Agile methods of cleaning a house

Image by Jen CollinsLast week we moved house, and an awful lot of time was spent cleaning our old place, because we wanted to return it to the landlady at least as good as we had found it. And since I see the world through a prism of Process, I found an unexpected parallel with methods of Agile delivery.

My wife worked on a room-by-room basis, “so that I know what progress I’ve made”. Once she had cleaned the kitchen she knew it was done and moved onto the bathroom, and so on. There was no intent to move backwards. This reminded me of Alastair Cockburn’s exercise in measuring progress, because he also uses a house-moving analogy, although in his case it’s packing, not cleaning.

I had a different plan. I chose to find the worst-looking spot, attack it until it was no longer the worst looking spot, then step back, take a look around, and repeat. I was concerned we made the best use of our limited time, and with this approach I knew I would not spend 15 minutes scrubbing a dirty mark in an obscure corner of a back room when I could have been working on a more obvious mark in the middle of the living room. This approach is more of a lean, continuous improvement, approach.

The disadvantage of my wife’s method is that we may have run out of time with one or more rooms left untouched. The disadvantage of my method is that there is no measure of progress.

I’m a big fan of the burn-up and burn-down charts that Alastair introduces in the article I linked to. If measuring progress towards completion is important, and if we have a good understanding of “done”, then the room-by-room approach is ideal. But if the work at hand is potentially endless and is more about continuous improvement then the identify/clean/repeat approach is a better fit.

In the case of our cleaning work we walked away feeling we’d done a thorough job, and our landlady was delighted.

6 thoughts on “Agile methods of cleaning a house

  1. Is this yet another example of a man telling a woman how to clean using management methods :) I am sure your wife was appreciative of your advice.

  2. As I’m sure you will have guessed, Paul, one reason I wrote this blog post is that I needed an outlet that was at least partially receptive to these thoughts…

  3. In an article about efficient cleaning, I’ve seen it recommended to do one room at a time and carry a caddy of everything you’ll need with you. This works better for me because otherwise I spend too long wandering around.

  4. Carrying a caddy with you is an excellent lean technique. It eliminates the waste, which you identified, of going back and forth to fetch different things. It is an exact parallel of Toyota’s own technique of having tools all easily accessible and switchable from each worker’s spot on the assembly line.

  5. In response to John Wright:
    Yes, rest breaks are essential. Here’s my methodology:

    Safety First:
    I tackle hygiene hotspots first so that I can continue to eat safely during the cleaning process. Also, guests shouldn’t get food poisoning or encounter E.coli in the bathroom (it can really happen), and should be comfortable with toilet and washing facilities.

    Shelter is vital:
    I like the guest room habitable, preferably pristine. I try to add personal touches such as towels, books, flowers, etc., and help the guest feel emotionally nurtured, regardless of the state of the house as a whole. The small touches have a minimal time cost for the impact.

    Ease of movement:
    A basic tidy so that floors are clear and some surfaces are partially visible. I include hoovering in this.

    All the rest, such as real cleaning, is much less noticeable if you don’t have time for it.
    All my guests comment on our cleanliness and tidiness. It’s a sham.

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