26 Dec 2013

The kitchen is filthy.

Throughout the day the kitchen volunteers have prepared and served three meals each to hundreds of homeless guests. Only people with training can handle the food, but anyone can do dishes, so after a day of largely guard duty I’m retasked to the end-of-day cleanup.

And to be honest, it’s pretty grim. I don’t know where to start or how this is going to work. Every shelf is stacked high with dirty dishes; I can see one automatic dishwasher, a few sinks, and a sponge or two. On the face of it, we don’t seem well-equipped or well-organised, but Crisis has been running for decades; there must be a strong process I can slot into.

Time to get moving. I turn to the nearest person that seems to be moving with purpose.

"Where do you need me?"

He looks at me blankly.

"You're asking the wrong person".

There are a couple of more authoritarian figures around: stern, hairnets, orange badges. They look like they really don't want to talk to me. If I spend too much more time asking questions instead of doing work, I’m going to be a net negative. I scavenge a sponge and some detergent and start washing something, anything.

Later, an orange badge comes into our area, looking stressed, pointing at a massive stack of greasy roasting trays. “We need to get these trays cleared now”. He’s not talking to anyone in particular, and he doesn’t say how. I have a relevation: Wait, this is scrum! I know this!

Suddenly I spot all the pieces. Intrinsic motivation, check. External figure with authority over goal, but no authority over process, check. Self-organising team of equals, check. Cross-skilled crew rapidly switching roles, check. We act like this is relatively new to software, and maybe it is, but the rest of the world has been doing it for a long time.

Okay, I think I know how this works now. Time to experiment. My area is being obstructed by a dirty roasting tray. The automatic dishwasher is busy and I don't have a sink. I pass the tray, and a questioning look, over to a volunteer I'd chatted to earlier who's now drying trays by the sinks. Mary [1] looks at me for a second, takes the tray, and switches from drying to washing. My area frees up and the line accelerates.

We're swarming the tasks now, new people filtering in as the rest of the shifts finish up. A newcomer looks to me for direction and I deliberately don't give it to him. He finds a spot on the line.

By now I’m working with another volunteer, each alternating between drying glasses and walking a couple of steps to place them on the shelf behind us. Time for another experiment: "Hey, it might be faster if I dry and pass to you". She goes with it. It's not. We switch back.

Passing, Mary hands me a wet plastic box without a word. I dry it and find a space for it on the shelf.

We're nearly done, now, with fewer dishes left than people. There's literally nothing available for me to do, I'm missing the end-of-shift debrief outside, and I feel awkward standing around, but I stay in the kitchen. I don’t want to leave until we all do.

Which is a funny thing to say about doing dishes.

fn1. Not her real name. And if you already knew that, drop me a line sometime. It’s been a while.