The Laundry Challenge Answered


We want to thank a number of our readers for courageously pitting themselves against the Laundry Challenge and coming out whiter than white. For those of you who didn’t do as well here is the way we assess responses.

Let’s start with a recap of the challenge for those who didn’t participate.

“We do an exercise with our clients to analyze – along with them – the limitations of their business reasoning. This short exercise is so effective we want to share it with you so you can perform a self assessment. Enjoy. It is supposed to be fun.

You are given a bundle of freshly washed clothes, a length of rope and clothespins, and asked to dry the laundry. What do you do?

That’s it. Nothing more. What do you do? How do you hang up the laundry and get it dry?

Metaphorically speaking this is a business problem. You have a client (the person asking you to dry the laundry), the activity you are engaging in brings them a benefit (dry laundry), you are given all the tools you need to get the job done (you have the means of production) and if you do this efficiently enough many other people may ask you to do the same thus allowing you to make a business out of it.

All the elements are there for a potentially successful business. It is now up to you to demonstrate how you approach the problem and make it into a business.”

The first mistake respondents make is assuming they have ground to stand on. In the problem, you are given laundry, a length of rope and clothespins but no lawn, courtyard, or even the alleyway between two buildings on which to stand and hang any laundry. As the ROKC approach states, you have to own and/or control an asset to get started. In this case, it is actual space.

The second error they make concerns where to attach the line. They assume they have someplace to fix the two ends of the line when they don’t. It is not a given. Often enough other assumptions are made such fixing the line to a couple of tress or posts or the sides of a building. All simply assumptions which allow them to over simplify the nature of the problem in front of them. In the case of fixing the line between two buildings there is the added challenge of obtaining permission from the building owners to actually do so and the consequences of not getting permission beforehand that complicate the situation even further.

The next challenge comes in the form of the additional resources that may be required to fix the ends of the rope. In some cases, a simple knot may do the trick – assuming the rope is long enough – however in others the task owner is obliged to acquire further resources: a drill and masonry bit to punch a hole in the walls, eye screws, a pulley system, a couple of posts, cement, a clothesline system, and so on. Basically, the lesson here is that there may be start up costs to get you to where you need to be to actually fulfill the task.

Now our respondent has a fully functioning system where they can stand on solid ground and fix the length of rope to two points, and all the rights to do so. The work of hanging the laundry out to dry can begin.

Most people describe the process of hanging laundry as placing a garment on the line and holding it down with a clothespin. Nothing surprising here you say. Well is it? Let’s take a look.

The actions required to fulfill this process usually, not always, involve having the laundry in some container that rests on the ground requiring the operator to bend down to select the next item to be dried. The item needs to be neatly folded over the line to allow the clothespin to be fixed, any budges may make it impossible to get the clothespin around everything. The clothespin is often in a container on the ground again requiring the operator to bend down to retrieve it. And so on and so forth until all the laundry has been hung. The opposite process ensues after the laundry has dried when it is retrieved.

However, here again we have an assumption which the text above does not satisfy: a container for the laundry and one for the clothespins. The fact of the matter is that we have neither. Thus, our operator needs to acquire even more resources.

Then there is the actual process itself. All that bending and picking and smoothing out and clasping is slow, back-breaking work. It isn’t very efficient. However when respondents are asked why they propose to do it that way they inevitably say those words that all leaders hate, “We have always done it that way.” Argh!! So what can be a more efficient way?

Based on our research the most efficient system we have found involves nothing more than a length of rope fixed to two points. But here is the “innovation”, the line is doubled up and twisted. By using the rope in this manner each item hung on the line increases the torque produced by the twist. As a result of this simple difference, the operator can confidently insert the item that needs drying in between the two lines; each item increasing the pressure. This eliminates any need for clothespins and the time it takes to fetch them from a container, smooth out the garment and clasp and unclasp the pin. Likewise, the operator can hold the laundry in their arms or over their shoulder – instead of in a container on the ground – because they don’t need to use both hands to smooth and clasp. This allows them to go much faster in hanging the laundry, as well as to remove it since all they need do is pull.

The inevitable question is, “If hanging laundry the way do is so inefficient, why do we do it that way?” The first answer is the one we saw before, “We always did this way.” However, if you give the question some more consideration you quickly conclude we hang laundry this way because we have delegated the responsibility to make our life easier to a business who hasn’t questioned what they do since its inception. And more often than not, that business was founded on the basis of how people hung laundry at that time. The business simply grew by scaling what was already done.

So here is the rub. The twisted double line method for hanging laundry out to dry is not innovative. This method has been used for decades/centuries in the Dhobi Ghat, the air dry laundry village in Mumbai, India. Getting “western’ consumers to hang their laundry out to dry in this method means bringing in a “foreign” or “alien” process they may not adapt to very easily. What we used to call “the not invented here” problem. Changes in behavior can be a very tricky issue for employees and consumers alike.

As ridiculous as the Laundry Challenge may have sounded to you to begin with, it does bring to light a great many issues that may be affecting your business: quick decisions bases on assumptions that don’t hold true in the real world, infrastructure dictating processes, vendors of infrastructure and processes who are selling your business inefficient products, incurring unexpected costs related to the implementation of that infrastructure and those processes, cultural/behavioral adaptation issues, and many others.

The ROKC method cuts through most of these business issues by constantly challenging the dominant paradigm governing your business culture. You should try it some time. It works!