste out of life. Today’s Leanable Moment takes a deep look at a topic that can be a source of stress and frustration for us all: home organization.
A Scene from My Home
“It’s time to go,” I hear my wife gently call down the stairs. I gasp. In my home, no single phrase makes me cringe as much as this one. That is, except, “What’s this empty tube of toothpaste doing in the kids’ room?” But that’s a story for a different day.
“Joel, it’s time to go.” There it is again, the calmness is her voice in direct contrast with my quickening pulse. Those four simple words turn me into a panic-stricken dad version of Pavlov’s dog. My heart races. My palms get all clammy. The corner of my left eye begins to twitch. I try to ignore it, but the growing rumble of the eight frenzied little feet on the floor above says otherwise. I snap out of my denial as reality hits me like a bucket of ice water.
“Hun, we have to leave in 15 minutes. It’s really time to go.” The countdown has begun. I rise finally accepting my role as a required participant in the chaos.
As I ascend the stairs, I see the usual fallout from getting four small kids ready to leave the home. This morning’s footie pajamas line the hallway and hang from the railing of the bannister, while yesterday’s garb piles up at the base of the hamper. I think to myself, would it have been that much harder to open the lid and put the clothing inside? No, but where is the fun in that? And is the laundry hamper trying to talk to me ??? I’m rapidly losing my mind . . .
Out of the corner of my eye, I see a half-dressed toddler awkwardly stumble out from behind a dresser and dart into the bathroom, closing the door behind him. What’s an 18 month-old doing in the bathroom all by himself? Probably nothing good. I try to intervene, but I am deterred by a sudden tug on the back of my shirt. I whip around 180 degrees to see a sad set of eyes staring up at me.
“Daddy, where are my shoes? I putted them in closet last night, but now they dis-da-peared.”
“Did you check your sister’s shoes to see if she took yours again by accident?” I ask. She bounds off down the hall heaving accusations in the general direction of her older sister. Experience tells me that won’t end well. But that’s a problem for later. 10 minutes until go-time.
Forgetting the toddler tornado that was inevitably tearing through the bathroom cabinet, I make my way through my bedroom and into the master bath. There stands my wife in front of the mirror, brushing her hair with one hand, applying makeup with the other. The Lean guy in me marvels at her ability to multitask, but the moment of admiration is short-lived. “Have you seen our son? He needs a diaper change before we go.”
That was a good question, actually. I didn’t remember seeing him on my first pass through the fracas. If I were a two year-old, where would I be? And then it hits me. I retrace my steps through the bedroom and into the hallway. I can hear his muffled pleas as I approach. I fling open the lid of the talking hamper . . . “Dada!!!”
Who did this? I would ask, but’s it mostly a rhetorical question in my house. Besides, there were more important things to worry about. Only 5 minutes to go.
I race back to the bedroom, toddler in tow, to complete the standard work for diaper changing. (I’m a Lean guy. Of course I have standard work for changing a diaper.) My wife, having corralled both daughters in the bathroom, was putting the finishing touches on their hair. “Where did you put your blue-and-white-polka-dot bows? I can’t find them in the bin.”
I knew at that moment that any hope that I had of meeting our deadline was lost. The infamous bow bin contained no less than 12,000 bows (give-or-take a few thousand), and only the blue-and-white-polka-dot bows were a perfect match for the girls’ outfits. Yet after 15 minutes of searching, neither blue-and-white-polka-dot bow could be found. The other 11,998, however, lay strewn across the bathroom floor. Time was up.
Settling for a pair of blue-and-yellow striped bows, my wife works her magic, putting the finishing touches on the girls as I scoop the boys up under my arms and sprint for the garage door like it’s the 4th quarter of the Super Bowl. That the house looks as if a Babies R’ Us had been detonated inside was of little concern. As is usually the case, the cleanup will have to wait until we arrive back home. With Mom and the four kids buckled safely into our vehicle and with sweat pouring down my forehead, it was time to go at last . . . only 10 minutes too late. Not bad this time.
Now, where did I put my car keys?
What Would You Do to Get Three Years Back?
“Daddy, my shoes dis-da-peared!”
“Where is the blue-and-white polka dot bow?”
“Now where did I put my keys?”
“Have you seen our son?”
Does any of that sound familiar to you? If so, you are not alone. Big family, little family or the single life, it matters not. Organizational problems negatively impact over 90% of us. Although estimates differ, a recent study suggests that the average person spends about 55 minutes each day just looking for things. That’s almost 3 years – THREE YEARS! – over the course of our lifetimes! Yet, even more concerning than the amount of time we waste because of organizational problems is the effect on the quality of our lives.
A favorite earring gone missing. An overflowing pantry. Toys . . . everywhere. What feelings do these situations bring about? For most of us, words like anxiety, tension and frustration are the first to come to mind. It’s no surprise that our challenges with home organization cause us stress, but the magnitude of the impact might just make you think twice about managing through a messy lifestyle. According to a recent survey, home organization was found to be in the top 5 most common triggers of stress in our lives. 47% of people surveyed reported being stressed out within the previous month over “worrying my home isn’t cleaned or organized enough”. To put that number into context, home organization is about as big of a stressor as “unexpected expenses”, “not having enough time for loved ones” and “not being productive enough”. And given that stress is a primary contributor to all 6 leading causes of death, we may want to take that cluttered drawer or messy medicine cabinet a bit more seriously.
Home Organization vs. Managing the Mess
If you’re like most people, you’re concept of home organization is limited to a place for everything and everything in its place. As long as it’s out of sight, it’s out of mind, and everything is fine! Right? Not exactly.
There’s a big difference between true home organization and what I call managing the mess. A cluttered closet reveals no secrets until it’s time to leave for that big night out, and you need of that one sweater that looks perfect with your outfit. A kitchen junk drawer masks the muddle until you’ve got a houseful of guests and you really need those salad tongs. A packed attic is an afterthought until it’s time to search for those holiday decorations (did I mention it’s FREEZING up there???). And what do all of these spaces have in common? If by some small miracle we manage to find that thing we’re looking for, we simply return the item back to where we found it when we’re, perpetuating the cycle all over again.
What’s more is that the better mess managers we become, the more likely we are to add to the chaos in the future. It’s the paradox of organization and it’s why we just can’t seem to bear the stress, draining us of our time, money and energy.
The problem with the Benjamin Franklin approach is that it misses the mark entirely on the core value that being organized brings. Conquering the clutter requires more than just creating a neat and tidy appearance. True home organization creates a system that allows us to visualize the problems that create those messy conditions to begin with. In contrast to managing the mess, the more home organization problems we solve, the more of those three missing years we can take back.
Seeing is Bow-lieving: A Real-Life Example
“Where is the blue-and-white polka dot bow?”
Actually, the bow problem from the opening of this post was a real problem in our home not too long ago. Just ask my mother-in-law. That’s right, my mother-in-law. After arriving late to my in-laws house for dinner one too many times because of not being able to find the bows we needed from a big bin in a dark cabinet under the bathroom sink, my mother-in-law decided to give us all a Lesson in Lean.
She made these. These simple, inexpensive bow hangers effectively solved our bow-finding problems by addressing the three major differences between mess management and true home organization.
- Standards are defined. The length of the bow hangers was pre-defined to ensure that we have only the bows we really need and nothing more. Because there is a standard quantity, there is no more buying and storing of more bows than what we really need, saving us money.
- Problems are visible. The bow hangers are stored on the back of the bathroom door, rather than in a dark cabinet under the sink. By keeping the bow hangers visible, we save time in two different ways:
First, we can find the bows that we need faster, as my daughter Grace demonstrates in the video below.
Second, and more importantly, we can identify when a bow goes missing much, much, much faster. Just ask my other daughter Anna.
- Good behavior is reinforced. The bow hangers provide immediate feedback whether the bows are returned to their proper location. And when they are not, they provide a real-time visual clue that we have some family problem solving to do. We work with the kids to address the root causes of why the bows were not returned so that we don’t experience the same problem over and over again, saving us stress.
Apologies, but this Post Isn’t Really About Organization
I’ve got a confession to make. This post wasn’t only about home organization. In many ways, our organizational habits are a reflection of the way that we go about living our lives on a much broader scale. Our problems with organization can be very similar to the problems we face in many other areas of our existence. All too often, when a mess arises in our personal or family lives, we try to “manage” it rather than invest time and effort to develop the systems and the behaviors needed to solve the problems once and for all.
When the toys start to overflow, we simply get a bigger toy box. When our waste lines expand, we punch an extra hole in our belts. When the bills pile up, we just whip out the credit cards. We deal with the problems only to the extent we need to in the short-term, effectively tossing it the problem into the junk drawer of our minds for another day. Until we can’t anymore.
The problem with problems is that they have a tendency to grow over time. Today’s nuisance becomes tomorrow’s catastrophe. And that is how, be it literally or figuratively, we found ourselves here:
Next time you encounter a small problem in your life, whether it’s that pile of boxes stashed away in the basement or the pile of bills stuffed into the desk drawer, make your own version of the bow hanger. Define your standards and crystallize your expectations for how things should be. Make the problem visible so that you know when things go wrong before they blow up. And start making the changes in your behavior needed to prevent the same problems from happening again.
And if you need some support, don’t stress. My mother-in-law is always happy to help!
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