Back when I was in graduate business school, my Operations 101 class explored the Harvard case study of a woman named Kristen who was starting a bakery. Kristen’s Cookie Company was designed to teach students about capacity, bottlenecks and throughput so we could build streamlined manufacturing processes.
After business school, I backslid into journalism, so I didn’t think much about Kristen for years—though as a food writer, I spent a lot time thinking about cookies. But Kristen has been on my mind lately.
My friend Pat McFadden and I have been making wooden outdoor games, and it turns out our BuildMeUp Blocks stacking game, made of 54 2×4 blocks sanded buttery smooth and packed in an adorable wagon, is basically Kristen’s Cookies all over again, but with lumber instead of cookie dough.
To make a set of BuildMeUp Blocks, we start by cutting 54 x 10.5-inch lengths of wood on the miter saw. Then we get to sanding. Sanding is the bottleneck. No matter what we do, we can’t get the sanding down to less than about 2.5 man hours per set. We’ve tried belt sanders and orbital sanders. We’ve contemplated using a router on the edges, but you still gotta knock down the flat sides with an orbital sander, if you want your blocks to slide like butter.
I suppose we could be less OCD about the whole thing, but that’s not our nature. As it turns out, Pat and I have a lot in common. In addition to suffering from slight perfectionism, we both like to dissect processes to make them more economical. (In addition to being incredibly handy and creative, Pat used to be a management consultant, so she can really think through the math of efficiency.) And we both like to brainstorm projects to make out of wood—projects like outdoor games, chicken coops, front yard libraries, raised garden beds and greenhouses.
Recently, as we were trying to streamline our BuildMeUp Blocks process, we explored a couple logistical options. First, we thought about dividing and conquering. I could sand blocks while Pat made wagons, then Pat could sand blocks while I made wagons. Or we could both sand, then both make wagons. There was a case to be made for either approach, but if we divided and conquered, there would always be a deafening sander drowning out our conversation. I suggested we do all the sanding at once, then remove our earplugs and move on to the fine-motor operation of screwing casters onto wagons.
“That way, at least for part of the day, we can hear each other,” I told Pat. “I’m learning so much from you, and we can brainstorm other projects.”
Pat nodded and grabbed a sander. “Plus,” she said, “it’s just more fun.”