Point of Use Storage and Looking Upstream

During my recent travels, I came upon a somewhat bizarre sight. There was a paper towel dispenser mounted on a stairwell wall!?!

Actually, there were at least two in the stairwell.

Being a (hopefully) typically curious lean thinker, I had to ask one of the managers within the office complex about the origin and purpose of the dispensers.

It seems that some time ago, a manager, who is no longer with the company, had them installed. The said manager would regularly ascend and descend the stairs while holding a cup of coffee.

Actually, the stairwell is next to the complex’ basement level cafeteria, so I’m guessing we’re talking mostly about ascending… with a full cup.

In any event, occasionally, the manager would spill his coffee in the stairwell. Not a safe or clean situation.

A spill in the stairwell requires a means to clean up the stairwell. It’s easier to take care of a spill with a paper towel. So, obviously, we need some point of use paper towels. Right?

I don’t know about you, but I’m thinking a coffee cup lid might have been a more effective countermeasure.

Why not keep the coffee from spilling in the first place?

One lesson. Lean thinkers should, by habit, look upstream of the value stream (in this case the procuring, transporting, and drinking coffee value stream) when assessing improvement opportunities. It’s generally more effective to address problems/potential problems before they happen than after. Or at least when the problems are smaller, easier, and cheaper to deal with.

As for the point of use paper towel dispensers, curiously, there were no point of use trash cans. Nothing like carrying your hot, wet paper towels with you and your partially filled coffee cup up the stairwell...

But, I’m guessing the dispensers get very little use, anyway. Most folks use lids.

Related posts: Lean Space – Some Thoughts and 10 Questions, Point of Use Storage – Sometimes It’s REALLY Important!

There are 4 Comments

markrhamel's picture


Thanks for the comment. I love it!

No lids, no spills, and a shorter coffee consumption cycle time. That is much leaner.

You've demonstrated why team-based problem solving usually beats solo efforts. I had a paradigm...and you just broke me out of it. Now of course, we'll need to start getting more Americans to start drinking expresso!

Best regards,

Tom's picture

Of course you are right on the preventive vs. corrective approach. As for the lids, that is obvious for an American. In Spain they would not give you a lid (except at Starbucks) and coffees are the expresso type which you can drink with one or two gulps. So no need to carry them anywhere. Problem solved because of lack of problem. Also great savings: no need to purchase lids, big expensive cups, paper towel dispenser, etc. Best of all, your coffee will taste better because it hot! Can you be leaner than that?

Kristina's picture

Instead of lids which would create muda (environmental waste, waste of money & time to procure & restock), why not have a coffee machine on the same floor as the staff? Main negative to this solution would be that workers are not getting the exercise of traveling on the stairs. Management would have to evaluate the ease & reduced time to obtain coffee vs the value-add associated with "free" fitness.
Many ways to "skin this cat". Interesting discovery- thanks for sharing.

markrhamel's picture

Hi Kristina,

Thanks for the comment! Great idea that gets at the root cause of the spill. As in most things, there are trade-offs. But, we should always strive for the least waste way.

Best regards,