Standardization, visual management, and process confirmation are some important elements of lean manufacturing. Here we have an example many of you are probably familiar with – toilet paper folding at hotels. This simple example can clearly demonstrate the value of Standardization, visual management, and process confirmation.
Lean principles can be found almost everywhere in industry. This is not only limited to manufacturing, but also includes health care, administration, service, banking, military, and many other fields. One particular place where I love to observe lean principles is at hotels. Surely you’ve noticed how they fold the end of the toilet paper at some hotels. I assume you’re familiar with toilet paper, but I also believe you don’t fold the paper over in your own home. So why do hotels do that? Why go through the additional effort of toilet paper origami in a place where every minute counts? The answer can be found in lean principles.
Folding the Paper looks neat!
The first reason most people come up with for toilet paper origami is neatness. It simply looks nice and professional, with no unsightly jagged edge. It is designed to impress the customer and give style and class to the hotel. It’s also said to increase the tips given to housekeepers. This is particularly true with the more elaborate folding patterns. Some hotels even manage to fold a resemblance of their logo into the toilet paper. Looking neat and classy is certainly one aspect of toilet paper origami, but there is much more to it.
Missing Paper looks Bad
Let’s look at it from the other side. How could a hotel leave a bad impression to the customer, particularly in the bathroom? Assume a customer uses the bathroom, conducts his business, and upon completion reaches for the toilet paper. Except—it’s all gone. Any fanciness, style, or good impression a hotel tries to leave with the customer vanishes in an instant if there is no toilet paper when you need it. In short, there should always be TP.
Ensuring availability of such working materials is, of course, the responsibility of the hotel staff. They have to check if there is still enough paper left and replace rolls as needed. Basically, it would be enough to just look at the roll and decide whether to replace it or not. However, humans make mistakes, and overworked and underpaid hotel maids rushing from room to room to make their quota are no exception.
Visual Confirmation of Standard through Toilet Paper Folding
That’s where the toilet paper folding comes in. By making folding the paper part of a standard, it also ensures that there is paper. If the staff has to fold the paper, they are forced to look at the roll for at least the few seconds it takes to create the triangle. This makes them much more likely to notice if the roll is low on paper. If the roll is completely out, they can’t even do the folding. Hence, this little bit of effort greatly increases the likelihood of toilet paper availability to the customer. The standard itself serves as an aid to check for paper availability.
Yet, there is even more lean in this operation. The folding of the paper also allows for a visual management. When checking the performance of their staff, hotel management can walk into any bathroom and see at first glance if the availability of toilet paper was checked by housekeeping. In lean terminology, this is called a process confirmation. If the hotel operates on a “just look for TP” standard, there is no chance for management to see if the standard was followed, unless the rolls are empty. With toilet paper origami, it is obvious.
Another example of lean standards in a hotel bathroom would be the arrangement of other convenience products such as toothbrushes, soaps, body lotions, shower caps, shoe shine, and so on. These are also usually arranged nicely and orderly somewhere in the bathroom. Besides looking neat and impressing the guests, setting up this standard arrangement forces the staff to mentally go through the list of items and replace them as needed. Similarly, management can see at one glance if the staff took care of these items and if any one of them are missing.
If you want to dig deeper into toilet paper origami, there are entire websites dedicated to this topic (for example, Origami Resource Center), and toilet paper origami even has its own Wikipedia article on hotel toilet paper folding. Now, go out and improve your Industry!