As leaders of a diverse workforce performing critically important cleaning and maintenance functions throughout large-scale facilities, how can we tap into the creativity and experience of our front-line cleaning workers? How do we engage our associates in a meaningful and systematic process that encourages their idea development to improve their work, streamline processes, work smarter (not harder), become more cost-effective and provide quality customer service — all the while placing safety and respectful relationships first? 

Before answering such questions, first I would like to emphasize how important it is for leaders to be good listeners and approachable directors. It’s important to me to make every effort to find out how my staff is feeling about their work and what challenges are frustrating them. I do this by asking questions and gauging how they respond. Following these discussions, I consistently strive to come up with solutions to address their frustrations.

I would imagine that you have these same desires and the skills to support your staff. However, such communication skills may be a bit of a struggle initially, as many of us may have honed other “leadership” skills and characteristics, which allowed us to excel in our respective work environments. 

For example, we have been encouraged to exercise our authority by being knowledgeable, decisive, assertive and exhibiting a take-charge attitude. We know how to get things done. Sound familiar? This is why stopping to simply listen can be a bit of an adjustment for many managers.

But adjustments aside, open communication between managers and their staff is essential to engaging workers and improving processes. 

The employee engagement surveys that we recently conducted at the University of Washington, Seattle, report that more than half of employee ratings reflect a higher level of satisfaction than was the case in 2011. The key element of disparity, however, is that while 85 percent are willing to make things better, only 57 percent would say that their coworkers feel the same way.

So how do we bridge the gap between go-getting management and front-line cleaning associates that may be more accustomed to a type of work culture where there is no interaction with superiors or collaboration with co-workers? Rather, they may be more familiar with working hard and following instructions independently. 

I love my staff; they are absolutely the best people to work with and they are extremely dedicated. But, are they all truly engaged in continuous improvement? Or do they think, “why make a suggestion because nothing will come of it anyway?” 

Well, I’m excited to share our answer to involving our teams in continuous improvement.

At the University of Washington, we are developing plans to involve all staff by creating a culture of engagement. It is referred to as “Lean,” a management tool used throughout various industries, especially production and manufacturing. However, based on our early days of involvement, I do see the process’ value in the cleaning industry.  

It certainly requires a change in thinking and how you do business, but the payoffs can be tremendous. Benefits to Lean include: Engaged and empowered cleaning workers; a dynamic system for generating ideas from everyone; visual methods used to track progress toward achieving team goals; and a way to align the front-line staff with the goals of the organization. As result, our teams are providing themselves a more meaningful and rewarding work environment.

With guidance from Mike Martyn, a consultant and expert in helping departments transition to effective continuous improvement, we are also embedding four key systems into our culture while performing our daily work:
•    Strategy deployment — Aligning the organizational goals and providing meaningful metrics from bottom to top
•    Visual management — Using visual tools to track progress, establish goals and create ideas
•    Daily kaizen — A team huddle where a brief conversation takes place amongst all members regarding pertinent issues about that day’s work
•    Standard leader follow-up — A system to escalate issues up to leadership for appropriate follow-up and a way for leaders to provide support and guidance

Thus far, we have three natural workgroups that embarked on the process. These groups develop metrics and goals, track their progress and work together to achieve them. Each workgroup has the opportunity to discuss issues right away before situations have the chance to get out of control. And most importantly, the huddles offer a safe and nonjudgmental environment to share ideas and solve problems. There is no finger-pointing or blaming, as nothing is personal in Lean. It’s all about the team dynamic and how to develop the most efficient solutions to a problem. 

For my department, the result has been improved teamwork, stronger professional relationships, visual identification of concerns, and the creation of a system to generate and implement ideas that improve the work and help achieve departmental goals and objectives. 

It’s important to keep in mind that it does take training and support for both the workgroups and the leaders to support, coach, and develop teams and team members in their implementation of Lean tools and work practices. But, as the saying goes: Anything worth doing takes time.

Gene Woodard is Director of Building Services at the University of Washington in Seattle. Building Services includes Custodial Services and Recycling & Solid Waste. His team of over 300 staff is responsible for maintaining approximately 175 buildings and over 11 million square feet. Woodard is a Registered Executive Housekeeper and member of the International Executive Housekeeping Association (IEHA), for which is he served as president from 2000-2002. He currently sits on the Advisory Board for Facility Cleaning Decisions magazine and the Healthy Facilities Institute (HFI), and is also a member of ISSA and APPA.