Some moving ideas

John F. Raffensperger, Jan 1997, 2 Jan 2001, 15 Nov 2015.

Sometimes we depend on friends to help us change house. As a frequent volunteer in moving friends, as a former engineer at a big materials-handling outfit, and as a victim of moves myself, I have thought about how to avoid hassles in moving. Here are suggestions for others who have to move with the help of their friends.

Some physics:

A. Work equals energy times distance.

B. Output equals hours times effort per hour.

C. Errors hurt worse than you expect.

The key points:

I. Overstaff the job: The Rule of 10.

II. Direct traffic vigorously, so people keep moving, they keep moving the right things, and they move them to the right place.

III. Don't have inventory.

IV. Use the fire brigade method.

V. The truck.

VI. If I were to move again.

"You" are defined to be the one who owns all the stuff that has to get moved and the one in charge of getting it moved.

I. Overstaff the job: The Rule of 10.

Always get at least 10 people who commit to helping you move. Ten minimum. All 10 people must be able to help out with 95% of the moving tasks, and will be present for at least 95% of the time you move, usually 6 to 10 hours. If one person has a bad back or is undependable, you don't count them (but you can still ask them to help). Ten committed, dependable, physically strong people, who will really be there.

A. Understaffing is bad.

If you violate the Rule of Ten, the few friends who do help you will spend many hours on your move. They will be worn out and sore the next day. This is not a good way to treat your friends. A good friend will probably help you if at all possible. Trust them to decide for themselves if they want to help. Pick up the phone and call.

B. Overstaffing is good.

If you have 10 people instead of 5, it really will get done in about half the time. Output equals hours times effort per hour. In fact, the job will be done in less than half the time with 10 people instead of 5, because tired people take longer to do a job. Doing the move in half the time is a blessing to you and your friends. It means your friends each did half as much work, and will be half as worn-out and half as sore the next day.

Many people think that the rate of output per person diminishes with each additional helper, but this is serious only at the extremes, with forty or fifty people. Some people misunderstand this concept further, believing that total output diminishes, that more people makes the whole job take more time. That is unlikely, and only if you are also badly organized. The rate out output diminishes with each additional person mainly because it's hard to direct traffic and keep everyone busy. If you had forty clones, you would never have to tell anyone what to do. But with forty non-cloned people, someone is always going to be idle because they don't know what to do next. If you take my advice and do a good job directing traffic, the effect of diminishing returns is minimal. Anyway, the diminishing rate effect is not important, and it's NOT an argument against overstaffing.

The main reason for overstaffing is because the job really will get done sooner with more people. Also, you have more talent to assist with special problems. You can ask people to do jobs that you expected you might have to do yourself, such as last-minute packing, cleaning, watching children, etc. And since they're your friends, they're probably friendly with each other. If the job has enough people that it goes quickly and nobody has to work too hard, the move will be a celebration of your new situation. People will have fun.

Contrast this with the stark picture of you and two other people moving all your stuff, starting at 9 a.m. and giving up unfinished in agony at midnight.

C. Give advance notice, if possible.

Give your friends at least a week's advance notice of the move, if possible. You probably wouldn't invite people to a birthday party the night before, and a birthday party is a celebration. Even if you are spontaneous, more advance notice is more courteous than less, particularly when the event is not fun & games.

But don't get fewer than 10 people, even if you can't give advance notice. Better to be a bit rude than sadistic. If you're desperate, call people at the last minute.

D. Feed them.

Plan the food ahead of time, and assign the job on moving day to one of the non-burly people (not one of the Ten) to make sure the food is available on time. Don't do the food yourself, since you're supposed to be directing traffic.

Have munchies available (bagels, juice, and coffee are nice) and give them a decent lunch. Plan for breaks. For lunch, you can offer pizza, chili, McDonald's, anything as long as it's substantial. People get hungry when they're working, and a lot of people will come without breakfast if you start early.

Lunch should be at lunchtime, 12:30 pm, 1:30 pm at the latest, unless consensus is to do otherwise. But if they agree to go without lunch "until the move is finished" at 2:30 p.m., make it a nice lunch.


I'm going to assume that you have at least two other people helping you. Use the Fire Brigade Method, described below. You, the person in charge of the move, have to be the one furthest away from the truck. This will allow you to get things carried out to the truck in the fastest possible manner. Do not carry things all the way out to the truck yourself, but instead concentrate on determining which things to get out of the building, and in what order, and putting them into the hands of people who will put it on the truck.

II. Direct traffic vigorously so people keep moving, they keep moving the right things, and they move them to the right place.

A. What is directing traffic?

Directing traffic means that you tell each person the next item they should carry out to the truck, or where to put an item they are carrying in from the truck. Let people know minute by minute what to do. As soon as someone appears empty-handed inside, you have to tell them what to take next. It probably doesn't matter what -- just so they aren't standing there waiting because they don't know what to do.

You should be directing traffic inside the building most of the time, at both ends of the move, even if your job is not properly staffed. It is better for you to stand around inside the building telling people what to do than it is for you to try to act humble and carry stuff out. If you carry stuff out when people are standing around inside because they don't know what to do, you're wasting everybody's time.

B. Why is directing traffic so important?

Directing traffic well cuts move time by at least half. It means the difference between a 4-hour job and an 8 or 10 hour job. You have to direct them so they know what to take and so they can keep at it. People won't make mistakes in moving unnecessarily, they will know exactly what to take next, and they will know where to put it, only if you tell them. If they are standing, just looking at all the boxes on the floor, not sure what to do next, nothing is going to get done unless you say, "Hey friend, could you take this out?"

Your friends want to get the job done so they can go home and relax. They are there to help you and they are ready to do anything you tell them to do. If they are standing around waiting to be told what to do, that is wasting their time and yours. Or worse, if they carry the wrong thing to the wrong place, and have to move it back, you've wasted their time and energy, as well as discouraged them. They will be glad to be told what to do.

If you do move your things to different places, or at different times, directing is even more crucial. You can't just say, "Take everything." If some of the things are not to be moved in this job, you need to tell people clearly and repeatedly.

If you direct traffic from inside, you can give special carrying instructions for your special items. For example, on move-out, you can control somewhat where in the truck things go by what order they go out the door, even without directly supervising the truck loading.

You have one disadvantage to your being inside the building and directing traffic: You're not packing and unpacking the truck. Get someone you trust to do it, because if you have to pack the truck yourself, the job will take much longer, because nobody will be directing traffic.

Direct traffic vigorously so that people keep moving, they keep moving the right things, and they move them to the right place.

C. Plan ahead to direct traffic on move-in.

Directing traffic can be help get you settled. We shall see in the section on inventory that inventory on move-out tends to slow down the job, among other things. On move-in, inventory means that you have boxes all over your living room that you have to move again (from the living room to their actual proper resting place), and then unpack. So your move haunts you for the next three to six months until you finally find your favorite CD, the postage stamps, and the carrot peeler, and get all those boxes out of there. Directing traffic will save you that three to six months of pain.

On move-in, tell people exactly where to put things, saving you the hassle of moving everything again later. You could spend time preparing lists of where things should go, but if you can pay attention as people walk in the door, you're probably OK. Before the move, make sure you know what instructions to give people. If you have a great many helpers, you can ask them to pack books, bag clothes, etc., which will make your pre-move week of packing much easier. Just bring in empty boxes and people can pack for you during the move.

Now, on move-in, direct traffic so that everything goes in its home, or as close as possible, the true right place. You could even ask them to unpack it immediately. This takes having enough people and directing traffic well. You would then be mostly done moving in after the move-in. Ideally, most of the moving will be done by lunch except for unpacking. Once the lunch gets near dessert, ask people if they'd be willing to put in a half-hour or an hour unpacking. As long as you've got all those willing people there, you may as let them help you.

III. Don't have inventory.

A. What's inventory?

Inventory is created by moving something from its original home (say, the bedroom closet) to another place that is NOT its home (say, right next to the front door). You know it's inventory because the only possible next operation for the object is another move.

Moving something from the bedroom closet all the way into the truck does not create inventory, because the next operation on that item is to drive the truck, not to move the item itself per se.

Moving something from the truck into the house and dumping it on the living room floor when it belongs in the bedroom closet creates inventory. Suppose you move the item from the truck into the house and set it down while you take 60 seconds to find out where it goes, intending to move it to its correct place immediately. That's not inventory, because you are still legitimately working on that item.

B. Why is inventory so bad?

When you see a pile, don't look at it as a pile of material. Look at it as work to be done. When an item is being carried between the building and the truck, work is getting done. When you make a pile, you are creating work that has to get done later. "Later" means the job will take longer, at least by the length of time corresponding to the work in that pile. Get the job done the first time.

Five hundred Fortune 500 companies have sound reasons for implementing just-in-time inventory practices. This inventory thing is important.

A pile on the ground is a problem in itself.

1) Creating inventory and removing inventory adds work. Setting something down and later picking it up usually takes longer than carrying it all the way the first time. Moving material only part of the way towards its destination wastes time, even if it's closer to its destination. This is a universal truth of material handling. If you pick it up, get it all the way home.

2) Inventory is a symptom of poor organization, and shows that effort is not balanced throughout the job. If you hurry too much with one part, everyone waits on another part, and the overall job takes longer than if the two parts are balanced with no one waiting. For example, suppose you take stuff out of the truck, take it half-way up the stairs ("because that's fair") and dump it on the landing. The next person is supposed to come halfway down the stairs, pick up the box, and carry it the rest of the way. Here's what will happen: Either (a) you will be a bit faster than your friend, and fill up the landing with junk, or (b) they will be a bit faster than you and stand there waiting for you. If you carried it all the way to them, and gave it to them, no matter whether that were at the top of the stairs or near the truck, it would be more even. No stuff would pile up, and no one would stand around.

3) Simply having inventory adds work. Walking around a pile of stuff takes longer than walking across a clear area. It's also not as safe. Sometimes people move things close to the door or the top of the stairs in the belief that they are helping. Piles in throughways slow access, and create queues getting in or out the door or up and down the stairs. Imagine the truck surrounded by awkward items "because," says the truck loader, "we need big things and boxes." The truck loader is reasonably trying to make sure the truck gets loaded properly and without any wasted space. But pretty soon just getting around the stuff on the ground is a chore itself. When the big things finally come out, you've got all kinds of awkwardly shaped stuff all around the truck. Try to avoid this situation with better planning, more communication during the move, and a bigger truck.

4) Material in a pile outside is open to a greater chance of theft and weather damage. Haven't we all moved in the rain or snow?

5) Inventory can snowball unintentionally through seeding. Let's say on move-in, you start out wishing to avoid inventory, but you don't direct traffic. Then people are likely to dump stuff wherever they can put it most easily. A half-hour later, that pile has become the precedent, and it's what everyone believes they are supposed to do -- dump it on the living room floor.

6) You lose track of important things. Suppose on move-in you say, "Just put it all in the living room." Then you're going to have a terrible time finding your pillow, your toothbrush, your alarm clock, the things you need immediately, unless you have a separate task to keep it all separated. Avoid inventory in the first place by directing traffic. Then you don't have to think about which seven boxes have the important stuff.

C. How can it be avoided?

Use the Fire Brigade Method described in the next section.

Suppose you have a lot of people helping move. You might bring stuff out of the building faster than the person on the truck can load it, or people are unloading the truck faster than it can be carried in. Stuff will start piling up on the ground outside the truck. In that case, slow somebody down. It sounds weird, but it's right.

If stuff is stacking up on the ground and waiting to be loaded onto the truck, ask someone to do cleaning or lunch preparation instead of moving more stuff out. Invite the tiredest friend to take a break. Ask an additional friend to help pack the truck, until the friends packing the truck have cleared up the inventory in front of the truck. If you intentionally are holding off packing stuff onto the truck and letting it sit on the ground, because you realized you carried things out of the building in the wrong order, then you've screwed up, and you've wasted time.

On move-in, if the truck is being unloaded faster than material can be put away, then invite the friend unloading the truck to take a break until the inventory by the truck is gone. Or ask at least two more people to help move stuff into the building. The unloader should be part of the fire brigade, and should not simply put stuff on the edge of the truck for someone else to take. Balance of flow is especially important when you are understaffed.

Suppose you're directing traffic on the move-in, and a friend carries something in, and you haven't decided where it should go yet. Ask the friend to wait a minute, even if they have to set the item down and wait, so you can think of the best spot to put it, rather than have them just drop it anywhere and walk away. This will save everyone, especially you, a lot of time later. You won't have stuff in the wrong spot where something else should go later, and you'll avoid moving the stuff three times.

"Don't have inventory" also means don't leave stuff behind that you plan to get later, unless you have a compelling reason to do so. Use everyone while they have taken the effort to come help you. Ten people can do a job in a tenth of the time it would take you alone. A tenth. Every trip between buildings is an hour minimum, if you have to get into your car. Think about that when you want to say, "Oh, we'll just get that later."

For example, having to clean the place you've left is a compelling reason to leave cleaning supplies behind. (Put the cleaning supplies in a closet with tape across the door and a sign, "THE CLEANING STUFF IN THIS CLOSET STAYS HERE." If you have a compelling reason to leave it behind, then making sure it gets left behind is worth effort. Otherwise you'll have to make a trip just to get the cleaning supplies back. Errors hurt worse than you expect. But a closet full of clothes should not get left behind on the basis that others might be embarrassed by packing your underwear. This is no time for pride. If the clothes are too expensive to be roughly treated, ask someone you trust to pack the clothes carefully. Then quit worrying about it.

IV. Use the fire brigade method.

A. What is it?

Here's how the fire brigade method works.

Move out: You're on the inside, the first person in the line, since you are directing traffic. You pick up an item from inside the building and carry it towards the second person. The second person takes it and carries it towards the third person, and so on. The last person hands it to the person packing the truck, who must pack it in the truck before the last person brings the next item. The empty-handed person walks back until he meets the person who supplies him. No one stops moving, and no one except the truck-packer sets anything down.

Move in: You're on the inside, the last person in the line. This way, you can tell people where things should go, or maybe you can even put it away yourself. Since they're bringing it out of the truck right up to you, that won't be hard.

B. Why use it?

The fire brigade method is worth a 30% to 50% time savings. This method greatly simplifies directing traffic, because you personally pick up the next item to send to the truck and you personally put away each item as it comes in from the truck. The line is self-balancing. It works with any number of people over any distance. Furthermore, everyone does their fair share of work -- even taking into account their natural abilities. It prevents congestion.

The method keeps people busy at 100% capacity. There's never idle time, so the job gets done incredibly efficiently. If you don't think avoiding idle time is important, pay attention to how people stand, to their posture, to how quickly they are moving, the next time you are involved with a move. Look at the crowd standing around the truck sometimes. Try to guess the percentage of time they are not working when work is still to be done. It's 25% in a well-organized job, and 80% in a badly-organized job. Motivation has nothing to do with it.

The fire brigade method is flexible. Having some people slow than others doesn't matter, except for the person packing the truck. You can add people to the brigade or take people off without the brigade breaking down. Fewer people make it go slower. More people make it go faster.

On move-out, if you're well-staffed, people can even be packing boxes and supplying the carry-out brigade. Packing and carrying can occur simultaneously. It works on the other end, too, for unpacking. You just have to make sure you have enough people, and keep the packing and carrying balanced to avoid inventory.

Even if you're badly staffed, if it's just you and two other people, it can work well. You should remain the inner-most person, since you'll always know what to take next and can keep the other two people working at capacity.

I call this a "fire brigade method" to make it sound friendlier than "Toyota Sewing Systems production method", which is what it really is. Incidentally, most textile manufacturers have seen what Toyota is doing with this and are converting to this system.

C. How does it work?

Everyone in the brigade must follow the rules, especially you:

1) You should be the one at the far end away from the truck, inside the building. This allows you to be working and directing traffic inside at the same time. As you pass items on, you can also pass special instructions with the item: "OK, Joe, this is dishes and should go on top. Pass it on."

2) Do not set anything down unless it is to put it away. If people are putting things on the ground because they're tired, invite them to take a break or assign them something they're willing to do. Setting stuff on the ground creates inventory. It adds an extra drop and a lift for every item in the pile and it destroys the workload balance in the line.

3) If the next person in the bucket brigade is far from you, keep walking towards that person until you meet him. Then hand the item to him or her, or take the item, as the case may be. Do NOT set the stuff on the ground. You may not always meet the person in the same spot. That's OK, because they will take slightly more or less time to do their part due to variability in the job. What's important is that everybody keeps moving and that you don't create inventory.

4) The person packing the truck has to be able to pack as fast as things are brought out, or else you'll create inventory next to the truck.

What can be done if the truck packer is too slow? The person who supplies the person at the truck can help the truck packer load one or two items until the truck packer is almost caught up. The next person in the line, who didn't come all the way to the truck before, may now come all the way to the truck a couple of times. That's OK. The loading will temporarily speed up a bit and the carrying out will temporarily slow down a bit. It'll balance.

What if work must be done inside to supply the people carrying things out? Since you're inside, you can ask the person you supply to help you pack boxes (or whatever is necessary to get things to carry out). The third person in the line, who never came all the way inside, may now come all the way into the building a few times. As with the truck packing, that's OK, because preparing for carry-out will be temporarily speeded up a bit and the carrying out will be temporarily slowed down a bit. So it'll balance.

This rebalancing feels counter-intuitive, especially when you're just starting the line or when people are crowded together. But think about it: With two people, they'll each walk about half-way, on average. With three people, they'll each walk about a third of the way. With x people, they'll each walk a fraction of about 1/x of the way. (One tenth is nice.) The fractions merely change a bit when you take people on or off, so each person will walk a different length than he or she did before the change in the number of people.

It's important that everyone keeps moving. For example, suppose Person D (for Down) is coming down the stairs carrying something. Empty-handed Person U (for Up) is coming up to meet D, but Person U gets tired of walking up. He figures D is coming down, which is easier than U himself going up, so U will stop for a minute, resting, while D comes to him. This is grounds for D to be unhappy with U, for U is making D do extra work, since D has to carry the item further down the stairs. Person U is in fact slowing the whole process down by standing. Output equals hours times effort per hour.

If two friends are required to move an item, take two people off the middle to do the two-person job. You can even rotate them. Or do all the big stuff at the beginning or end of the job so the brigade is not interrupted. Most trips in & out of the building are for items that one person can carry, so this method can be used for most of your stuff. You could even do the fire brigade method with 2 people handing off to the next 2 people.

The fire brigade method works well with narrow stairs. People don't pass each other going up. In the conventional way of moving, someone always has to stop to let the other person squeeze past, which is wasted effort. A line of people going up or down the stairs can move only as fast as the slowest person.

D. There's 1 disadvantage.

The one disadvantage to the fire brigade method is that people can get fatigued, since they are working at almost 100% capacity, with virtually no idle time. They're getting tired because they're working hard getting the job done, so this isn't so much a disadvantage as it is simply an understandable consequence. You can pass glasses of water down the fire brigade line, getting the empties on a return pass. You can also rotate people who are on the stairs, which is the most strenuous place. Everyone may need to have a scheduled break every hour or so. Chances are, if you are following my advice, you'll be done with a typical 2 or 3 bedroom apartment move-out (or move-in) in 40 to 90 minutes. So give them a 6 or 7 minute break for water at the 45 minute mark.

V. The truck.

Unless you're single and living in a studio, get a truck.

A. Get a bigger truck than you think you need.

Ask friends or the truck rental company for their opinion about the size of truck you need. Then get one 25% to 50% bigger. If you have extra space in the truck, no problem. If you don't have enough space in the truck, problem. You'll have to spend a lot of time packing the truck carefully so as much as possible can go in it. You will have odd stuff like bicycles and dirty grills that won't seem right stuffed into a small truck against your new mattress. But if the truck is big, both items fit without being stuffed together. If the truck is too small, you'll be asking people to take stuff in their cars, which involves more work since their cars are parked further away from your building than the truck. You'll have to make extra trips in your own car, which can easily triple the time you spend moving, because later you won't have all those people helping you. Errors hurt worse than you expect.

B. Move the truck as close as possible to the building.

Work equals energy times distance. Reduce the work by carrying your stuff a shorter distance. Get the truck as close to the door as possible. Even if you save only 10 steps out of 60, that's about 15% of the effort - the difference between a six hour job and a five hour job. Even a few steps make a difference.

Try to put the heaviest stuff on the truck last. That way it doesn't have to be moved the length of the truck twice.

C. Buy the insurance on the rental truck. (Personal experience on this one!)

D. Miscellaneous.

1. Moving an air conditioner.

To move an air conditioner easily, (1) tip it onto an old blanket, curtain, or moving pad, (2) give each corner to a friend to lift (that means you need 4 people). You can negotiate heavy air conditioners over stairs with no problem doing this. Leave the air conditioner on the end of the truck, so you don't have to move it the length of the truck twice.

2. Try to pack soft non-fragile things together.

If you are moving out of a place that is on a second story or higher, you can toss soft things over the porch railing or out a window. (Warn the people in the fire brigade below!) This will temporarily alter the balance in their brigade as they pick up work in the middle of the line, but it is still a savings over carrying it all the way down, especially if you're on a 3rd or 4th floor.

3. Glass mirrors and pictures should go in the truck vertically, as though they were hanging on the wall of the truck. If you put them flat, like a blanket on a bed, then a small weight on top or jarring motion will break the glass.

VI. If I were going to move again

1) I would send invitations to a moving party a month in advance & tell people that we'll be eating a nice lunch and that there will be lots of friends there.

2) I would ask enough people to help so that I could count on 20 people being there for five hours, with 30 people showing up at the peak (probably lunch).

3) I would start at 9 am, have deep dish pizza ready at 12:30 pm, and expect to finish by 2 pm.

4) I would use the fire brigade method, and I would make sure people put each thing in its true home on move-in (e.g., dishes are put away into the kitchen cabinets).

All these things are more important than being thoroughly packed ahead of time, though advance packing helps. If you're well-packed, but skimp on the staffing, your move will take a long time. If you're not very organized in advance as far as packing boxes, but you assure me of a nice lunch, and lots of people will be there that I know and love, I wouldn't want to miss it; there will be enough people to handle the loose ends.

jfr 15 Nov 2015