Sunday, July 31, 2011

How Toyota Cleaned My House

Procrastination is a common affliction and usually fairly harmless, unless you don't live alone, and your cohabitant feels you should help out around the house, and the stuff you are procrastinating happens to be the household chores. So when this situation reared its ugly head at my house, I decided to reach into my professional toolbox to see what I could find to make routine chores more fun and engaging.

Things needed for this project:
  • one Sharpie marker
  • several large Post-it notes
  • one large sheet of paper (approx. 20" x 23") or other writing surface that can be put on a wall
Step one was to organize and define the goals. Apparently they have different definitions of "clean" and "organized" on Venus than what we have on Mars. So how could I keep track of my responsibilities and when they are due, as well as manage the communication? We needed a system that's simple, efficient and shared. Kanban immediately came to mind. Developed for Toyota as lean management for their Just In Time (JIT) manufacturing process, it seemed like the perfect solution. We got a large sheet sheet of paper (Post-it flip charts are good) and drew 5 columns: "To Do," "Done Today," "Done Yesterday," "2 Days Ago" and "3 Days Ago." Next, we wrote each chore on a large Post-it note. The idea was to choose items that could be done by any member of the household and didn't need to be done on a daily basis or a set deadline. We also ruled out things like personal laundry that we kept up with pretty well.  So a good list would be:
Kanban Chart

  • things anyone can do
  • no set deadline
  • routine, but not daily
  • easy to avoid or procrastinate (no immediate consequence)
  • equally beneficial to household
Our initial list consists of:
  • launder bedding and linens
  • brush cats (we have two)
  • sweep and mop floors (hardwoods & tile downstairs)
  • vacuum (carpet upstairs)
  • dust & clean countertops
  • clean bathrooms (1.5 baths)
  • clean shower
Things that didn't make the cut because of deadlines, personal incentives, consequences or frequency:
  • cooking
  • washing dishes
  • watering plants
  • feeding the cats 
  • emptying the litter box
  • cleaning the kitchen
  • shopping for groceries
  • washing cars
  • personal laundry
  • taking out garbage
Each morning the notes in the "done" columns are shifted one column to the right and tasks in the last column are moved back to the "To Do" queue. There can be exceptions to the rules; for instance, we allow brushing the cats to be done again (for points) once it reaches the "second day" column.

With the kanban chart and sticky notes, the organization part was done. Now I knew exactly what I wasn't doing, so the next challenge was to create an incentive. Want to make something dull and routine more interesting? Turn it into a contest and place a wager on it. Gamification to the rescue! We would keep score and reward the winner upon reaching a set number. This accomplishes two goals, it provides incentive and a sense of urgency through competition and also shows acknowledgement for work completed. If I sweep the floor today, it might just be dirty again two days later, but that point stays on the scoreboard in recognition of my achievement.

Some final tips:
  1. set a point goal that takes some time to reach to make it a fair contest (we chose 15)
  2. when someone reaches the point goal the scores are reset
  3. rewards for winning need to be given quickly; otherwise, recognition turns to resentment
  4. to support point 3, choose rewards that aren't dependent on uncontrollable circumstances like weather or large time commitments that will be difficult to schedule
  5. chart needs to be visible and accessible (we have ours on the entry closet door; it is concealed, but we each see it a few times each day and it is in a central location)
  6. play fair and HAVE FUN
If you try this or come up with more variations, please post your experience or ideas in the comments.


  1. Hey Keith, that sounds pretty cool - I do need such a board at home, too :-). One suggestion for a potential enhancement though: have you considered adding swimlanes such that one lane ends at "done yesterday" (-> items in that lane need to be done every two days, e.g. watering plants) and one "done two days ago" and another one at done x days ago etc. That way you could differentiate the frequencies (e.g., you suggested the cat needed brushing more frequently than every three/four days)...

  2. @steffiu, swimlanes could definitely be a good visualizing technique, thanks for the suggestion. I was considering color-coded notes. There would be pros and cons to each solution, color-coding is less obvious and requires a key, swimlanes creates a more rigid grid and tasks may not be evenly distributed making some lanes crowded.

    If you decide to try it, let me know how it goes. Also, I recently learned about an online RPG with a similar concept, check out Chore Wars (