Work laundry. How to do more of the work we love that makes a difference and get rid of the rubbish.


All the people I have spoken to confirm that that work is hectic and cluttered, with little time to think and plan. They often feel overwhelmed by low value information. It is hard to concentrate on the important things and sift out the high value information from the dross. They often feel driven by work and systems rather than in charge of them. The pace of change is increasing too, so even thinking and planning can seem futile, because the ground keeps shifting.

Developments in technology have helped us do things faster and cheaper. So now we are doing more things. Paradoxically, people are now spending more time at work, and under more stress, than they did before these labour saving devices were invented. This is crazy.

Human beings imagine and create organisations the way they operate now. We can imagine and create organisations where people take time to think together, where people only create and do work that enriches and where they function at a growthful edge that is personally rewarding and productive.

“Work laundry” is a way of thinking and a set of processes and activities that can help people in organisations concentrate on those activities that are most rewarding, life-affirming, creative and contribute to the long-term well being of the firm and the wider society. Part of this is about getting rid of dross and avoiding making low value work for each other.

What might be involved?

Micro initiatives

  • Creating common understanding about the need to clarify the standards, effort and context and reasons for a task before setting or accepting it.
  • Each manager making space to think by delegating some important tasks and not doing some unimportant ones.
  • Engaging the vision and commitment of the top management to the process.
  • Having fewer but more effective meetings. Using every meeting as an opportunity to learn.
  • Improving and simplifying systems so routine work is handled quickly and predictably.
  • Learning from the successes you already have and celebrating them.
  • Making space and time for people to talk to each other and think together about how to create a truly wonderful and profitable place to work.
  • Raising people’s awareness about the work they make for each other. It costs almost nothing to send an email to ten people, but it costs a lot for those people to respond.

Macro initiatives

  • Creating a thinking environment where people can work together to simplify the work they do and make for each other. This could be within a team or teams or between people and their key customers or suppliers (internal or external).
  • Developing knowledge management processes so you can avoid duplication and mine the knowledge and wisdom that already exists in the organisation.
  • Developing trust and connectivity in the organisation, through teamwork and relationship building, so people want to share what they know and help each other. They will then be willing to say what they want and don’t want from each other.
  • Getting into a new habit of thinking about what we do, before we do it, while we do it and after we do it, to maximising learning. Sharing our learning openly.
  • Identifying and sharing best practice in teams, across the organisation and between organisations.
  • Identifying and shifting the fears and anxieties people may have about thinking about themselves and the way they work with others. Helping them see the enormous amount they have to gain by focusing their energy and the energy of others on the work that gives the most value.
  • Searching for the best way to make electronic communication a boon rather than a burden. Experimenting with formats, lengths, conventions and labelling.

Who could this help?

  • An individual would find ways to work more effectively and enjoyably. He or she would leave work at a reasonable time knowing he or she has achieved something of value.
  • A manager working with her or his team would find ways to work more effectively and enjoyably together. By concentrating on the most significant work, they would experience great satisfaction and this would spread.
  • An organisation that was committed and active in this would be more effective than its competitors. It would attract and retain the best people and be a supportive and educational place to work.

How could we proceed?

Every organisation and person is different and has different needs and preferences. The approach would respond to this reality. There could be some elements in an approach that might be quite common.

First, we might establish that enough people want to get rid of clutter and be more productive and sometimes get home on time and that there is organisational energy to support investing time and resources to do so. “Enough” people might be a few people with a committed manager in the first instance. Most organisations have a process for getting a new project approved; we could use that to gain organisational commitment.

Second, we might seek examples and stories from those people where they have already been very effective, enjoyed it, learned a lot, concentrated their energy and created remarkable value. We could do the same about successful ways of eliminating work. We could “mine” these shared experiences for good practice and, because people have thought about it, they would want to do more. This might be enough to disperse people’s doubts about engaging in the process.

Third, we could develop together, based on our work above, or find, a process for improving and refining the most important relationships that an individual, team or department has with its customers or suppliers. This process would allow us to focus on the highest added value activities. Having fun together could be one of those.

Fourth, we could set up small internal groups to research some of the common time wasters like the e-mail burden and come up with simple practical ideas for reducing them. The same process could be used to simplify or eliminate internal systems, as these can be enormous time wasters. At least, we could look quickly to see if the cost of running them is more or less than the benefit they create.

Fifth, some or all of the above activities might link together in a workshop activity that could create energy because lots of people were working on these issues together in a supportive environment.

Finally, these activities will require soft skills like listening, facilitating, asking good questions, influencing, and working well in groups. These may have been covered in part in workshops on people development. The work laundry process (terrible name!) would be a good way of reinforcing and stretching these skills. Some people might want or need some additional training and development.

Here are three good books that would help the process. They are “Time to think” by Nancy Kline and “More Time to Think” and “Learning to Fly” by Chris Collinson and Geoff Parcell.

This note is an unfinished piece of work. It will raise more questions than it answers, especially about how we do it in practice. Writing it has helped me clarify my thinking to some extent. Any comments or additional thoughts are most welcome.

If you would like help using this idea, or have any comments or questions please contact me. Thanks, Nick