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The Official Baldrige Blog

Let the Soap and Water Flow (Maybe!)

Let the Soap and Water Flow (Maybe) blog photo showing a public bathroom with three sinks.
Credit: Africa Studio/Shutterstock

Last week was the final straw! It drove me to writing a blog posting. It took three sinks to wash my hands in a public restroom (fortunately, it had three sinks!). It required two to get the water flowing and a third to get soap. You know the cause of my frustration..... the automatic, sensor-driven water and soap dispensers. I am sure you have been there; you wave your hands, you move them in and out, you move them up and down, but still no water or soap. Once you achieve success, you chuckle as you watch someone at the next sink go through the same motions. Eventually, you might say to your fellow sufferer, I am done, this one works. 

Quality Principles

While all processes and products strive for 6 sigma performance, my biased estimate is that these devices operate at between one and two sigma, on initial attempt. That means somewhere between a 69% and 31% defect rate. Would you accept that from a product or service you were buying?

Yes, I know these faucets are sanitary and conserve water and that is very important, but so were the old foot pedal operated sinks. Of course those sinks are not ADA compliant and that is a real concern. So here is my simple, naive solution. How about placing multiple sensors in the sink/faucet, to improve the "catch" percentage? I came to this proposal by using the well-known quality tools for root cause analysis. I got there pretty quickly using "five whys":

  1. Why am I water
  2. Why is there no water... because the sensor is not detecting my hands
  3. Why is the sensor not detecting my hand.... because different faucets function using different principles (I have done my research) and sensors are subject to failure
    • According to Jenesis International, faucets could require a closeness to the sensor or that there is motion under the sensor or that a return signal be sent to the sensor. 
  4. Why isn't user-friendliness considered.... it could be, let's use multiple sensors

I also learned that I was not the first person to reach the frustration level of taking "pen to hand." Lauren Cahn had already written about it in Reader's Digest: "Who's that standing in front of the sink, hands waving wildly as the water fails to flow? Why, it's you!"

Of course, there are logical questions that could have been asked to lead you to feeling a new approach to automatic dispensing was needed. For example, consider these questions from the Baldrige Criteria for Performance Excellence:

  • How do you determine key product and work process requirements?
  • How do you design your products and work processes to meet requirements?
  • How do you listen to, interact with, and observe customers to obtain actionable information?
  • How do you determine customer and market needs and requirements for product offerings and services?
  • How do you manage customer complaints? 
  • How does your management of customer complaints enable you to recover your customers' confidence, enhance their satisfaction and engagement, and avoid similar complaints in the future?


Until that multi-sensor device appears, here are some helpful suggestions from Jenesis International:

Man washing his hands in a public restroom using a automatic sensor faucet.
Credit: siam.pukkato/Shutterstock
Check for water droplets in the sink: If you don't see any, don't frustrate,  go to another sink.

Look for the sensor: This can help you properly position your hands.

Provide a good reflection: Position your hands as if they were a mirror to provide the best reflection back to the sensor.

Be patient: To conserve power the sensor may only be looking intermittently for a signal.

Move closer to the sensor: Sometimes the sensors operate over such a short range that you have to activate the sensor with one hand while washing the other hand.

Be even more patient: Some manufacturers require a "time out" after the sensor is activated to avoid a false trigger.

    In the mean time, I will remain a frustrated, but ever more patient, Cheermudgeon in Gaithersburg, MD!

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    About the author

    Harry Hertz “The Baldrige Cheermudgeon”

    I am Harry Hertz, the Baldrige Cheermudgeon, and Director Emeritus of the Baldrige Program. I joined the Program in 1992 after a decade in management in the analytical chemistry and chemical sciences laboratories at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the home of the Baldrige Program. I started my career at NIST (NBS) as a bench analytical chemist.

    My favorite aspects of the Baldrige Program are: (1) the opportunity to interact with leading thinkers from all sectors of the U.S. economy who serve as volunteers in the Baldrige Program, who participate in the Baldrige Executive Fellows Program, and who represent Award applicants at the forefront of the continuous journey to performance excellence, and (2) the intellectual challenge of synthesizing ideas from leading thinkers and from personal research into Insights on the Road to Performance Excellence and other blogs that tackle challenges at the “leading edge of validated leadership and performance practice,” and contribute to the continuous revision of the Baldrige Performance Excellence Framework.

    Outside of work I spend my time with family (including three beautiful granddaughters), exercising, baking bread, traveling, educating tomorrow’s leaders, and participating on various boards and board committees.

    Related posts


    In my mind's eye, I envisioned an examiner reading an application with the Jenesis helpful hints as a response to the handling customer complaints question in the Criteria. The feedback opportunity just boggles the mind.

    This may be the best story since the electric bill story.

    Good news: If this is your biggest problem, Harry, God has blessed you dearly.

    Bad news: Your commitment to excellence means you still need to perform a control step (the C in DMAIC or A in PDCA), which means you will need to revisit the scene of the improvement regularly to collect performance data to ensure the improvement is working.

    Other bad news: You need to find a hobby that gets your hand visibly dirty so you have an obvious excuse for washing your hands so frequently.

    More bad news. You might have to get some lotion to treat chapped hands from industrial-strength paper towels burns.

    Why you?

    You violated Baldrige Examiner Rule #1: No good comment goes undiscussed.

    This is enlightening!

    A great option for public places is touchless technology. It limits the spread of germs and bacteria but also saves water

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