Laundry and Process Smells

Apr 15

We all know that dryers eat socks. Or at least, something eats socks.

The Eater of Socks

It seems like a rational enough explanation for chronic sock loss. And it’s something that I accepted for my entire life, until I started wearing Vibram Five Finger shoes. Five Fingers are shoes with individual toes, and that means that you have to wear them either with no socks, which is gross, or with socks with individual toes, which is expensive. I mean, $10-20 a pair expensive. And not only that, but the socks I wear are asymmetric, which means that in every pair there is a left sock and a right sock. They are also incredibly comfortable and basically solve every problem I’ve ever had with socks.

So now I’m spoiled. I have these super comfortable socks, but they cost a lot and I can’t just keep buying pairs of them. And if I lose, say, a gray sock, then I can’t just replace it with another gray sock and hope that it all works out, because if I do that I end up with two right socks and no way to wear them. So I started taking this problem seriously and quantifying what was going on. What was going on was that I literally had more mismatched socks lying around the house then I had matched socks, which seemed insane.

Step one in handling the sock situation was to get a separate bin to store the extra socks in. That way, when a new mismatched sock came in, then there would be a place to look for it’s mate and a place to put it if it’s mate couldn’t be found. This didn’t really work, or at least, I surmised it didn’t work because the mismatched sock bin was always full and I occasionally ran out of clean socks. That is, I had clean socks, but I didn’t have matching clean socks and this actually mattered. Mismatched toe socks are useless.

Worse, I had more socks in the mismatched sock bin at any given time than I had either dirty or clean socks. Something was fundamentally wrong with this system.

So I spent a happy couple of hours finding every single pair of socks I could, searching the house top to bottom and matching up as many of my socks as I could, and then I implemented step two. Step two was to put my socks in a separate mesh laundry bag (a lingerie bag) and always wash them and dry them in the bag. This worked reasonably well. I didn’t lose nearly as many socks, provided I remembered to use the bag. At some point, I realized that the bag wasn’t really the solution.

Step three has been to replace the bag with it’s embodying process, which is that I am fanatical about putting two socks in the washer. I won’t put one sock in the washer. Socks are washed in pairs, and they go into the dryer in pairs and they get folded up and put in drawers in pairs and I am not even kidding. I am a sock fanatic, a crazed madman who will literally search the entire house for as long as it takes to find a single sock.

I’m responsible for the children’s laundry as well, and I’ve started the same process with them. My son, who is 6, hasn’t lost a sock in months, and my daughter, who’s 4, hasn’t lost a sock in a couple of weeks. We are mastering the sock problem. We have banished the Eater of Socks from our abode.

This is not actually a blog post about laundry, of course. This is a blog post about process smells.

The process smell in the sock problem was the extra bin. First, the fact that we needed to add an extra bin is a bit of a smell in and of itself. Laundry is pretty simple. You have clean clothes, which go one place, dirty clothes, which go another, and maybe some baskets for sorting and transporting dirty clothes to and clean clothes from the laundry machines. Sometimes we add things to the process, folding area, ironing board, whatever. But these are all very temporary places, the only places that clothes really spend time is in the hamper, as work to be done, or in the closet, as work that is finished.

That extra bin for the clean, mismatched sock, that’s a process smell. That’s work that was done, but not actually done. Those socks do not meet the acceptance criteria for socks, so they are held back until the second sock comes along. And like a bug list, the defective socks eventually overwhelm the functional socks. They sit there as a reminder that not only is no one doing anything about them, no one is doing anything about the process that created them.

They also create the comforting illusion that something is being done, which is probably worse. The sock bin, far from solving the problem, is actually a barrier to solving the problem because it’s a faux solution. It adds overhead but doesn’t add value. Even though it’s full of clean socks, it stinks.