04/23/2014 04:30 pm ET Updated Jun 23, 2014

Reengineering the Kitchen: Lessons From a Manufacturing Expert

As a manufacturing expert, I help factories become more productive by refining the way they operate. Small improvements over time can lead to big changes in the long term.

But it wasn't until I arrived home late and exhausted from a trip that I realized I needed to use these same principles at home. Opening the closet to hang up my coat, I found the closet crowded with kids' sporting equipment and old school projects. Similarly, evenings at home seemed shorter as our after-dinner hours became crammed with homework and activities.

Where had all our time gone? And how did the space in our cabinets and closets disappear? Why had the job of doing the dishes slipped from right after dinner to right before bed? And why was I finding myself more frequently being drawn into a game of "Dish Tetris," struggling to fit all the dishes into the dishwasher when they used to fit in just fine?

My first thoughts were to add an addition to the house and buy a "bigger horsepower" dishwasher pre-loaded with new dishes, pans, and silverware specially designed to fit perfectly inside. That would surely fix the problem.

However, in my work I have discovered that new purchases are often just a way to avoid dealing with some root problem in the system. And so it was with our house -- the problem wasn't just the dishes or the closets. The problem was that our growing family was consuming more of our time -- and we needed a way to get that time back.

Something had to give, and we decided it should be the dishes. I set an ambitious goal to reduce the time required to do the dishes to under 10 minutes. Similar to operational improvement work in factories, looking for lost time at the minutes level often reveals a legion of previously unnoticed small wastes.

By trying to speed up the clock, it became clear what parts of the system were consuming time without making the dishes flow from the table into the dishwasher in an orderly and chip-free manner.

• Eliminate wasted steps: I first drew a map of the path that the dish took from the table to the dishwasher. This map looked like a dish of spaghetti -- a bad sign in any system because it portends wasted actions. Ideally, the dish should never stop, but during busy nights, some of them would end up in the sink first to soak (or in other words, to wait until we found the time to get back to it).

• Rinsing is unnecessary: Put the dish directly into the dishwasher. I also found I could make significantly fewer trips if I staged the dishes and silverware at the dinner table. I fly in coach, so the dishes can share a ride, too.

• Look for underutilized help and eliminate waste: I enlisted the family in staging the dishes at the end of the meal scraping wasted food on the various plates into a single pile. This cut the task time by 75 percent and also revealed that we were wasting too much food. We cut back on the amount of food we were making thus saving costs as well as time.

• Run the dishwasher more frequently: This may seem wasteful, but it actually can reduce hot water usage because it eliminates washing dishes by hand.

• Organize your cabinets to match how you use your dishes: As cabinet space gets tight, we tend to put the dishes where they will fit not sort them by frequency of use. Also, we put the small glasses on the low shelf so the kids didn't dump the contents of the large glasses into the sink before clogging the dishwasher with them.

• Free up cabinet space: If you are like us, you'll find that 25 percent of the dishes are either never used, or used as substitutes for the unwashed dishes on the counter. Move these to a high shelf or donate them.

• Put away oddly shaped seasonal dishes: These are the dishes that break the routine of putting the daily dishes into the same spot every time. They can double the time it takes to load and unload the dishwasher, and make the task unpleasant.

• Repeat the observations: Your kitchen is an "open" system, and the improvements will degrade over time through the various people, tools, and special events that pass through it. Like doing the dishes, you'll get more efficient with the improvement process every time you do it.

It's been nearly five years since the closet Incident, and I feel we have a D(ish) O(perating) System that while it still has a few bugs, might rival that of the World's Richest Man, Bill Gates, who was recently confessed that, "I do the dishes every night -- other people volunteer but I like the way I do it."

Dr. John F. Carrier is co-founder and senior director of the Advanced Manufacturing Group. He serves as a term director in the Executive Education program at the MIT Sloan School of Management where he teaches continuous improvement and its use in changing the dynamics of large-scale, complex production systems.