How to avoid the toaster apocalypse

Our old toaster was really dying. The good news? We had a routine. Every time the toast popped up looking like a refinery smokestack, we would rush to open the windows, the kitchen door and hope the smoke detectors slept peacefully. For the really bad times, we’d throw a fan in the window and use dish towels to move the smoke. We had it down.

I’m a proud person, so naturally I would put on the butter and jam and smile as the burnt bread injured my mouth as I chewed. I had the last laugh. No silly toaster would defeat me.

But last Sunday we splurged and shopped for a new toaster. It was remarkable. Before we left the store $200 lighter, we found out that toasters have grown up in the digital age. They are no longer mechanical and ‘dumb’. We have  button to ‘Just take a look’ (without resetting the timer) and another for ‘Just a little more’ (continue 30 more seconds).

The toaster has evolved to take on the tricks that we had to do manually to get things just right. The designers thought ahead to the human behavior of taking a look or putting the toast back down. Both of these actions were the primary cause, other than old, nasty heating elements, of our burnt toast. By enabling human patterns within the process, they’ve improved on the simple process of making toast.

They could have added bells and whistles to make the toaster resemble our dryer, which I still can’t figure out, but they didn’t. They looked at where the process was broken and made it work alongside the human need to take a look and extend the timer just a little.

Beautiful process improvement without complexity. Perhaps this will stave off the toaster apocalypse by a few years.

More importantly, we’ve entered a new age in our house. The Age of Perfect Toast.


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Categories: Continuous Improvement, Process Management

Author:Jeanne Roué-Taylor

I'm fascinated by disruptive technology and its impact on our world. I manage sales operations for an excellent startup with a unique team of highly experienced data scientists.

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3 Comments on “How to avoid the toaster apocalypse”

  1. August 29, 2012 at 8:23 am #

    Nice post..

    Shows there are two ways to “improve” a) improve and simplify b) “improve” and complicate.

    Moving from home to workplace, many of the BPMs offerings probably could benefit from some input from the toaster folks.

    Success with workflows in organizations requires a simple UI, not having to learn a new language nor having to hike up/down giant menu hierarchies. I could go on and on.

    There is another lesson we can extract from the toaster recital – most people in business are too busy fire fighting (attending to the smoke detector) as opposed to taking action that eliminates most of the fire fighting (getting a new toaster), so they miss out on what could be perhaps a 40% improvement in productivity.

  2. August 29, 2012 at 9:13 am #

    Process people have a fixation with toast. GBMP has a famous video on making toast, “Toast Kaizen” and there a sequel video on YouTube on a Toast Value Stream.

    Your example is a product innovation enabling a process innovation.

    “In 2004, GBMP released Toast Kaizen, a short video to demonstrate the importance of direct observation in continuous improvement. It is now used around the world (in 14 languages) to help explain the true meaning of Kaizen. In reality, as viewers observe the 2004 toast-making process, they are witnessing an already improved process, one where much Muda, Mura and Muri have already been remove as the modern-day kitchen is fairly well organized already. But this is not so in most other endeavors.

    According to Bruce Hamilton (the Toast Guy), If our kitchens were organized the same way as our factories, offices and clinics, then the refrigerator would be in basement, the toaster would be in the attic and the bread would be stored anywhere there was an open space. We would be making huge batches of toast that spent most of their existence being moved and stored. And wed see isolated departments that each added a little bit of value and a whole lot of waste, working out of sync, rarely communicating and often displeasing the customer.. Just like most business environments

    So, watching “Toast Kaizen”, its easy to separate the wastes from the work, and in doing so make the whole job easier, better, faster and cheaper. But what if the process is not self-contained as in a kitchen. What if the process is laid out like most factories and offices? Then those material, information and production flows would be spread out all over into functional areas that would hide most of the waste. In fact, almost none of us see the whole process in our daily work, just the little piece we do ourselves. So now, GBMP offers “Toast VSM”, a 2009 sequel to the original – a DVD no Lean Training Library should be without.

    Come along on a toast odyssey that mimics the more typical conditions employees encounter when they attempt to value stream. Divided into two half-hour training segments, Part 1 of the lesson examines the current condition (or state) as we follow the toast-making process to understand the material and information flows. Viewers will participate in the observations and the sometimes contentious discussions about what has been observed as GBMP team travels the process upstream to expose system and process problems. Youll learn how to capture both numeric and anecdotal information on paper, and how to achieve a consensus regarding the key points of the current condition.

    Part II details the target condition (state) demonstrating how orders of magnitude improvement can be systematically identified, achieved and measured. Viewers will be introduced to a VSM Action Plan in A3 format that provides a complete analysis, reflection, improvement plan, measures and milestone tracking on a single 11×17 sheet.

    Whether your process is pure factory or administrative or service-related, “Toast VSM”, offers a realistic, day-in-the-life experience for lean implementers who wish to gain the full benefit of Value Stream Mapping.

    This is a sample clip.


  1. Defeating Black Friday | Successful Workplace - November 24, 2012

    […] was going to need careful planning. Buying a big-screen TV isn’t like picking up a toaster. Beyond finding the model, we needed to consider parking, stock levels, cash register lines, […]

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