I recently conducted a training session for 23 people – not one of whom spoke English. Not surprisingly, they were struggling because visual messages in the workplace only could be deciphered by reading in English. Work would have been much easier and more satisfying if the workplace itself had been visually instructive — that is, if employees could get cues about what to do by the way the workplace itself is set up.

For instance, the other day I was in a combination office, warehouse, storage room and junk yard. The area couldn’t have been more disorganized if someone had detonated a hand grenade in the center of the room. The desk was piled with papers six inches deep. There were old mop sticks in buckets with dirty solutions. Bottles lay helter skelter and mostly unlabeled. It was difficult to understand how the work was organized or what the goal was. What cues did this setup send to employees?

The way we set up our workplace can actually teach people about our cleaning philosophy and process. Visual instructions instructions tech workers the moment they walk through the door about how they can clean and what to expect.

There are big advantages to creating this type of work environment. A visually instructive workplace tells you at a glance if workers are following instructions. Are they returning tools and supplies to specified areas, and has space been allocated correctly? It helps you spot unsafe conditions or low stock immediately.

Creating a look-and-learn environment is based on simple concepts. It requires consistency in three elements: color coding, signage and good old-fashioned organization.

Cleaning by colors
Color is a universal language. There are four focal colors that people are used to distinguishing: red, yellow, green and blue. (Most colorblind people even can distinguish between those hues.) Over the years, we’ve learned that sticking with those four basic colors is best. It’s harder for people to distinguish and remember shades or variations. In addition, European cleaning companies have created a standard color coding system that uses these four colors, so there already is a precedent for a universal cleaning color code system.

At ManageMen, we started color-coding training materials about 10 years ago. When we began teaching team cleaning. We originally color-coded chemicals to match the labels on bottles and the MSDS sheets. Later we expanded our color-coding system to include teaching materials such as books, handouts and videos. You can color-code cleaning tools easily by painting them or applying colored tape.

Some manufacturers are adapting new product roll-outs to include a color-coding system that corresponds with systems we’ve put in place. One of those is a new red restroom-cleaning kit. People know the red chemical, with the red (pink) MSDS, goes into a red bucket with a red mop. This makes it easier for them to assemble and use their materials.

Proper labeling
I’ve found very few cleaning operations that have a good signage program. Shelves are seldom labeled. The few times they have been labeled the names are inaccurate and written only in English. Storage areas are seldom labeled at all.

Signs should accurately name things, with color-coding, icons or both. They should indicate exactly what is supposed to be in a room or on a shelf. I once had a friend who had an outline of each machine painted on the floor to show where it was supposed to be stored. My friend, and his employees, could tell at a glance if tools had been stored properly and if anything was missing.

Finally, get organized. Let go of tools and chemicals you don’t use. It sounds simple but so many organizations and individuals struggle with this concept. In a school I visited recently I opened a closet door and found 40 different brooms in various stages of decay. We filled a garbage can full of useless, broken brooms and eliminated a significant fire hazard in the process.

We need to train janitors to take out their own trash. I have a rule that has worked wonderfully. If you haven’t used an item in 18 months, it’s garbage or giveaway. Don’t store it. Send it on its way.

Several years ago we did an interesting study regarding how a contractor could improve restroom cleaning. We began by videotaping cleaning workers as they went about their assigned tasks. What we found was astonishing. When the workers had more than one chemical or tool on their cart they used them indiscriminately. For instance, if they were carrying glass cleaner and were near the toilets, they used glass cleaner to clean toilets. It didn’t matter that disinfectant was on their carts.

This example raises some powerful questions for contractors. Why would you want to buy, stock and distribute products your employees will use incorrectly – which may result in accidents or improper cleaning that will have to be redone?

The answer: Simplify. Take out of your operation anything that is not being used or used incorrectly. In a visually instructive workplace these cleaning workers would have used a red disinfectant that was also a glass cleaner and a red micro fiber cloth. No guess work.

People like to work in a place that looks like it makes sense and is organized properly. A visually instructive workplace provides that environment while showing your employees exactly what you expect. Setting up a visually instructive workplace can enhance communications. It is a universal language.

John Walker is a regular Contracting Profits columnist. He is a veteran building service contractor; owner of ManageMen consulting services, Salt Lake City; and founder of Janitor University, a hands-on cleaning management training program.