Are Dishwashers Lean?

By Ron Pereira Published on February 21st, 2011

Doug, a reader of LSS Academy and Gemba Academy subscriber sent me the following question.   I have some opinions but am very interested in what you all think of Doug’s question. 

Here is what Doug sent.

Hi Ron,

Does a dishwasher really save time vs hand washing and drying dishes right away?

It would seem there is quite a lot more waste such as motion and transportation (running water over plates that you know the dishwasher will have trouble getting off, putting dishes in dishwasher, adjusting other dishes in order to get the best fit before running it, taking it out when complete, checking to make sure they are completely dry and are clean), defects (dishes not dry or still dirty), waiting (the dish or utensil you need is still in the dishwasher since the dishwasher is not full enough to run).

My wife and I discuss this at times and wonder if we are kidding ourselves because in the long run we are wasting more time with the above and a dishwasher creates inventory to cover up process problems (handwashing and drying dishes). When I think of the 3 elements that make up value-added work, I think of the following with regards to a dishwasher:

  1. Is the customer willing to pay for it? Yes, we are willing to pay for clean dishes but not for the waiting time until they are washed
  2. Does it change in form, function, fit? Not if the dishwasher is not full.
  3. Does it get done right the first time? Only if they are all dry and completely clean.

I know this might be an off the wall question, but I believe we often kid ourselves in what we do in our lives that we are saving time, etc. Lean is more than a business initiative.


So what do you think? Are dishwashers lean?  If not, are you willing to remove yours from your kitchen?

  1. Sheila Barnard

    February 21, 2011 - 11:36 am

    The more I think about the more I believe dishwashers are not always the best choice. However I feel they provide certain things, such as sanitizing baby bottles, that are difficult and time consuming to do manually.

    And, no, I am not willing to get rid of mine! 🙂

    • Helmut

      March 16, 2011 - 3:25 pm

      Whilst it is a worthy aim to be lean at home and at play, lean practice is predominately aimed at manufacturing and workplace efficiency, value adding and reducing waste.

      I would suggest that a review of that classic instructional video “Lean Toast” might be in order.

      A dish washer, in the context of its’ operation in the workplace, and by that I don;t mean in the workplace lunch room, but rather in a production environment for the most part is responsible for efficiencies, and hence would be considered as ‘lean’ in principle, as long as it is located in such a fashion as not to introduce some form of unnecessary waste e.g. it is located at one end of a bar rather than in the middle.

  2. Jason Stokes

    February 21, 2011 - 11:46 am

    Why does the dishwasher need to be full to run? Further, a dishwasher uses less water and less hot water than doing the dishes by hand. Add to that – I can do other things while the dishwasher runs (machine time) that I can’t do while I’m doing dishes by hand.

  3. Mark Welch

    February 21, 2011 - 12:23 pm

    In tthis case it all comes down to how the individual customer defines value. What may be value for one family may not be for another. When I think of doing dishes the manual way, I think of processing them 1 X 1, and this method has value if there is an end user who needs those dishes clean for use right away. If not, and as Jason says, he can be doing something else of value while the dishwasher is running. In Jason’s case, this is something that might be best looked at from a SMED perspective.

    Putting all leanspeak aside, let’s just face it that no one likes to do dishes, especially after dinner, and sticking the dirty ones out of sight inside of a dishwasher is just a lot more pleasant. But, come to think of it, there is probably a lot of value in THAT for a lot of us! 😉

  4. Scott Sorheim

    February 21, 2011 - 1:43 pm

    Funny, I’ve often thought about this. I agree with Mark that a lot of times it depends on who’s defining the value.

    If I’m the person doing the food prep, I often use process “wait time” (e.g., food is cooking in oven) to get some of the big dishes out of the way for two reasons 1) the big ones take up a lot of space in the dishwasher and 2) as Doug’s note mentions you’ve already invested the time in getting most of the item clean in the first place, just finish it!

    Where I think the dishwasher adds particular value is for all of the smaller items (silverware, glasses, etc.) which are tedious to clean one by one in the first place and also aren’t needed immediately from a customer perspective because we have more silverware and glasses.

    Sheesh…is it embarrassing for anyone else (like me) to admit you’ve given it this much thought? I feel like this is some kind of support group. I’ve never told anyone about this before. 🙂

    • Ron Pereira

      February 21, 2011 - 1:46 pm

      Scott, we are all here for your brother. Ha! 😉

  5. Daniel

    February 21, 2011 - 2:23 pm

    It should also be noted that many people are overly aggressive with the pre-rinse, adding to the wasted water and motion.

    Modern dish detergents are formulated with surfactants and enzymes designed to break down food. In practice, you should scrape the plate to remove large bits and crumbs and leave the rest for the detergent. In fact, if you completely wash your dishes BEFORE putting them in the dishwasher, it can lead to etching of the glasses, making them appear hazy.

    Of course this all depends on your particular dishwasher and detergent, but both have improved greatly from the times when your mom washed the dishes in the sink, then loaded them into the dishwasher.

  6. Jeff Hajek

    February 21, 2011 - 6:49 pm

    In my mind, anything that batches and breaks up flow is not lean.

    That said, I’ve seen a few dual drawer dishwashers that use smaller lot sizes.

    Plus, industrial dishwashers at cafeterias and in bars are on conveyors, so they actually do have flow to their process.

  7. Pat Wernig

    February 22, 2011 - 6:20 am

    If one were to stand beside the dishwasher and wait for it to finish, I would say, no it is not lean. However if you can load it, start it and walk away to do other things then yes, it is lean.

  8. mark fergason

    February 22, 2011 - 6:35 am

    Interesting… I would say home dishwashers do not promote flow. But I am not sure they are wasteful. I can load and unload a washer in less time than doing the dishes. There is bit of processing time, where I can be wasteful if I so choose. I could also use that time to do something else that adds value to my life.

    Industrial dishwashers are lean. In fact, having worked in a dozen restaurants and now learning all about lean, I can say that there are a ton of lean practices going on in your local grill/pub. They also use visual production and inventory systems all over the place; they have to as a computer system isn’t practical to monitor ketchup bottle inventory on the floor.

  9. Robert Anderson

    February 22, 2011 - 7:35 am

    Dishwashers, among other things, encourage batching and inhibit flow. If that’s not anti-Lean, I don’t know what is.

  10. Mark Welch

    February 22, 2011 - 7:55 am

    This is getting intresting. We seem to have a dilemma. We need to determine which is more important: flow or value to the customer. Are the two one in the same? I don’t think so. What if the customer doesn’t value flow in this particular instance? What if just sticking the dirty dishes in the dishwasher, because they’re not needed for use right away is of value to the customer? For me, this is often the case. And, for me personally, value to the customer trumps flow if there is indeed conflict. Bottom line for me is value to the customer.

    It’s rare that there might be a conflict between the two.

    Interesting discussion.

  11. Robert Anderson

    February 22, 2011 - 8:38 am

    The problem with this dilemma is that the customer in this case is also the supplier or producer. In traditional cases, customers don’t care about flow, they care about value. They want the highest quality at the lowest cost delivered on time.

    Flow is an issue for suppliers which facilities them providing that value to the customer while reducing cost and surfacing problems.

    So as a Lean disciple, I would look at the dishwasher from the point of the supplier and see batching and flow interrupted. My wife would look at it from the perspective of the customer and see the clean dishes ready for use!

  12. sean johnson

    February 22, 2011 - 9:15 am

    This blog sparked my interest since I work for a company that produces home appliances, with dishwashers being one of the larger volume items made at our site. From a pure lean view, a dishwasher is wasteful in some aspects, but does provide added value to the customer. In basic terms, I agree that the batch process of a dishwasher goes against one piece flow, but in terms of total processing time and human movement, it can be viewed as a lean process. Yes, handling the dishes while loading & unloading takes time, but you do the same in manual washing. Also, most middle to upper end dishwashers are designed so that you do not pre-rinse which actually can reduce the cleaning performance, so by our own actions we are creating non-value added steps. Add to all this the operational costs assocaited with a dishwasher versus manul washing and it is cheaper to run a dishwasher in general. There are many processes in a dishwasher that are lean in terms of reduced usage, such as water consumption & electical usage.

    VOC is important to udnerstand, but it is more of constraint that forms the oeprating process parameters / criteria. This is why many of the dishwashers on the market have various settings for quick washes, sterilizing, “power washes”, etc.

    At the end of the day though, it does come down to what the end user wants.

  13. Dragutin Vukovic

    February 22, 2011 - 9:54 am

    Dishwashers are not lean, of course, but we are not buying dishwashers for their ‘leanness’. we buy them so that our wives retain softness of their hands and do not have cracked fingernails. Customer requirements and sattisfaction are what matters here. We may also look at some other areas. Is playng golf lean? There is so much unproductive walking around … :-). But then, who would even care to play a lean golf?

    • Mark Welch

      February 22, 2011 - 12:07 pm

      Hey Dragutin – if playing lean golf meant less motion finding my lost golfballs, straighter shots to the cup to reduce travel, and fewer strokes then I for one would LOVE lean golf! 😉 Unfortunately, I play a very waste-laden version of the game as is evidenced by my embarrassing handicap.

  14. Kathleen

    February 22, 2011 - 10:55 am

    You have to look at the complete picture, not just time or convenience. Or, avoidance of unpleasant duties. Dishwashers use more energy and water than washing by hand. Or should. I’m always appalled at how people let the water run and run… I can’t bear to use dishwashers, too wasteful.

    Dragutin: “for our wives to retain softness of their hands”? My husband would know better than to try to pass that off by saying he was doing it “for me”. Besides, that’s what gloves are for. While most families trade off chores, men are just as responsible as women for household duties. Ex. I cook but only because my husband does the grocery shopping, we take turns with dishes, he does his share since we both work. We don’t even keep track whose turn it is. Who ever is closest to the sink. Ditto for plumbing, maintenance and household repairs. For the latter btw, I also wear gloves; being a girl doesn’t get me out of those jobs either.

    OT: I cringed to read that people still dry dishes by hand. I forget people do that. Don’t. It spreads germs. Even if you use a clean cloth each time, one dish may have food remnants on it that are then passed onto the next. It’s better health wise to let them air dry. It’s also saves resources (laundry, time etc).

  15. Steve

    February 22, 2011 - 11:37 am

    Batching doesn’t always inhibit flow; in some circumstances it speeds it up. I had the pleasure of working for a church who had an industrial dishwasher. The operator loads the tray with dishes, pushes tray in, lowers the walls, hits the button and within about two minutes the dishes (all of them) are clean and sanitized. Anything done at the high of a temperature would have to be. No one could wash the same load by hand as quickly.

    In our household, we do not have enough dishes after breakfast or lunch to warrant using the dishwasher (machine), so we use the dishwashers (teenagers) after those meals. After dinner, we typically have a nice sized load to go into the dishwasher which allows moving on to other tasks since evenings run short of time. But, we are still stuck washing pots & pans that aren’t suppose to go into dishwasher.

    Machine dishwashers do not necessarily take less water than hand washing; it all depends on the method used. I thing I’ve recently learned is to use the cold water that comes out of the faucet while waiting for the hot as a pre-rinse for the dishes or filling up water bottles to water plants and animals. Once the temp is reached, fill up the basin and load the cleaner dishes first, wash those, rinse which adds water to the washing basin and then dry. Then, we wash the dirtier dishes.

  16. Charles

    February 22, 2011 - 11:56 am

    Have to start off by saying I have dishwasher envy. From that point of view, definitely dishwashers do not add waiting because the labor is freed up to do other things!

    Now I’m thinking, next time washing dishes I should try drying in smaller batches and see if that’s faster than filling a rack then drying (cut down on WIP).

  17. Ale

    February 22, 2011 - 11:58 am

    Yes, dishwashers are a BIG value providers:
    1. Running water over dishes before putting in dishwashers is not the same as using soap and scrubbing. Using soap and scrubbing will cause having to re-touch manicure (at least 30 dlls and 1.5 hours… plus transportation to the beauty parlor). Yes, you can use gloves but manicure still chips even when using gloves. Additionally soap really dehidrates skin in hands which you have to take care of through very expensive antiaging creams for the hands. ANNNNDDDD you can wet your clothes or with the humidity of water sweat and need to retouch both (hair and makeup) after washing dishes. Back might get also strained from being leaning down to wash dishes and scrubbing, chiropractor is at least 30-40 dlls 1 time a week… (money keeps mounting up from just washing dishes)
    2. Dishwasher dissinfects plates as it used very hot water, vapor and air to dry. This is not the same when washing by hand in normal household. Imagine using the same scrub to wash a pan, glas, fork… yikes!!!! For 1 week… and this scrub sits humid between washes (bacteria disneyland). The only way you can trully ensure clean and disinfected plates is through dishwasher
    3. Waiting time… when having company you can either spend 1 hr away from your love ones cleaning dishes… or 15 mins way putting dishes in the dishwasher… after they are clean the inspection and rework can be done after company has left. This is not true for dirty dishes they need to be washed right away or the food will dry and stick.

    Bottom line…. if you sum up the manicure, chiropractor, hair and makeup, hand care, time away from love ones … dishwasher and a extra set of dishes pay for themselves

  18. Jerry Sisk

    February 22, 2011 - 12:37 pm

    All I can say is dishwater in a sink is nasty and not sanitary!! Before we had a dishwasher I never put water in the sink; I just ran the water continuous and put a new dab of soap on each item. Now that’s a waste!!

  19. Kostas

    February 22, 2011 - 1:21 pm

    Health and Safety comes first before any management philosophy or practice not matter it is the best in the world.
    Has anyone thought about health and safety?
    1. Did you know there are always remains of the harsh soaps on the glass and other material you put in?
    2. Did you know where these all end up?
    In our stomach, damaging seriously the membrane covering the walls of the stomach. This membrane protects the stomach walls from the extremely acidic environment during digestion.

  20. Jeff Hajek

    February 22, 2011 - 5:22 pm

    Just thought of something.

    It isn’t the dishwasher that we should be discussing. It is the whole value stream of nutrition. We batch our daily caloric needs into thirds (breakfast, lunch, and dinner). Isn’t that what drives the need for a big dishwasher in the first place?

  21. Jon

    February 22, 2011 - 6:15 pm

    I may have missed this angle in previous posts, but in our home, the dishwasher provides the oportunity for parallel activities. Since our children may not be the greatest at hand washing, they utilize the dishwasher. This povides opportunity for my wife and I to take on more intricate tasks, thus adding a second “product line” without adding “overhead”. While the actual process of using the dishwasher may not be lean, the results are significantly more efficient, accomplishing more with the same effort for my wife and me! I vote LEAN.

  22. oldman

    February 22, 2011 - 6:52 pm

    Look at all time u wasted thinking about it u could have it finished. all lean does is thin ur bank account and piss off ur employees

  23. Mark Graban

    February 22, 2011 - 10:26 pm

    I actually find the whole “is ______ lean?” question to be very unhelpful, as if “lean” versus “not lean” is some sort of easy dichotomy that replaces thinking.

    Does the dishwasher further the goals of the household? Your household might value family safety, quality of life, financial stability, time, and family morale (or some variation of SQDCM perhaps). Does the dishwasher meet those goals? What is the most important tradeoff of time and cost? This requires judgment.

    I get asked this question a lot, such as “is lab automation lean?” Who cares if it is “lean.” What’s right for your organization in the long term?

    • Ron Pereira

      February 22, 2011 - 10:41 pm

      Thanks for the comment, Mark.

      The thing you’re missing is that asking questions like this GETS people thinking… that’s why I believe they are great questions to ask and entertain.

      Also, saying – or thinking – “who cares…” to people who ask you if lab automation is lean probably isn’t helping that person who is at least entertaining the idea. Meet people where they are on the journey… not everyone has your experience and knowledge.

    • Mark Graban

      February 22, 2011 - 10:45 pm

      “Who cares?” is a bit glib. My point is to ask for the question behind the “is this lean?” question to help move their thinking forward…

      Thinking and discussion is great, if that’s the purpose of the question, as it likely was here. But I see it too often, as I said, as a short cut to thinking and experimenting.

  24. Mike Clarke

    February 23, 2011 - 3:21 pm

    They may not Lean, but I’ll keep mine. It does something that I hate to do!

  25. Jeremy Garner

    February 24, 2011 - 2:24 pm

    From a parental perspective, I have the kids wash the dishes by hand and I do as well. There is a minor saving in electricity (if you heat water with gas). The problem I’ve had is the children using dishes unnecessarily. Instead of using the same glass and rinsing it, they would use a different glass everytime they got a drink. They are much more conservative after how long it will take to wash them all. This helps my children to think more lean throughout the day; )

  26. Conroy

    February 25, 2011 - 3:10 am

    I think dishwashing with a dishwasher is a batch operations that results in a batch of cutlery and crockery being unavailable for a fixed period of time.

    Surely a far Leaner process is to have a sink full of soapy water (even cold water – my local dish washing liquid manufacturer has recently enhanced its product by making it equally effective with hot or cold water) which is used to wash dishes immediately after their use. For example, on finishing my breakfast cereal, instead of leaving the dirty bowl and spoon at the sink or in the dishwasher, I wash, rinse and dry (or leave to dry) them immediately.

    If everyone in the household did this, the availability of clean cutlery and crockery would increase and the laborious process of loading and unloading a dishwasher would be levelled over the entire household and the entire day – adding an insignificant extra amount of labour to each dish but eliminating the chunk of non value adding time associated with using the dishwasher. Space and capital would be freed up by not having to invest in a dishwasher as well as not needing the space to stack dirty dishes. The inventory of cutlery and crockery required to operate your home could be reduced.

    I agree that a dinner party would be difficult to manage. My suggestion in this case is to involve the whole family in designing and working a dishwashing “cell” with balanced operations of rinsing, washing, rinsing, drying and putting away. Kaizen on this cell might even require that the layout of the kitchen (particularly the relative locations of sink and storage cupboards, which are traditionally far apart) is revisited and possibly even the number of sinks ( 3 sinks, preferably arranged in a tight U formation, for pre rinsing, washing and post rinsing makes a lot more sense to me).

    Let’s not get caught up with owning appliances for the sake of owning appliances or for the sake of point efficiencies.

    • Mark Graban

      February 25, 2011 - 7:59 am

      Let’s not get caught up in having 3 sinks in a u-shaped cell for the sake of being “lean” either 🙂

    • Mark Welch

      February 25, 2011 - 8:08 am

      As an “old married guy” I shudder to think of lean gone obsessive-compulsive in the household. That’s the point when Dr. Phil calls asking to do a show on you 😉

    • Mark H. Davis

      March 8, 2011 - 11:14 am

      Mark G and Mark W — how many dishes do you guys wash? 🙂 If not many, then perhaps a little “gemba” research might be in order. I ran Conroy’s suggestions by my wife — the chief of our kitchen operations — and she agreed whole-heartedly with his ideas, even admitting having thought of a few of these things herself. (No, I’ve never trained her in Lean — it’s just a natural outgrowth of her daily life.)

      I see nothing abnormal or “obsessive-compulsive” about applying Lean principles to everyday situations where they can make a meaningful difference. In our family with 7 children, clean-up after meals is a sizable chore, not a small event. I definitely look for new ways to use Lean to make this a more enjoyable and efficient experience for everyone involved. Without a well-organized, orderly and efficient system, we’ll trip all over each other and probably lose our tempers a time or two (breaking a few dishes along the way). Anything I can do to enhance flow — whether it be kitchen layout, appliances or visual tools — is a good thing, in my opinion. I suppose this why we think of Lean first as a business tool — it brings clarity, flow and order to an important and valuable exercise that will fail and have casualties if not managed properly and efficiently. But this is not to say that such occasions don’t exist in “real” life, also. Even in the kitchen.

      Incidentally, I find hand-washing to be a valuable exercise (when my wife lets me), as it allows me to focus on one thing at a time while completing a very basic task — a nice reprieve from the “busy-ness” and complexity of the day. Plus, there are too many rules and rework involved in loading our dishwasher. It can be rather frustrating and wasteful.

    • Mark Graban

      March 8, 2011 - 11:57 am

      I’m not at all saying that you shouldn’t apply lean principles to home or the kitchen. Not at all. You should try continuous improvement and prove out what works best, based on the criteria that are important to you. I didn’t say it was abnormal or obsessive-compulsive to use lean at home.

      What I’m opposed to are the “is this lean?” questions that view things as black or white, lean or “not lean” if those questions are a substitute for thinking, creativity, and experimentation.

      Lean principles are meant to spur new thinking and new ways of trying things – not to be some sort of black and white absolute, as the original question was posed, “are dishwashers lean?” Wrong question.

  27. Sheila Barnard

    March 8, 2011 - 12:16 pm

    Mark G, I suggest the question of whether something is Lean or not is a great way to engage people’s minds and get them thinking. Plus it’s fun. Most blog posts related to Lean are dull and boring but when you ask questions that almost anyone can relate to like “are dishwashers Lean?” people take notice and engage.

  28. John B

    March 16, 2011 - 6:01 pm

    Lean or not, the Q might be, “How can I / we improve this process?” Dishwasher seems like a so-called ‘Curtain Process’ similar to a Heat Treat Furnace.

    To carry the Lean implications further (tongue in cheek) :

    Have you done comparative VSMs of the manual vs. machine operations?
    Do you need a set-up reduction event to optimize dishwasher loading?
    Is the dishwasher a push vs. a pull flow?
    Have you considered standard work?
    Have you reviewed your inventory of dishes, etc.? If you had less, would you wash smaller loads more often?
    If your dishes aren’t coming clean, have you done a 5 Why or Ishikawa analysis to solve this problem?
    Have you looked at the Wastes in your process ? Suggest a review of Toast Kaizen video.

    Or … just do the dishes.

  29. Jan de Ridder

    March 17, 2011 - 8:18 am

    One should question whether a hammer is lean or not. Or any other tool. Because it’s not about the tools, but about the one who uses it. If flow is important to me and the dishwasher helps to achieve my maximum flow, then the dishwasher is lean. If it doesn’t contribute to flow, then the dishwasher is not lean.

    Give people a goal and a toolbox, they will focus on the toolbox instead of the goal. Biggest waste in Lean projects.

  30. Jan de Ridder

    March 17, 2011 - 8:19 am

    One should NOT question…

  31. Mike

    October 28, 2011 - 8:01 am

    When I sold my house, the one item the buyer put in the contract was to replace my dishwasher because it made a funny sound. Apparently they are valued.

  32. Jonas Holmlund

    January 18, 2012 - 7:33 am

    Why have one large dish washer. Then you always end up with one big bottle neck.
    Use two smaller ones instead. >80% of the stuff you put in the washer are the stuff you use on a daily basis.
    By having two smaller you can put dirty plates in one and take clean plates out of the other.
    This way you do not need to empty the washer and put plates back onto the storage shelf (where it will lay for maximum few hours before reused).
    The smaller washing machine also consumes less energy/water than a big one. The total footprint will be bigger compared to one big, yes, the space saved for plate storage can be utilized better.

    When you have visitors coming over you also have more dish wasing capacity than with one big.

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