The Toilet Paper Theory Applied To Software Development

There are many configurations for developers to work together, but one of the common things that you will share with your colleagues is the toilet. Visiting the lavatories is also something that you will most likely to do every day. You could think of this as an intimate and mandatory version of the continuous integration paradigm. The toilet paper is one of the essential and ephemeral resources for this activity. Benjamin Franklin is quoted to have said “In this world nothing is certain but death and taxes.” I would personally add a third thing: toilet paper rolls reaching the end of their existence. What follows this event could give you an interesting view on the culture of the hosting organization and how its developers are working.

In some companies, the toilet paper dispenser is locked. Only authorized persons can change rolls. Sometimes this is because the organization does not trust its employees and fear that they may steal this valuable product. It could also just another sign of an outsourcing mentality that reached also some vital functions. When there is a disruption of the supply chain, you will have the chance to get an express training about backup and contingency planning. You could expect this situation to happen in a cost-cutting environment where software development projects will be assigned to the lower budget proposal. You could also more rarely be in a “full service” company, where you are not expected to deal with these tedious things. A maintenance employee will (maybe “should” is a better word in some places) regularly visit the toilet to check that everything is in place. If you are happy, in these companies you never use a dirty word like “budget” when you discuss a software project. Generally, the locked dispenser is often the sign of a tightly regulated environment and sometimes you should be already happy that you do not have to ask for approval before going to the lavatories.

There is also the case where the “user” has to change the paper when the rolls end. We touch here the topic of individual responsibility and the question is whether it will be the last or the next user that changes the roll. This reveals interesting insight about how developers care about the impact of their actions on their colleagues’ life. Are they thinking only about what is necessary for them or do they get behind their own needs and are willing to make the small action that will make life easier for their colleagues? Increased individual responsibility is needed when the stock of paper rolls is ending on your location. You are not only thinking about just changing the roll, but finding another roll.

There are many ways to use the Toilet Paper Theory in the organizational behavioral field. If you are applying to a new job, visiting the lavatories will give you some inside information about the culture of your prospective employer. Doing it near your possible workplace will bring facts about how your prospective future colleagues handle this matter. If you are a project manager or a consultant, you could use it as a quick test on personal behavior. Is this possible to create agile self-organizing teams or to achieve high quality software when you find empty paper rolls in the lavatories? I doubt so.

Small details can reveal a lot about the personality of a developer or an organization. I am sure that this toilet paper story will ring some familiar bells for you. The Paper Toilet Theory does not pretend to be a silver bullet for analyzing organizational and people behavior. Other useful tools like the “Process To Get a New Pencil” and the “Empty Printer Paper Bin Approach” could be also used to achieve a more precise vision of the subject of your analysis. Nevertheless, a good attitude is the basis to the formation of good software development teams. This start in some of the most common places as techniques are easier to teach and modify than behaviors.

Other interesting Web references on organizational theories or toilet paper

Toilet as a Social Space

Toilet Paper as Paradigm

Toilet Roll Conspiracy Theory

Usability of Toilet Paper


  1. Peter

    I don’t think you have thought deeply enough about the toilet paper analogy when it comes to individual responsibility.

    For me to install a new clean roll at the end of my ‘visit’ means that I need to man-handle that perfectly clean roll with my grubby, ‘post-transaction’ hands, potentially affecting negatively every following user of that roll (not just the next).

    Personally, I think I care MORE because I leave that clean roll un-touched by my hands.

    … Who would be silly enough to sit down to do their business without checking the roll anyway… Or am I just exceptional at planning? ;-p

    And really – It doesn’t matter whether user A or user B does it – As long as we are consistent, we all do the same amount of work on average.
    In fact, I vote user B changing the roll is more logical – fiddling with the roll whilst the ‘back-end’ is busy is a multi-tasking win not available to user A.

    You may think I am jesting, but I am fairly serious. Societies expectation that it is the responsibility of user A to do this work is a mis-analysis of the available efficiencies of the situation.
    OK, it might be seen as polite (illogically when you consider my hygiene angle), but don’t fool yourself that it is efficient or hygienic.

    The same problem happens in Software Engineering – People identify a ‘benefit’ and say ‘lets do it’, ignoring the the cost and the alternatives.
    It flabbergasts me how rarely work is prioritised on cost:benefit. Everyone ‘talks the talk’, but very, very often priority is heavily skewed to ignore cost (except for extreme cases), and prioritise mainly on benefit. You very rarely see 5 small, cheap changes win over the one ‘big-bang’ change, when often the 5 give you better bang-for-buck. The one ‘big-bang’ change stands out too much and people make emotive decisions.

    But ignoring all that, yes, I get the analogy, slightly flawed as it is, and agree with intention of your analogy, if not the toilet etiquette…

  2. The hygiene thing is a good remark that I haven’t consider. But I think that if you were coherent with your logic and do not want to use your hands “post-transaction” and “before washing them”, then you must be very “agile” to perform all the activities that you should do in this period (flush water, unlock and open the door) without influencing the next user.

    Furthermore, you could expect that somebody using the next roll installed by yourself will be in the same situation that you are before changing it… and that he will also clean his hands afterwards. Therefore, I do not think that the roll manipulation adds a lot of hygienic problems.

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