The Toilet Paper Illustration

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As an example of systems-thinking, and at the risk of an awful pun, reaching for a piece of toilet paper is the bottom line.  

Toilet paper is a mandatory accessory. It may be the one thing that all of us have used daily for all our lives. As an illustration of a system that is ubiquitous, it’s perfect. 

The act of loading toilet paper on a toilet paper roll is a system—a system that proceeds in a linear fashion until the goal is accomplished. Step one: In the bathroom, approach the sink. Step two: Open the cabinet door underneath the sink. Step three: Reach under the sink and grasp a roll of toilet paper. Step four: Take the protective wrap off the roll. Step five: Approach the toilet paper dispenser with the roll, etc. 

Ask yourself the following question. Right now, in your own house or apartment, is the paper roll loaded on the dispenser with the free end of the paper off the top of the roll where it can be easily grasped? Or, is the leading edge off the bottom, against the wall, where one must awkwardly reach underneath the roll to retrieve it? 

For the fun of it, over the years I’ve kept an informal tally. Not counting hotels and motels where professional housecleaners have been instructed on the most efficient positioning, it is a nearly 50-50 split with a slight advantage going to those who chose “top.” This means most people don’t think one way or the other about the insertion of the roll in the dispenser. (Or, implausibly, one half the population is adamant the roll be inserted one way and the other half of the population, the other way.) 

So, not many people think of this triviality. Is it important? Of course not—but that is not what matters here. The important point is the illustration of the lack of systems-thinking by the vast majority of people. 

Since having the retrieving end of the paper on the top of the roll makes grasping the paper easier, why don’t all people load the paper that way every time? Is the task of inserting the roll one way more difficult than inserting it the other way? Not at all. But deciding to always do it this way would require a one-time analysis of the goal and the process—in this case just a few seconds of time—and we Westerners don’t oft en consider underlying processes, even ones so innocuous as this one. Most of us are not naturally predisposed to see life with the systems-perspective. 

Yes, this is a silly illustration, but try to get past that. See that in considering loading the paper in a different way, you are putting yourself outside-and-above the act of loading toilet paper. You are deliberately managing the process in order to produce an incrementally better result every single time the process executes in the future. 

There is another, more visceral lesson here, and maybe it’s a bit unnerving. Because you have considered this toilet paper question, it may cause you to choose to load your rolls in a more deliberate way, or the contrarian in you may consciously decide not to. Whatever your choice, my prediction is that from now on you will think about the process every time you replace a toilet paper roll. Like it or not, due to this end-of-chapter illustration, there is a small slice of systems methodology that has been permanently imbedded in your thinking process. 

Welcome to my world. 

For the record, when I polled my management staff in a staff meeting on how they load their toilet paper at home, I got a 100 percent “Pleeeze! Off the top, of course!” response. Even in the most mundane tasks, the Centratel staff reflexively takes a posture of outside-and-slightly elevated.

Sam Carpenter is author of the book, Work The System: The Simple Mechanics of Working Less and Making More. Visit to purchase the book and/or receive a free download of Sam’s “Six Steps to Working Less and Making More.”

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