When cleaning executives get together to talk shop, they never complain about having too much time and too much money. Yet many of these same managers consistently estimate cleaning operations waste between 25 percent to 60 percent of their total budgets through various forms of cleaning inefficiencies.

So, while most managers in housekeeping agree waste is an industry-wide problem, many struggle when trying to improve their situations. Often the problem is that there are too many barriers to change, making any attempts to increase productivity a daunting task. For some, the problem is organizational resistance — and not just from front-line employees.

Some executives view going-more-with-less as a bad career move. They believe that productivity could result in smaller departments, fewer employees, layoffs or reduced budgets. But, in most cases, housekeeping executives can gain more money, employees and clout for their operations with more productive operations.

Other times, the problem to overcome is not knowing where to begin or how to express what needs to change.

Regardless of what’s currently standing in the way of change, any housekeeping department that isn’t cleaning 5 percent to 10 percent better each year, is missing the boat. That productivity improvement can take place merely by tightening up current practices and flowing the savings to the bottom line — without implementing new programs or additional spending. And it all can happen without taking any hit in staff size, or budget reductions, which can be the biggest benefit of all.

Measuring productivity
The way cleaning operations track and measure productivity often is the biggest barrier to achieving improvement. Many cleaning managers have a vague and incomplete view of what to realistically expect from their staff, so there is no way to know what areas are unproductive and certainly no way to measure the full impact of any changes.

To begin with, determine the exact amount of square feet the cleaning staff is working with. Of that total, how much is actually cleanable? Exactly what does it take in terms of labor, chemicals and equipment to clean that area? What steps do workers take to clean that area and how long does each of those tasks take to complete?

Managers need an accurate benchmark before they can make changes or comparisons. “Guesstimates” aren’t good enough.

One way to determine these benchmarks is to evaluate the different areas of a cleaning operation. Once managers know what goes into a task, how much time it should take and what the results should be, they can determine a range of areas where improvement should occur. Some employees may need more training while some tasks might warrant altering or elimination.

Housekeeping executives also should look to the industry for benchmarks. The International Sanitary Supply Association’s 358 Cleaning Times, is a publication that offers field-tested times for completing basic cleaning tasks. The Association for Higher Education Facility Officers, offers a Custodial Operations Self-Analysis program, in conjunction with the organization’s Custodial Staffing Guidelines for Educational Facilities publication, to help housekeeping executives better understand cost issues and staffing. While geared toward schools, the information can be useful in other cleaning operations.

Housekeeping executives also can look to peers in similar institutions or contract cleaners to help develop standards.

Change management
A common stumbling block for many cleaning executives is that, once they’ve determined what needs improvement, they simply do not understand how to work with staff to make any changes.

Many times managers attempt to test a new, potentially time-saving tool or technique in their operations, but when employees resist, the managers give up. Managers either dismiss something because it takes too much effort to institute, or simply decide their staff is too stubborn to learn anything new.

Instead, cleaning executives need to explain the benefits of change in terms employees understand. Managers also need to distinguish between “different” and “wrong” when communicating changes to their staff. Many employees tend to view new ideas as wrong, unless proven otherwise, and subtleties such as this can make or break new procedures.

For instance, a new tool could help an employee work faster, possibly with less fatigue, and with better quality results. But the employee’s priority is to get through that shift, and a new tool means taking time to learn and adapt. Meanwhile, failure to use this new tool properly can add even more effort and time, making the change counterproductive.

A manager sensitive to the nuances of change knows it is essential to explain how this new method, though time-consuming at first, would eventually save the employee more time and create less fatigue. Taking the time to provide a thorough explanation, and to listen to employee feedback, can produce favorable results much faster.

Follow-up also is a must. If managers don’t ensure that workers are using new tools or methods properly, they could be erecting more barriers to change.

Often, employees create their own version of a task, mixing and matching what they prefer, or they revert back to the old way. Without constant tracking and retraining, managers might assume bad results mean the new method isn’t working or employees aren’t capable of adapting. In actual fact, the change they’ve implemented may not be in practice at all. This leads to false data that can skew benchmarking, making it harder to track a department’s inefficiencies.

Capturing the savings
Once housekeeping executives have successfully completed a change, the next hurdle is using that saved time, labor or money to continue to improve operations and, ultimately to grow the top line.

Managers should make a list of all the tasks they would like to do but can’t due to time or budget restraints. Staff will have more time to address things on the “to-do” list if operational changes help them become more productive. Then a housekeeping department can grow with an existing budget and manpower. Here’s proof:

Jim Kadlec is the facilities department manager at Sandia National Laboratories, primarily a Department of Energy nuclear weapons laboratory in Albuquerque, N.M. Kadlec is responsible for cleaning more than 2 million square feet of space spread over 1,200 acres in 300 buildings.

Before he took over the job, customer complaints were increasing. Site managers were unhappy with the level of service. Costs also were too high.

When Kadlec examined the Sandia cleaning process he was astounded to learn there were 125 different cleaning chemicals being used. So he wanted to simplify and standardize procedures. “The name of the game is reducing the process variables,” says Kadlec.

He decided to use a pre-measured chemical system, hoping it would give him more control over cleaning processes. Kadlec figured he paid about $.12 per gallon using a portion control system compared with roughly $.09 a gallon for bulk chemicals. He was willing to pay slightly higher chemical costs if he could make up the savings in labor, and the change wouldn’t put undue stress on his employees.

Kadlec’s new system required each cleaning worker to take the number of chemical packages they would need for the entire shift when they checked in. Supervisors counted the empty packs at the end of each shift to make sure employees were making the correct amount of solution changes. Mid-shift inspections also helped ensure workers were performing tasks correctly.

Since Kadlec started the experiment a year ago, the change has been dramatic. What Sandia saves in labor more than makes up for the cost of the portion-controlled chemical.

“It saves us about 25 percent,” says Kadlec. “We may have been able to buy chemicals cheaper, but it cost us more because we didn’t have control of the process.”

What happened with the extra time and money savings? No employees lost their jobs. In fact, the same number of employees were able to tackle more cleaning projects without added strain and with more variety for workers, Kadlec says.

“We’ve increased our services. We clean telephones. We dust offices. We’re just giving a lot better service,” he says. The department is able to provide a better product with the same amount of money and manpower.

The response from Kadlec’s customers and superiors was immediate. “Customers loved it! Once we got the program in the building for a few weeks, and sometimes even a few days, the fan e-mail really started flying,” he recalls.

Besides the expected dollar savings, Sandia officials discovered another benefit. Kadlec estimates the chemical packs take up 96 percent less space than his former system. He reduced the number of cleaning chemicals he uses from 125 to just four for routine cleaning and 11 for project cleaning. In nearly every building, cleaning workers were able to remove about six large cabinets that previously stored cleaning chemicals. The resulting space has made the complex look better and, in some cases, improved safety by reducing the types of chemicals with which employees have to interact.

While Kadlec’s success may seem out of reach for some housekeeping executives, careful planning and proper execution can lead to the same savings in any organization. Managers just need to be patient, remain in touch with staff and work at a pace that will guarantee progress.

John Walker is owner of ManageMen consulting services, Salt Lake City, and founder of Janitor University, a hands-on cleaning management training program.