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Yusen, We Have a Problem!: The Towel: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Ask Why – a Slight Diversion on Root Cause

Posted By Administration, Thursday, August 13, 2015
Updated: Wednesday, August 12, 2015

by Kirk White, Yusen Logistics (Americas) Inc.


There's a story. As of this writing, it is unknown to the author as to whether it is factual or anecdotal, but it's a great story and illustrates a great point so here it is…

A famous and fancy hotel chain, let's call it XYZ Inn, was having a problem. Customers were unhappy. The guest comment cards were coming back with alarming negative reviews. Bookings were down. Repeat business was evaporating. All this on Alan Smithee's* first day as manager. Left with a lobby full of unhappy customers and a pile of angry comments, Alan knew he'd have to act on this situation or risk losing the hotel even more money. What to do…what to do?

Alan looked around and thought, "Hmmmm….it's three o'clock and the lobby is full of people; wasn't check-in at one? How could this be?" A quick glance at some of the cards revealed that this was not a rare instance: "stood in the lobby for an hour before I could check-in," "check-in took too long," and "missed my tee time" were among many similar complaints. A quick calculation showed Alan that eighty out of one hundred negative cards featured a late check-in time as the reason for their ire. At the very least, if he got to the bottom of this late check-in thing, he'd be on the right track. So he delved into the problem.

He asked the front desk clerk, "Why is it taking so long to check people into their rooms?"

The desk clerk replied, "Because the cleaning crew doesn't turn over the rooms fast enough; we need more cleaning staff!"

Sounded like a good idea, but Alan was steeped in the mystical trainings of Kaizen, so he knew better than to accept basic assumptions. He knew that he'd need to genchi genbutsu. He must visit the gemba.

So he went into the hotel proper, the west wing, third floor. Sure enough there was flurry of frazzled and hectic activity from the cleaning crew. He found a suitable representative.

"Why are you unable to turn over the rooms in a timely enough fashion?" he asked.

"Because the towels are folded all wrong!" the crew member replied. "Every towel has a big XYZ on it and it's supposed to line up perfectly centered when we hang it on the towel rack, but we're finding they are folded all lopsided and off center so we have to open and refold every towel, which is taking a minimum of 20 seconds per towel per room and that is exponentially adding up and causing delays. You need to fire everyone in laundry!"

Sounded like a good idea, but once again, Alan knew better. Genchi genbutsu again. So he went to the laundry in the basement. He found a staff member.

He asked, "Why are the towels coming out of here with the logo lopsided and off center?"

The staff member sighed. "It's ol' Bessie there," he said as he pointed to a huge lumbering machine in the corner. "She was the top of the line in automated towel folding in '78 but alas…she has seen better days." As Alan watched, the staff member threw in a pile of towels. Bessie roared to life and after a series of clanks and bangs, freshly folded towels began rolling out. The logos on the towels were off center.

The staff member sighed again. "I'm afraid we are going to need a new towel folding machine. Bessie just ain't doing the job anymore."

Alan nodded. Certainly this was it. He'd found the solution. And all he'd have to do is spend a metric ton of money to solve the problem.

"Okay. I guess we need to place the PO," he said. And as he started to leave, the spirit of Kaizen fluttered deep within his heart and he stopped. He turned. He looked at the towels, the neatly folded, lopsided logoed towels. Something didn't feel right. He stepped forward and grabbed a towel. He unfolded it. He held it up. He gasped. The staff member gasped. A random passerby gasped as well, but didn't really know what was going on.

The logo was off center. The towel was printed wrong. Alan quickly went through the rest of the towels. All had lopsided logos. Bessie, it seemed, was not ready to retire. She had done her job admirably. Alan ran from the laundry area, up the lobby and into his office.

"The towel's the thing!" he cried. "The TOWEL!!!"

A quick and angry call to his vendor, followed by an emergency rush custom job and an air freighted shipment led to a brand new order of towels with the logos right where they were supposed to be – in the center. The folding machine folded, the cleaning crew cleaned, and there were no more problems. In no time, check-ins were back on schedule, tee times were met, people were happy, and Alan was promoted to Vice President. Everyone agreed that it had been their suggestion that had saved the hotel.

The moral of the story: Don't make assumptions. Always ask why. Dig deeper to find the root cause of the problem – it may be in a place you would have never thought to look at first glance.

*not a real person


Kirk White has worked in every division of Yusen Logistics. After a brief stint in Transportation, he transferred to Corporate, where he coordinated Yusen's Employee Empowered Kaizen system and served as a Specialist for the Business Process Re-engineering group, after which he moved to the Warehouse division to serve as the East Coast Quality Manger before ultimately joining the International division, where he hopes to use his Quality knowledge base to prove an asset to OCM.

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Tags:  Kaizen 

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