tie dye t-shirtsDuring the NAPO conference in Minneapolis, I mentioned to Paula Constable and Barb Friedmont a project I was co-chairing with another parent at my daughter’s school. We were in charge of putting together a tie dyeing event for seventy 5th graders. There were a total of 109 shirts that had to be tie dyed (the extras were parent shirts). I mentioned to Paula and Barb that I had headed this up 3 years ago when my son was in 5th grade.

Normally, the art teacher does this project (with help from the Phy Ed teacher), but, coincidentally, she has been pregnant both years my kids were in 5th grade (how ironic is that?). Due to being pregnant, she did not want to handle the dye chemicals. None of the other teachers stepped up to do the project.

One thing that I try to instill in my clients when they are stuck on how to do something is to look at how many steps in takes to do complete a task. The fewer steps there are to do something, the easier a task or routine will be to maintain and the more likely a person will follow through with it. But, the teachers had made the tie dying project so cumbersome on themselves that I came to believe they looked forward to not dealing with the whole thing.

tie dye t-shirtsThe students wore the shirts during an all day biking event around Neenah so the printing read, “Neenah Bike Hike” and showed the school mascot, a tiger, riding a bike. For as long as teachers could remember, the shirts were tie dyed before printing then the shirts taken back to the printer for the screening. I remember questioning this when I headed the project in 2004. The printer couldn’t verify that the dye would mess up the printing, but…so, I proceeded the same way.

Where I changed the process that year was to have the students rinse and wash their own shirt. Previously, the teachers hand rinsed each one, but if you have done tie-dyeing, you know how long it takes to rinse one shirt (10 to 15 minutes minimum). Would you want to hand rinse 20-50 shirts?

Jump forward to this year, when, looking at my calendar, I realized if this was going to happen, it had to happen right after I came back from conference in order to allow time to get the dyed shirts to the printer before the date of the bike hike. I already had a big commitment that week and this would have been a big stressor.

As we teach our clients to do, I weighed my options and decided that I would not do it then. I contacted some tie dye experts to ask about the dye messing up the screen printing and no one could say conclusively that it would happen. So, I took the leap and said I would help with the project only if the shirts were dyed after the printing. Also, I made it clear that the students would be responsible for rinsing the shirts.

Well, the shirts turned out great!! We did the process in two days, and a few days later the students wore them for the bike hike. The principal said they were the best she had seen in the seven years she’s been there (that wasn’t due to the process—just that I made the dyes more potent!). She was bummed that she didn’t do one herself.

Afterwards, I met with the art teacher to go over the whole process. I also told her of the steps I would simplify even further. Emphasizing that with parent volunteers and the students doing more, it would make the process so much easier for her and any other teacher involved. My goal is to keep this wonderful tradition for future 5th graders. Hopefully, I had made the project more manageable for whoever takes it on later.

The point to this story is reiterating the idea that the fewer steps it takes to do a task, the easier to manage and maintain it. There were still a lot of things to do to prepare for the tie-dyeing and bike hike event, but it was all so much easier with the steps simplified.

Counting how many steps it takes to complete a task is a technique that powerfully demonstrates to clients why processes aren’t working. It allows then to see by themselves what steps can be eliminated or changed to make the task less burdensome.

And that’s what tie-dyeing can teach us about organizing.


National Association of Professional Organizers Wisconsin
February 2008
Jennifer Strachan