Agile @Home: Let’s Do Some Laundry!

A little over a year ago, Electric Cloud switched its engineering practices to embrace Agile practices, and Scrum in particular. We went through a 2-3 day on-site seminar with a trainer, and then the engineering and product management leadership went through an intense follow-on 2 day session.

It was a great learning experience, but one of my take-aways was that a few of the practices being taught were ideas I’d been using at home in various chores for quite some time. This led me to ask myself the question: just as one can apply agile principles to household chores, can one learn agile principles from our chores?

Let’s take doing the laundry as one example from my household. My workforce consists of the following people (names changed to protect the guilty innocent):

Rita (wife) & I
project managers, subject matter experts. In most instances of this chore only one of us is involved. The rest of this post is a reflection of my experiences in particular.
Super-powers: I hold the carrot and the stick for motivating the rest of the workforce. I am also unrelenting in getting the work done.
Nick
8 year old son.
Super-power: Incredible whining powers.
Weakness: Remembers from past experience that his super-power never leads to a positive outcome (from his perspective) so he doesn’t fight (much) when this chore comes up.
Rick
5 year old son.
Super-power: Astounding powers of manipulation, and several years of experience in honing that skill. Attempts to use cuteness to wiggle out of this chore.
Weakness: Sometimes wants to prove that he’s a “big boy” and that drives him to engage in this “big boy” work.

Ok, so given this set of resources, let’s walk through the tasks of doing the laundry and see what lessons we learn.

Step 1: Gather clothes and transport them to the washer.

The adults’ clothes are already in a laundry basket for the most part. I gather any straggling clothes, including kids’ clothes from their room and consolidate it to the aforementioned basket. Our bedrooms are upstairs, so it’s not safe for them to transport the basket to the laundry room. That said, once the basket is downstairs, sometimes the boys work together to pick up and transport the basket.

Lessons Learned

  • Not all team members are suited to all tasks.
  • Some tasks can be broken down to subtasks that less skilled members of the workforce can handle.
  • Teamwork can help get the job done.

Step 2: Load the washer and turn it on.

We have a front-loading washer. This makes it fairly easy for both Nick and Rick to load the washer. However, they are still a reluctant workforce, so neither wants to do it. However, the washer is operated purely by a few buttons and an easy-to-turn dial, which both want to operate. So they load the washer and take turns pushing relevant buttons and turning the dial. I load the detergent. :)

Lessons Learned

  • Enable / empower your workforce. If we didn’t have a front-loading washer, they couldn’t have accomplished this task.
  • In an agile self-organizing team, the team members pick which tasks they work on, but the lead / scrum master can encourage members to roughly partition the work such that no one person ends up with the all the grunt work. It will improve productivity and morale.

Steps 3-4: Transfer clean wet clothes to the dryer and turn it on. Then transfer dry clean clothes to a room.

We have a front-loading dryer, so both Nick and Rick are fully capable of handling this task, with the same “reward” of being able to push buttons/dials for loading the dryer.

We have a separate hamper for clean clothes which has wheels. Both Nick and Rick have assisted with delivering dry clothes to the staircase since they were three years old. I carry the hamper upstairs to our room, which has the most open space.

Lessons Learned

  • Same as in earlier steps.

Step 5: Sort and fold clothes.

This is an interesting one. One technique is to take an item from the hamper, fold it, and put it in a space allocated for the owner’s clothes. This approach has a few problems:

  • Not all team members know how to fold all types of clothes (particularly other owners’ clothes).
  • The contents of the hamper reduce pretty slowly; the team works for a minute, looks in the hamper and says, “Oh, there are so many clothes! We’ll never get done!” Team morale drops; team productivity then drops because more time is spent in counter-productive efforts like whining and complaining.

Our solution breaks this up into two separate tasks with different deliverables:

  • Separate the clothes into piles, one pile per owner.
  • Nick, Rick, and the adult involved folds his/her own clothes.

Separating the clothes can be fun; the space allocated to a given owner’s clothes can be across the room from the hamper, and members can throw clothes towards the appropriate space. Most of the time they make it, sometimes they don’t. But they get a laugh doing it. Morale and productivity stay high.

Folding is another story. Nick tolerates folding, but Rick really detests it. However, since each member folds his own clothes, the pile he’s processing isn’t very large and there is visible progress as clothes are folded. Nick and I always finish our piles first, and I help Rick with his pile. We often subdivide his pile of clothes into types and he folds one type (say pants) while I work on the rest.

Lessons Learned

  • Divide work into as many self-contained, bite-size chunks as possible.
  • Morale is tightly coupled with productivity.
    • There’s a more subtle aspect here. A team member who feels productive will have higher morale because he feels proud that he’s accomplishing his tasks. So enable team members as much as possible.
  • Misery enjoys company. For example, Rick is more productive when I’m helping him.

Step 6: Put clothes away in drawers / closets.

Nick and I put away our own clothes. As mentioned earlier, Rita takes care of her clothes independently when I’m doing laundry with the boys. Rick can’t put away closet clothes, but he can put relevant clothes on hangers. Nick gives him the hangers, and after Rick puts relevant items on hangers, I put those hanger clothes in the closet. Rick puts away his folded clothes with occasional assistance from me.

Everyone high-fives, and we move on with our lives. :)

Lessons Learned

  • For the team to be successful in its endeavors, team members must be willing to help each other. Members don’t just work in their silos and move on.

Summary

There are quite a few lessons we learned from the fairly simple chore of doing laundry:

  • Not all team members are suited to all tasks.
  • Divide work into as many self-contained, bite-size chunks as possible.
    • Less skilled members of the workforce can own and execute focused sub-tasks that are suitable to their skill-set.
  • Enable / empower your workforce with the tools they need to get the job done correctly and efficiently.
    • This improves morale since team members complete tasks faster and feel proud of their accomplishments.
  • Either the lead or the team should distribute tasks in such a way that less pleasant / menial tasks are shared across the team.
    • This avoids a drop in any individual’s morale.
  • For the team to be successful in its endeavors, team members must be willing to help each other. Members don’t just work in their silos and move on.

You’ll notice that these ideas are embraced / encouraged by Agile, but they don’t originate from the Agile movement. This is important because many people transition their processes to some Agile methodology and then get lost in the do’s and don’ts of their particular methodology. Many of those practices are really concrete attempts to follow the lessons I’ve enumerated here. So keep that in mind as you tailor the processes in your organization to be more agile.

Sandeep Tamhankar

Sandeep Tamhankar is Principal Engineer in Ship.io, Electric Cloud's mobile CI/CD cloud service.

He joined the Electric Cloud engineering team in 2003 to work on various facets of emake and the Accelerator Cluster Manager and wrote the first version of ElectricRunner. Sandeep was a member of the team that began to design and implement ElectricCommander in 2005, where he wrote the Commander Agent and implemented some of the core features of the Commander server.

Sandeep holds a BS in Computer Science from Cornell University and an MS in Computer Science from Stanford University.

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