Facility management professionals and commercial/institutional building owners, for years now, have flirted with and embraced a number of so-called process-improvement theories and techniques. But the smartest building operators have known for quite a while that an efficiently run facility can contribute in many ways to making the business organization it supports more competitive and more profitable.

Buzz terms such as total quality management, total quality service, benchmarking, value engineering, life-cycle costing and best-practice theory were borne out of a need to trim expenses and payroll, yet still compete in the global marketplace.

Thus, today’s facility professional is a number-crunching master — looking for ways to build something faster and cheaper, cut building energy costs, relocate people faster and more economically and provide a more productive environment in which occupants can work. Spreadsheets and tracking systems abound, but in the computer-modeling frenzy aimed at improving all aspects of facility management, cleaning historically has been overlooked.

However, cleaning expectations are changing from the top down. Public perception, occupant perception, health and environmental issues now make cleaning a “strategy” as opposed to a “cost of doing business.” So, building owners and managers who never gave cleaning much thought now are looking at the best ways to perform its tasks, how to evaluate its products and how to establish benchmarks.

Customers are spending the time and money to analyze, measure, probe and quantify cleaning systems in ways never before considered. They are trying to find the true definition of “clean” and the best way to achieve it.

“People used to say the best way to clean is to outsource because it’s cheaper,” says John Walker, industry consultant and founder of ManageMen, Salt Lake City.

Facility owners no longer can afford to assume outsourcing’s the best way to go, given the new cleaning standards, Walker says. Instead, what works best for a given facility is being determined in a number of creative and unprecedented management experiments.

“Now, you’re seeing people take the time to test techniques, tools and staff settings — to document what works best in their facilities,” he adds.

And whatever the results, it’s guaranteed contractors will have to answer to new customer demands.

“What’s happening is a lot of large companies have decided the only way to understand what really is possible is to do it themselves,” says Johnny Terrell, industry consultant with IAT Service Company, Jonesboro, Ark. “Once they’re done, they’ll use that information to drive their service providers to follow suit.”

The driving force
Why the increased interest in better cleaning techniques from a wide array of building operators — large manufacturing firms, ivy-league universities and entire city school districts? These organizations suspect that cleaning can positively impact the bottom line. In fact, cleaning is one of the largest, if not the largest piece of a facilities management budget in any type of facility, says Mark Katz, an industry consultant, based in Baltimore, who helped the Baltimore School District kick off a very comprehensive cleaning study currently underway.

“My experience in the commercial environment is that you can get short-term financial gains even while doing a pilot study,” he says. “For public institutions that have more restricted procurement processes, the savings of cleaning operations may be more long-term, but just as significant, which is what many organizations need right now.”

Katz also is working with such clients as Philip Morris, which wants to make sure its cleaning is at the same level of quality as its core services.

“Image is very important to these customers and if cleaning affects that image, they are willing to look into it,” says Katz.

Quality-minded companies and institutions also have decided that to be the best in their profession, they can’t overlook any aspect of operations. And they aren’t taking anything, even cleaning, for granted. Realistically, these companies are spending their money on core competency studies first, but cleaning is moving up fast on their list.

Many of these organizations have strict quality assurance programs in place, such as ISO 9001 certification — standards set by the International Standards Organization for best practices in a given industry. Ten years ago, ISO certification was a much-sought-after goal, but the cost to comply with its stringent standards was too high for most organizations, says Katz.

Now, however, the cost to analyze and upgrade operations is lower and changes in the ISO compliance program has made it more accessible to companies. A resulting resurgence of interest in such quality management programs has opened the door for the process studies now underway in the cleaning industry.

Companies interested in such processes also have decided that general industry information available through associations and other peer groups has limited potential to help improve quality. To reinvent the definition of “clean,” organizations need their own numbers.

“While our core mission clearly isn’t cleaning, it contributes greatly to providing excellence in our core mission of educating,” says Kemel Dawkins, associate vice president for facilities at Yale University, New Haven, Conn. “Therefore, we’re interested in making quantum leaps in performance and performance quality.”

As part of a larger facilities-management move toward defining best practices at Yale, Dawkins’ staff has measured and tracked its cleaning services for the last three to four years. It has helped him pinpoint areas that need greater attention, as well as define what to look for during the next phase of his ongoing improvement strategy. He plans to extensively review best practices at other facilities — educational, health care and manufacturing organizations — and test some of their techniques in his own operations. Dawkins’ goal is to institute new methods, where applicable, within the next year.

Real, comparable data
While corporations’ and institutions’ investment in cleaning studies are far from widespread, individual cases have piqued the interest of industry insiders because they say current initiatives could deliver the information contractors and their customers have been lacking. This data can translate to other organizations for valid benchmarking. In the past, studies have resulted in more anecdotal evidence that wasn’t enough to prompt other organizations to change cleaning methodologies. Also, data hasn’t translated from one facility to another for a true comparison.

The scope of past studies also has been more narrow. They were limited to studying topics such as routine cleaning’s ability to reduce health risks in a facility, or the effects of an equipment change such as using backpack vacuums rather than uprights. Even when companies have instituted larger change, such as a move to team cleaning, they still may not have documented whole processes from tool selection to communications plans to review procedures, and the measured effects such a change has on all areas of cleaning.

For instance, in a study underway at the Baltimore School District, people are measuring as much as they possibly can, rather than just implementing processes and then eyeballing the results, says Terrell.

“If you can measure something, you will learn from it,” he adds. “And if you equally measure a variety of options in one setting, then you can compare different techniques within the same environment — something many companies previously haven’t been able to do.”

The Baltimore study established a year-long project to document the value and impact of alternative cleaning strategies available to the school system. Vince Elliott, of Elliott Affiliates, Baltimore, is establishing a variety of project study groups within the Baltimore School District to test the performance of in-house cleaning systems versus contracted systems.

He’s allowing contractors to bring their own best methods of cleaning into the study, in selected pilot schools, while other schools with comparable characteristics will be cleaned by in-house staff. The contract group will further be studied to assess the performance of full-time versus part-time cleaning strategies. Further breaking down the in-house staff, some will continue to clean as Baltimore always has, while others have been trained in Walker’s OS1 system and will use its specified tools.

While unusual for a school system to conduct such a comprehensive study, the school board hopes this approach will offer a more comprehensive idea of which strategy creates the most efficient and effective cleaning operation.

The ultimate in shared experience
At Boeing Co.’s Puget Sound, Wash., facilities, a recently completed pilot study is an example of how process improvement initiatives in the cleaning industry are reaching a new level of sophistication.

Managers in the aerospace giant’s shared services division looked for operations systems already proving successful for other companies or institutions. They chose Walker’s OS1 system and implemented it in a pilot program in their Puget Sound facilities, encompassing nearly 17 million cleanable square feet.

At the same time, Boeing was engaged in a company-wide program to develop best practices in every aspect of its operations. George Tidd is one employee charged with reviewing Boeing processes to make sure they meet the company’s version of ISO 9001 certification standards — the Boeing Quality Management System (BQMS). Tidd reviewed the entirely revamped cleaning process and reported that it not only met internal audit requirements for BQMS quality, but that it also would stand up to an outside audit based on even more stringent standards.

By meeting this universal standard for quality practices in a given service area, Boeing’s results can be translated into a universal language that other operations then can apply in their own organizations.

But the managers of the pilot program aren’t stopping there. They recently invited scores of cleaning industry professionals who use the same OS1 process they implemented to attend a “user conference” where the main mission was to compare notes and attempt to continue improvement.

“It’s the first time I’ve seen users in this industry come together from across the country to network with people they haven’t met, without the prompting or guidance of an association, consultant or supplier,” says Walker.

He was invited to attend as an observer, but the representatives of facilities lead the discussions. The participants considered the chance to brainstorm and share concrete data such a success that they already have set another gathering for 2003. This year’s attendees also intend to bring one additional peer each, next time, to expand discussions to even more operations and their cleaning data.

Walker considers this increased enthusiasm for networking and sharing data the most important offshoot of the new cleaning best practices focus he’s seeing in major institutions across the country. He expects this approach to interest more contractors and in-house professionals as study results and success stories become available for benchmarking.

“What these people [conducting the studies] are doing is redefining how people benchmark cleaning,” he explains. “In the past, if someone tried something new and it worked you’d look at it and assume it couldn’t apply to your operations. But added sophistication has lead to measurable results that can be compared from office buildings to classrooms to clinics.”

And once cleaning managers get their hands on outside information, they can test new processes in their own facilities, make adjustments and put those results back out there for others to improve upon, he adds. The result could be a cycle of improvement that takes the entire cleaning industry to a new level. And, as more customers engage in these cleaning studies, others will expect similar levels of quality from their service providers.