Working Consciously In The Dish Room

Rack. Rinse. Wash. Stack.

I recently spent some time working as a dishwasher at a camp. No, I wasn’t sampling a possible new career. Truth be told, I was volunteering, and I enjoyed the work.

If that raised the brow over your mind’s eye, you’re not alone. Telling folks that I enjoyed this work raised any number of brows. To the naive observer, washing dishes doesn’t look like a very glamorous occupation. A closer inspection reveals just how very correct this naive observation is. Yet I drew myself into the task through working consciously—a term that I previously used in How To Make Mistakes, but never fully defined.

Working consciously makes mindful work of the mindless. It involves constantly challenging oneself to be more effective. It requires continuous awareness of the work, an ongoing search for better approaches to the task, and the willingness to try different methods and compare the results. It means, in short, attaining satisfaction by not being satisfied.

But I still haven’t defined it very well. Perhaps this example will help.

Rack. Rinse. Wash. Stack.

At its most basic, the dishwashing process comprises four tasks:

  • Dirty dishes are placed into racks.
  • The racks are sprayed, removing any excess bits of food.
  • The racks are run through an industrial-style dishwashing machine (the Hobart).
  • After coming out of the Hobart, the newly clean dishes are stacked on their shelves.

When dirty dishes are coming at a fast and furious pace, we need to keep the pipeline flowing, or we’d get overrun with dirty dishes. Rack. Rinse. Wash. Stack. The racks with pegs are for plates and bowls; there’s another kind for beverage cups; flats are for utensils and various other implements of mass consumption.

Loading each rack to its capacity allows for fewer runs of the Hobart, saving water and energy. But fully loading the racks requires time and attention; too much of either creates a bottleneck. So there’s a bit of a Tetris-like challenge in loading the racks, except that the game doesn’t end just because you’re too stacked up.

The Hobart cycle takes two minutes. If the racks aren’t packed well, then the queue of racks going into the Hobart gets stretched out, making the Hobart another potential bottleneck. Yet the Hobart runs for only two minutes, not enough time to thoroughly scour dirty dishes. Hence we pre-rinse so that the dishes don’t come out of the Hobart needing another run through it (or maybe two). However, more thorough rinsing may require more time and more hot water. And sometimes a very quick scrub works better than a rinse, saving water—but scrubbing can be slower than rinsing.

Working consciously helped me to recognize these constraints; it also helped me consider and test various ways to manage them. As one example, I tried varying the orientation of the dishes in the racks; I saw that an edge-on angle let me rinse them more effectively. In the same vein, I sought other ways to minimize how much water I used when rinsing, and to recognize when the better tool was the scrub sponge and not the sprayer.

Through working consciously, I turned what could have been dull work into a win for all: Our diners had clean dishes; the task was done more efficiently; and I gained the satisfaction of seeing my work improving (along with my Tetris game). Plus, I turned a dishwashing gig into a blog post.

Even a dish room can offer interesting challenges, if you remember to look for them.

Rack. Rinse. Wash. Stack.


One Comment

  • Paul Geffen says:

    One of the strongest learning experiences I had when in high school was running the dishwashing crew in the cafeteria. I did this for about six weeks at the end of my senior year. The setup was just as you described it (this was 1972 and it hasn’t changed).

    The lessons were: (1) it’s obvious when you’re done, and when you’re not done, and (2) the person in charge has to cover everything. The crew members have specific tasks and they can leave when those are done but the boss owns the whole thing.

    That sense of “closure” around work was very powerful.

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