The Process Improvement Toothbrush Test | Full Cycle Or Spot Clean?

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Chip Bergh, the CEO of Levi Strauss was recently interviewed and he gave some amazing advice about maintaining your jeans – you don’t need to put your jeans in the washing machine. 


Otherwise he says the jeans can fade and lose their classic indigo colour. When they do need a clean he advocated occasional use of a toothbrush to spot clean jeans and argues that we too quickly throw our jeans in the wash and that washing too often was inappropriate.

I was amazed when I read this. Probably because I didn’t want to look scruffy and be smelly for my colleagues on dress down Fridays. 🙂

But on reflection it’s actually pretty sound advice…

Process improvement, when used appropriately can provide a very powerful way to improve efficiency, drive up sales and improve the customer experience. But when we talk about process improvement, what is an ‘appropriate’ approach?

Consider Chip’s jeans washing advice in regard to a standard business process in a typical company. Just how many times will that process have been ‘put through the wash’ in order for it to be shiny and new again? How many times has it had buttons sewn back on? Or holes patched? 

The fact is this. Not all processes need an improvement project using all the bells and whistles at hand. Sometimes a little tweak or patch will do.


And sadly major process improvement or change  management is often promoted when simple tweaking will sometimes do – either through lack of experience – or worse, insisting that processes can only ever be improved by going through a full end to end lean six sigma or change management review. 

This costs valuable company resources, uses up unnecessary company time and can damage a process that on the whole works perfectly well.  And in some circumstances turn people off process improvement when it is urgently needed.

So try the process improvement toothbrush test.

Next time you are asked to either lead or take part in a process improvement project, imagine the process is a pair of jeans – yes imagine you’ve just picked them out of your washing basket.

Are the jeans really dirty like the wearer has just been through 5 back to back “tough mudder” assault courses and need a good 2 hours in the washing machine on a high heat spin cycle followed by some serious sewing and mending?

OR…are there a couple of little dirt spots that a little cleaning with a toothbrush would clear up and avoid the need for the washing machine and sewing box?

If you mainly see dirt spots, then the process has passed “the toothbrush test” – so what to do next?


I would advise encouraging you to discretely talk to the project leader and sponsor to see if they mainly see spots too.  Not in a macheavelian or “emperor’s new clothes” way – but in a way to delicately highlight what you are seeing is not a need for a major wash. It’s important to be transparent and positive when doing this. They may well share other things that are happening you may not be aware of.

If everyone does see “spots” then the project can then be scaled back and a series of short burst “mini projects” can be implemented. At the very worst, if spot cleaning doesn’t work, THEN you can start the full wash cycle. 

When I say “mini project” all I mean is that you dive straight to possible solutions and look to implement – quickly. Just keep it simple.

Use this list to see a few examples of when you’ll need to spot clean or full cycle your process:

image1Spot clean recommended

  • Occasional missed deadlines for an internal, non core process.
  • A few pockets of colleague frustration.
  • A bit of misunderstanding of company policies and processes.
  • Recent system upgrades not bedding in or not well understood.
  • Pressure from key stakeholders in the business to “fix” another part of the business

x-defaultFull Cycle recommended 

  • Regular customer complaints on a particular area.
  • Rework and workarounds in place like sticking plasters.
  • Lots of noise in the business with escalations flying around.
  • Lots of handling delays between departments.
  • Significant problems highlighted in internal or external audit findings.

Take the toothbrush test and save wasted time – because not every process needs a full cycle when a spot clean will often do.

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