Ten years ago, the custodial department at the University of Texas (UT) at Austin was in need of some changes. After operating the same way for many years using the same products and processes, custodial employees resolved that it was time for the department to try something new.

There were no written standards or procedures, and really no way of tracking labor and product costs, quality control or productivity levels because that data wasn’t being collected and evaluated. “It was a home-grown program that had a lot of inefficiencies about it,” says Jim Alty, former associate director of support services, UT Austin. “It was just the way they did things for the last 50 years.”

In 1995, senior custodial supervisors attended Managemen’s Janitor University — a program of classes and hands-on training for improving cleaning operations — to learn ways they could improve UT Austin’s custodial department.

The supervisors took ideas from the Operating System (OS1) course, a custodial operations management program, and tried them out at the university. But the workers weren’t necessarily prepared for what was to come.

“They bought a few backpack vacuums and implemented some pieces of what they had learned at Janitor University, including the process of team cleaning … in a haphazard manner,” Alty says. The supervisors were on the right track by wanting to try new ways of cleaning, but they missed a few steps in the planning and implementation process.

Custodians had been cleaning in “zones” up until 1995, with each of them responsible for one area. A switch to a team-cleaning approach made each worker responsible for one type of cleaning task in one or more areas. Also, backpack vacuums were a new technology to the custodians who were used to using upright machines. Many custodians did not take the idea of using new processes and products very well.

“Workers got all riled up because their culture was changing,” Alty says.

Lack of communication left workers and the rest of the university community with unanswered questions and confusion. Custodians who were opposed to trying the new processes and equipment told building occupants how they felt and got them on their side. Faculty and staff used to working alongside the same custodians for years started to feel just as strongly about the issue as the custodians did.

“We were using different methods and different chemicals and I worried ‘how’s it going to work?’ and ‘how am I going to get people to do it?’” says Nick Gamez, crew leader. He has been with the university for approximately 26 years.
Faculty, students and staff — and even custodians — lacked the facts about team cleaning, backpack vacuums and why the department was changing. Without a communication plan, the campus community got their information from custodians and hearsay.

“There was a revolt among students and staff, along with the custodial work force who said they were being treated like pack mules for having to wear backpack vacuums,” Alty says. “The image got created quickly and spread over campus that the team-cleaning process was harmful to workers.” Students and staff felt like they had to stick up for custodians who were being “mistreated.”

A second chance
Team cleaning and the concepts learned at Janitor University were only partially implemented on campus in an unstructured manner when the university hired Ernest Hunter, physical plant director, and Sharon Burleson, manager of custodial services.

“As new managers, we went about evaluating how things were working in all areas,” Hunter says. They took 8-12 months to fully evaluate physical plant operations. Instead of responding to issues one by one, Hunter says he wanted to address each department as a whole. “We started by benchmarking and looking at the systems and practices that are out there and we found a lack of standardized procedures and inconsistent quality — it depended on whoever was the supervisor for a particular building. There were inequities among workers, an improper worker-to-supervisor ratio, and there was no standard training program in place.”

Hunter and Burleson considered a number of different systems and programs for improving the custodial department. “We could’ve developed a system of procedures ourselves, or we could’ve adopted someone else’s,” he says. “But we knew that it was important that the same system get applied to the whole organization.” After much research, including a trip to Janitor University, Hunter concluded that OS1 was appropriate for the organization. “We realized that the program was not implemented like it was intended to be.”

The challenge: convince the university leaders and campus community that this system was going to work the second time around.

“I presented a comprehensive strategic plan to the administration — OS1 was just one element,” Hunter says. “I made the case that it was better for us to adopt a system already developed rather than create a system from scratch. I developed a written decision document that I presented to my boss who supported the plan and helped me as I presented the plan up the management chain.”

Careful planning
After Hunter was given the green light from university leaders to go ahead with the program, he and his staff put together a number of game plans. “Long before we planned to re-implement the program we put together a communication plan, including open forums with the university community and meetings with custodians. We needed to treat this as a major, significant change.”

An implementation team of custodians and a mix of people from various university departments worked on developing an implementation plan. The custodians were selected from a group of volunteers from custodial services. Those custodians became a pilot cleaning crew for UT Austin’s Communications Center — the pilot building. For 90 days, the pilot crew were the first group of workers to use the OS1 cleaning system in the first building on campus. But first the workers went through five weeks of training to learn about cleaning chemicals and equipment, the concept of team cleaning, and the tracking system. Hunter says he also worked on a plan for how the system would be exported to other buildings after the 90-day pilot.

“We learned from other people’s mistakes,” Hunter says. “They tried to do it all at once. Also, we properly included people to be a part of the program and buy into it. We didn’t export the program until people were comfortable with it.”

A trial run
When the pilot program officially kicked off in 2001, there still was resistance among custodians and the university community, but Hunter continued offering open forums on campus. There also was a detailed summary and general timeline available on the university’s Web site.

“It took us a while to get the message across,” Alty says. He actually started working for the university the first night of the pilot run. Before he was hired, Alty researched and studied OS1 and agreed that it “made sense.” Hunter says it was a must that Alty was a strong supporter of the system before he came on board as the associate director of support services.

“It was very rewarding when we started receiving compliments,” Alty says. “People saw that the building was consistently cleaner and custodians heard positive things from their peers using the system. One custodian said: This is so much better — I don’t know why I fought against it.” Custodians from other campus buildings began asking when their buildings were going to start using the new program.

But the campus community didn’t become fans of the changes overnight.

“I don’t want to paint too rosy of a picture,” Hunter says. “We didn’t all join hands and sing ‘Kumbaya.’ People resist change — not just custodians. If it wasn’t for our communication plan we wouldn’t have gotten support.”

After 90 days, the system was implemented in other buildings using the implementation team’s exportation plan.

Alty says they made a rule that buildings would not “change over” until the team had a meeting with the senior occupants of the buildings. “Those meetings held us in good stead down the road as the program migrated across campus.”

In addition to some resistance, he says there were some execution challenges. But he says he expects a few minor problems with any major project.

Alty says it took a lot of time to organize custodians and supervisors into teams. “We had to figure out who was going to do what, where, and so on.”

And the new program did not come without costs.

“We had to buy a lot of new equipment,” Alty says. “We bought backpack vacuums. We went from mops to autoscrubbers. It was not cheap. There were definitely costs involved.”

Then and now
Zone cleaning — and operating without written standards and procedures — resulted in varying levels of cleaning quality from area to area. For instance, one custodian’s zone, which could consist of one floor of a building, might be cleaner or not as clean compared to the other floors of the building. If one custodian cleans differently than another, there are going to be inconsistencies throughout the building and the campus.

“People were so accustomed to being responsible for ‘their’ floor and told to just ‘keep it clean,’” Hunter says. But he says there was no clear definition of what “clean” meant. “Now we have written instructions: use this product, this equipment. There’s no confusion about what to use or what to do.”

Burleson likens the similarities in quality from building to building to that of McDonald’s. “There’s consistency across campus,” she says. “Everything is done on a scheduled basis instead of hit or miss.”

Workers follow job cards and are only accountable for what is on their cards on a particular day. Burleson says there is less “rework,” meaning there are fewer instances when a custodian has to go back to do something they missed.

Crew leaders are happy with the team-cleaning system and detailed tracking system because they can keep tabs on custodians.

“I had to learn a lot of paperwork — I’m not used to doing that,” says Janie Rodriquez, crew leader. “It takes a lot of time, I have to take a lot of notes and pay close attention to what we’re doing, but it’s something good in the long run. I know where my people are at. Before, I didn’t know where in the building they were at. They were hiding.”

Rodriquez was opposed to OS1 before she started using the system. “I found out I had to move and I knew my areas with my eyes closed and I knew my clients,” she says. “I feel bad that I fought it in the beginning and I wouldn’t want to go back.”

Not-so-obvious improvements
In addition to improvements in cleanliness and organization, Burleson points out a couple of unexpected plusses that resulted from standardizing operations. “The biggest return on investment probably goes unnoticed,” Burleson says. The percentage of employee absences has decreased considerably.

She says the department used to have an average of 25 percent to 30 percent of the staff absent per night. “Now 85 to 90 percent of custodians come to work every night, which speaks volumes. Employees don’t dread the idea of coming to work.”

Secondly, the employee retention rate improved. “The first year I was here we had a 30 percent turnover rate, which is good for the cleaning industry, but it was a lot higher than the other departments on campus,” Burleson says. “Now our annual turnover is 5 percent.”

The university is only about half to three-quarters of the way finished with OS1 implementation. All buildings should be operating under the OS1 system by the goal date of December 2005.

Hunter credits the success of the transformations on campus to a number of people, university departments and support.

“We would be short changing our structuring and climate if we said it was just the OS1 program that improved custodial services,” Hunter says. “It really was a whole combination of things: OS1, reducing the supervisor-to-worker ratio by half, training support, personnel and administration support, department restructuring, taking a higher level of responsibility for quality, and inclusion of all entities interested in the custodial department.”

Training is Essential to Successful Operations

When Sharon Burleson took the job of manager of custodial services for the University of Texas (UT) at Austin in 1999, there was no standard training program for custodial workers. Most training consisted of custodians learning while working alongside veteran workers and asking questions along the way. “People had the ability to do things, but not in an organized way,” she says.

When Burleson and her colleagues implemented Managemen’s Operating System (OS1) program in 2001, they made sure to include a standardized training program. “We are unique because the university actually has space set aside for hands-on and classroom training,” she says. “The university allows us to use employee time to train. It costs money and production time, but it’s worth it because we constantly improve our operation.”

The curricula for the three-week training program:

    Week 1: New custodians learn policies and procedures that represent the values and mission of the university. They get information on insurance and benefits. The environmental health and safety department conducts basic safety training. At the end of the week, workers go through physical plant orientation.

    Week 2-3: Custodians learn about UT’s cleaning processes, equipment and products. “We focus specifically on the way we clean,” Burleson says. Long-standing employees new to OS1 go through this two-week session.

In the week following training, custodians demonstrate what they have learned. “Custodians conduct the OS1 operation in a campus building,” Burleson says. “Workers demonstrate their actions and understanding of the program.” Burleson says at the very end of this week, if the crew is going to be cleaning in a building new to OS1, the department spends a night in “boot camp” where OS1 is tried out in the building for the first time.

She says the training program has helped decrease employee turnover. “As we began to slow the revolving door of people leaving, our productivity went way up,” Burleson says. “If the employee knows what the boss’s expectations are — what to do, how well, how long, how often — they will feel at peace with the job.”

— Kelly Patterson