New cleaning products and tools constantly are launched with tantalizing claims about efficiency and results. But how do you choose the best fit for your cleaning operations? Housekeeping managers and facilities directors can learn a lesson from the organized efforts prevalent in the health-care sector.

Most hospitals partner with external purchasing organizations that specialize in hospital supplies, including maintenance items. These groups do the testing legwork, approving vendors and distributors, which saves the hospital time in appraising products and provides a price break through bulk purchasing.

But just because they belong to these groups doesn’t mean they don’t do their own homework. Some hospitals remain highly proactive when it comes to purchasing decisions, and seek solutions beyond their providers’ recommendations. Internal purchasing committees made up of individuals from various departments, from hazardous materials to environmental services to nursing, ensure that users are not cut out of the product and machinery selection process. Such hands-on involvement can enhance the quality of operations, encourage teamwork, and promote relations between manager and employee.

Weston Thiss, CHESP, is director of environmental services at 393-bed Bon Secours St. Mary’s Hospital in Richmond, Va. and current president of the American Society of Hospital Environmental Services (ASHES). Bon Secours is in its sixth year with Premiere Purchasing Group, a buying group of vendors and distributors for 1,500 hospitals.

“It’s like a giant co-op,” Thiss explains. “They cut the best deals with vendors, send back recommendations. And if you get business with them you will get some money back, based on your percentage of compliance. It gives me more time to concentrate on the work of keeping the hospital clean.”

But some hospitals only are 80 to 90 percent compliant. Each facility decides what level they want to work at within the network’s guidelines.

“You can get everything you want — like Alice’s restaurant,” he says. “Their catalog is 5,000 pages.”

Thiss’ staff does test new products, but only if they come from approved vendors. Right now Bon Secours is trying wipes as a replacement option for washcloths.

Convenient and economical, yes, but there is a downside. Sometimes, Thiss feels he’s not looking at as many new products as he should.

“I have been given a list of preferred vendors, so unless there is a product or service that is covered, my hands are pretty much tied,” he admits.

Jerald Stewart, Jr., director of facilities management at 205-bed Wyoming Medical Center in Casper, is in charge of all facility services, including housekeeping and environmental services.

Wyoming Medical Center is partnered with a group called VHA/Novation – a member-owned, member-driven health care cooperative.

“They check out the vendor,” states Stewart, “It’s kind of the Good Housekeeping seal. No one can buy their way in. We get a booklet every two weeks, and if they’re on that list, our purchasing department knows we’re getting a good deal on whatever we’re buying. I don’t have to search and compare.”

To prove how good of a deal this process can be, Novation’s homepage states that, in 2001, members received a 59-to-1 return on their membership dues.

Tim Hupp, Director of Materials Management at Wyoming Medical Center says 80 percent of their cleaning supplies come from contracts with Novation. For the other 20 percent he has a panel of housekeeping end users and team leaders who qualify items. Usually this is because what is available through the contracts doesn’t perform as well as necessary or there isn’t anything available so they have to search elsewhere.

“Our feet are not held to the fire to use them, it just gives us the flexibility and benefits,” he explains.

Hupp is obligated to tell Novation if a product isn’t working out, he adds.

He says knowing what contracts the hospital has in force is an easy, common-sense approach that’s yielded big results.

“Every item ordered is reviewed by my buyers in the hospital to see if it’s on contract, and we can pull up any contract (online) at each buyer’s desk. It helps me with standardization, cost, and – through our vendors – education for the housekeeping staff, vendor conflict resolution and rebate dollars back for using vendors of their choice.”

Terri Nelson is the director of value analysis in the materials- management department at 1,550 bed Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. Nelson heads up a Supply and Service Value Analysis Committee. Even though Mayo Clinic also is a member of the VHA/Novation Network, they choose to take a more proactive stance in the matter, and are exercising their option to explore and find the best fits for their facilities, using Novation as the jumping-off point.

“Novation does the research and chooses the best manufacturer,” she explains. “Then we work with the manufacturer directly to get more specific research, and information about the product line. We get samples and evaluate them for outcome, quality and value. We touch and feel the product, and have our people use it, always asking: ‘Will it fit into our environment?’”

Annually, Nelson and the materials management chair establish a master plan for the year, and then conduct monthly meetings. Evaluation forms ensure the process is simple yet meaningful for participants.

“We generate an outcome-based evaluation criteria form developed specifically for each group of product that asks: ‘What do we want this to achieve?’ We hold users accountable for outcomes they want. We keep asking: ‘Why is it the best?’ We want to get preference out of our equation, and make it as objective as possible.”

Project sponsors who belong to the committee facilitate input from users and present the results to the committee, which is made up of just about every group and department imaginable at the hospital. If quality, performance and numbers are all positive, a consensus moves the product to the “approved for purchase” list.

But that’s not the end of the cycle. Educated predictions of improved savings or enhanced value are still guesses. Things such as the need for more training can result in less than stellar performances. A six-month evaluation using quality and financial data measures success. If results indicate something is off, Nelson investigates further.

Housekeeping staffs have bought into the process and are proposing new studies.

“We feel our group is successful because we go to the individual users,” states Nelson. “That’s made our product conversions much more successful – they’ve used it, and know the pros and cons.”

Lori Veit is a business writer who owns Veit Communications, LLC in Madison, Wis.