Mopping Stinks, and How They Fixed It

If you love to mop, stop reading.  This post will make you mad.

If you hate mopping, channel that rage into what you’re about to read, and enjoy a journey through the design thinking process.

In his 2012 book “Imagine”, Jonah Lehrer opens the book with a story about mopping.  For me, mopping is an occasional hassle and a detested chore.  And I couldn’t really tell you why.  It just stinks.

A lot of people felt the same way, and Procter & Gamble knew it.  P&G makes millions of dollars per year on the floor cleaning industry.  So, they put their world-leading chemistry department on the job.  Come up with a better floor cleaner.

After months of trying, and failing, the company with more Ph.D.’s than Harvard, MIT, and UC-Berkley (combined!) reached its last dead end.  P&G shifted focus and gave the problem to an outside consulting company for a fresh perspective.

David Kelley, founder of the company IDEO and Stanford University’s d.school, once spoke of the design thinking process as “a series of buckets” from which to draw useful strategies to addressing problems.  Three of those strategies (“ask an expert”, “observe users”, and “build a prototype”) led to a breakthrough in the mopping industry.

The consultants spent tedious hours watching people mop.  Let that sink in for a minute.  Watching… people… mop.  The trick is to watch people mop and pretend you’ve never seen anyone mop before.  By watching people mop and talking to them about their experiences, they learned two important things: 1) Most people spent more time cleaning their mop than cleaning their floor with the mop, and 2) People used easier ways to clean up smaller messes.

These two observations led to an idea, and that idea led to a prototype: a disposable paper-towel-like head on a plastic handle.  People didn’t get it, until they tried it.  When people were told about the plan to put a disposable head on a mop handle, focus groups were unimpressed.  So, rather than try to explain it better, they built one and let people try it themselves.  Then the focus group participants wanted to take it home with them!  The Swiffer was born, and it generated over half a billion dollars in sales within its first year on the market.¹

What is your mop?  At school, at work, at home… what is that task or that chore that takes up our time, and that we have just come to accept as “part of life” with no way to improve it?  Maybe you have the beginning of the next Swiffer!


¹ – Information about the development of The Swiffer comes from Jonah Lehrer’s 2012 book “Imagine”.  The book was recalled by the publisher over admissions by the author that he fabricated quotes and other material in a section of the book about Bob Dylan.  I scored a copy from the Canadian imprint online.  The book sold about 200,000 copies before it was pulled from shelves.  It is generally readily available used on Amazon.

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2 thoughts on “Mopping Stinks, and How They Fixed It”

  1. That is a fascinating story! Watching people mop! Wow!

    For me, at work at least, I have not gotten out of the rut of doing break and fix things when called upon. I have accepted it as part of my day, even though it is not my duty. I feel too nice to say no. It takes more time than it should and it takes away from the time that I am doing something else. When thinking like an economist, if something is broken and it inhibits a teacher’s plans or slows student learning, it is absolutely worth my time. That is the part that makes it so difficult to say no.

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