A Home Kanban System – Toilet Paper & Paper Towels


In the course of my consulting work, I'm sometimes asked something like, “OK, so do you use this stuff at home? Do you 5S your kitchen and your garage?”

Well sure, I've “5S-ed” my kitchen, in the sense that I try to keep items and equipment in the right locations. Last year, we moved the storage location for our knives so it was right in the island where we usually chop (and right near where we grab the cutting boards). So if you consider that 5S, sure we've used some elements of the approach. Do we have tape around everything? No, of course not.

The closest thing we have to a formal Lean system is our use of “kanban” to manage some home inventory items. Two items that are managed via kanban are toilet paper and paper towels.

In the garage (the “bulk warehouse”) sit two large warehouse club-sized packs of toilet paper and two packs of paper towel. This is a very simple system — when one warehouse club pack is empty, that's our signal that we have to buy more. The beauty of the “two-bin” system is that we still have a whole pack left (plus what is in the house). We don't have to interrupt our lives to go to the warehouse club “NOW.” We can wait a week (or even two) and have it on our list to buy when it's convenient.

This kanban system prevents overordering and it helps us avoid running out. Notice that no math went into this kanban system. We're often so focused in the Lean world on “getting the calculation right” instead of just having a system that works. Since toilet paper and paper towels are cheap enough, we really aren't worried about the cash tied up in the inventory. These products don't expire, although we do rotate our stock and use the oldest stuff first. If we lived in a small apartment, instead of a suburban home, we might have to set this system up differently.

There's a second kanban loop (or loops) for each item – from the garage to the points of use. For paper towels, these are stocked in the kitchen. Here, when a roll is empty, we just get more from the garage. No “two-bin” system, just a simple “need one, get one” replenishment.

For toilet paper, we do keep some inventory in each bathroom. I'll try to keep this discussion polite, but we really want to avoid a total “stockout” in a particular bathroom. So there, we tend to keep a six-pack of rolls in the bathroom. When the last roll is placed on the holder, that's the signal to get more from the garage “now” instead of waiting for an, ahem, emergency situation.

In the couple of years that my wife and I have been managing our inventory this way, we've avoided emergency trips to the store or emergency trips to bring more rolls to a bathroom. The value of that far outweighs the cost of $20 of inventory in the garage.

I've also applied a simple two-bin system to many of my items like shampoo, hair gel, shaving cream, etc. I always keep two on hand — when one is empty, I always have a spare ready to use and I can buy a replacement at my convenience.

Does anyone else run their “home inventory” this way? The same thing could apply to kitchen items and food, don't you think?

I like our kanban system because:

  • It works
  • It's simple
  • It didn't require math
  • It didn't require a computer system

Don't you think those same principles could apply to many items in our workplace?

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. I do. The only problem I’ve found is that it doesn’t work for the Oreos.

    The attach rate is too high on Oreos, so I’ve had to go to a forecasting model based on the amount of bad TV shows on and the weather. :P

  2. Great post:-)

    It again shows that 5S and Kanban is regularly being done in the house -mostly unnoticed from a lean point of view.

    Why don’t we apply more of that in the workplace? What are the mental models and dynamics that keep us from doing so?

    Curious to hear more on that


  3. I’ve had to 5S the chocolate in the house to cause zero-outs.

    In all seriousness though I think we need to think about inventory in the service sector differently than in manufacturing. The margin is higher, the cost of materials less and there is no way to make up the zero-out time of non-production. So it pays off to have the chances of a zero-out at a 6 or 7 sigma level instead of a 3.5 or 4 sigma level (assuming there is a cost associated with having a higher sigma level with greater inventory).

    You’re bathroom is the same. The consequences of having a zero-out on TP could be devistating so for a small extra marginal cost you maintain enough for 100’s of cycles.


  4. You are right, Ian. Even in a factory setting, learned from a sensei “first job — keep the line running. second job — keep inventory low.”

    Too many companies have made low inventory the overriding priority and sometimes suffer higher costs from downtime and other problems caused by high inventory. Now, that’s not an excuse to ignore or excuse high inventory levels.

    For hospitals, the costs of stocking out cannot be calculated at times. If you’re stocked out on a missing med and someone dies… well, you don’t want that to happen of course.

    So, some “excess and expired” meds may be a necessary cost of providing high service levels, but we use Lean methods (frequent deliveries and kanban control) to prevent excessive overordering.

  5. I’ve got a kanban for kitchen garbage bags. I keep all the plastic garbage bags on the bottom of the bin; when I take out the garbage, the new bags are right underneath. (That’s a bit of 5S.) I put a piece of paper on top of the last bag that says, “Last bag. Buy more.” That’s my replenishment signal, and it gives me one week to buy new ones.

  6. I started a kanban for the toilet paper two rolls in each bathroom and the bulk pack in the basement.

    Then i started a kanban for the kitchen paper towels, running out can be bad when busy. However i was always forgetting to get the second roll later because i cant see it missing inside the cabinet. So i attached a piece of perforated galvanized pipe strap as a flag on a hook besides the paper towel holder which hangs below my upper cabinets. Most of the time the flag is up hidden behind the face ledge secured by a magnet but when i dont have time to get a replacement roll of paper towels i flip the flag down and leave it there till i later see it and have time.

  7. I always think a great example of a Kanban system in the home is with checkbooks: the box has a reminder in it when you get to the last book to reorder more.

    As far as 5S: the silverware organizer in your kitchen drawer is a good example.

  8. Revisiting this post a bit. When my wife and I lived in Boston for a year, we had a small apartment and no car to drive to a warehouse club.

    Each “bin” in the two-bin system was a 6-pack of toilet paper. That was easy to carry home from the store and it fit in our smaller cupboards (no garage for storage).


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