A Tale of Two Kitchen Drawers

Two kitchen drawers -- one usually tidy, another usually untidy -- can tell us a lot about how IT systems work in our businesses.

Some people are incredibly tidy. Some people operate such that their house, car, office, everything around them is in such a neat and tidy order that the only explanation is that the ghost of Marie Kondo’s great-grandmother’s ghost follows them around like a kindly poltergeist butler.

And on the other end of the spectrum, some people are incredibly untidy. This is the sort of person where the only explanation is that a thousand tiny tornados follow them around messing up everything they touch. You, dear reader, probably know people on both ends of this continuum, and perhaps event recognise yourself in them.

There is, within this spectrum a behaviour, an oddity. I wish I would tell you that the inspiration for this article came from some high-brow academic journal I was reading by way of entertainment, but the sad fact is that I saw this on TikTok and I’ve been thinking about it every sense. It’s this: regardless of a person’s disposition from tidy to untidy, the drawer in the kitchen that holds the cutlery is always rigorously tidy. Open the drawer containing the cutlery tray and you will find knifes, forks, and spoons in the right compartments, and all facing the right way up. There is a universality to this rule regardless of whether the owner of said cutlery-plus-drawer lives in a pigsty or a palace.

(I should, for the sake of disclosure, set out that my desk always looks like Dorothy, Tonto, and her house has just passed through on their way to Oz. C’est la vie.)

Similarly, go down a few drawers and you’ll find the kitchen junk drawer – a drawer that contains all the random odds and sods that every household accumulates that defies organisation and gets dumped in a same sort of organised chaos. Again, the disposition of the owner does not seem to matter – we each of us own a messy kitchen junk drawer.

Coming back to the issue that this is a blog about IT systems – so what?

There is something about moving cleaned cutlery to the kitchen drawer that requires the “operator” (i.e. the one running the process) to follow a simple and unconscious process that results in the cutlery always getting sorted properly for later use. Regardless of whether the washing up has been done by dishwasher or by hand, the operator will take each item and turn and put it into its correct slot. The advantage of organising the cutlery in this way is always about the benefit when it comes to use the items in the future – yet no one militates against this process and just chucks everything in, making the process quicker today, but slower for the “users” tomorrow.

I’ve written before in these pages about how I like to look at the language that we use in business in relation to how it informs how businesses operate. A business is a type of organisation, and an organisation is a way of describing a set of organs that work together in orchestration. Over time, the organisation will develop patterns of working – which we call processes and procedures – these patterns being what the organisation evolves in order to become more efficient.

For example, if the organisation “knows” its survival is dependent on controlling its debtor list, the business will evolve credit control procedures using various “organs” within the organisation – e.g. staff, the accountancy system, email systems, timely bank integrations/reconciliation, etc.

The business is looking to develop these procedures all the time (as it wants to optimise its own survival), yet only a few of nascent processes will evolve into something that becomes a part of the business. The ultimate goal is to get to a “kitchen cutlery drawer” procedure to emerge – i.e. one that is so natural and easy to do that it happens with the same “automaticity” as keeping one’s kitchen drawer tidy at home. Something the business just does that is both natural and beneficent to that organisation.

We all know how hard this is to do – a good signal of just how hard this is are the conversations that we have internally like “didn’t we decide we were going to do XYZ?”, only to look back at the notes and realise that everyone sat down, decided to do a new procedure, and promptly forgot about it within the next few days. The underlying problem hasn’t gone away though – hence why the question comes up again in the future: “I thought we had a way of dealing with this? Why aren’t we doing it?”

Although my interest is usually in how businesses can design new procedures that have some sort of digital component – so -called “digital transformation” – the actual process is important, not just the medium by which it’s realised.

Essentially there need to be two steps. Firstly, there needs to be intentionality and agreement as to what needs to be done, i.e. what the outcome is, and whether achieving that outcome makes a significant difference to the organisation. Secondly, there needs to be a natural simplicity to the process – can this process be transformed into steps that are not so onerous that unconsciously or consciously, those involved are looking to make this new process go away.

Or, next time you’re sitting down with your team to talk about a new process, can you make it look as simple and timeless and filling your cutlery drawer?

By Matthew Reynolds