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What's in your plan?

September 19, 2010
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Congratulations! You have accepted that exciting new position or promotion as the in-house manager or director of custodial services.

The facilities director has shared a vision of the expectations for the custodial department, using terms such as accountability, consistency and proactive approach.

While it has been made very clear what is expected of you, the director has left the “how to” part completely blank.

Now what?

There is no universal formula that can be applied to an in-house custodial operation that will lead the department to becoming a model of efficiency.

However, there are some critical steps that must be taken in order to start moving toward greater efficiency.

Determine your current position
A comprehensive analysis of the custodial operation must be conducted in order to determine the current position of the department.

Without an accurate assessment of how the operation is performing, there is no way to determine what changes can be made to improve the operation.

All aspects of the operation should be considered and evaluated.

While this may sound like an insurmountable task, a little organization goes a long way.

One option would be dividing the assessment into three manageable areas: Labor, materials and services.

Labor is the largest expense associated with any in-house custodial operation. With attention to details, a clear picture of the effectiveness of your staffing will emerge.

Review the overall organization of the custodial operation and evaluate the system for appropriateness to the environment by asking yourself:

  • Are the custodians deployed in zone assignments, a team configuration, or a combination?
  • How much area does each custodian have to clean and how often?
  • How many subordinates does each supervisor have?
  • What level of cleanliness is currently being achieved?

Simply looking at the cleanable square footage per full-time employee (FTE) does not give a clear picture of the overall effectiveness of the staffing deployment.

Managers must look at the space assigned to each custodian keeping in mind the importance of expected levels of cleanliness, area type, and frequencies.

Evaluating the effectiveness of an operations materials matrix is much more objective than measuring staffing efficiency.

The biggest contributing factor in excessive materials cost is the lack of standardization and of a well-understood materials policy.

Often, custodial departments have such a wide array of products in use that there is no real efficient utilization of resources. Many products are duplicated to the point of having three or four neutral cleaners or disinfectants in a single custodial closet.

The answer is standardization, standardization and more standardization.

After a thorough review of product lines available, their appropriateness and effectiveness, a single product line must be decided upon. All other products can then be discontinued and, as the remaining stock is consumed, replaced with new products.

Standardization of product lines enables supervisors to streamline training on proper dilution and use, track performance and usage more effectively, and reduce excessive inventory.

This results in increased efficiency and reduced cost.

Outsourced services are frequently a part of in-house custodial operations. These outsourced services are often in the form of window cleaning, dust mop service, and entry mat rentals.

Services such as these are generally arranged through a service agreement that outlines delivery frequency and location.

The performance of such services often becomes automatic and slips off the custodial manager’s radar screen.

Evaluate your outsourced services to gain an understanding of how efficient they are.

Ask yourself: “Can those services be internalized?” or “Can the service schedule be altered in a way that would create savings or improve service to the department?”

For example, consider a custodial operation that outsources dust mop service via a bi-weekly rental agreement.

The custodian in the field needs to have enough dust mops for two weeks. During the second week, you are paying to rent dirty mops waiting to be laundered.

If the service delivered mops weekly rather than bi-weekly, the number of rental mops and the cost would be cut almost in half.

Likewise, consider internalizing as many services as possible. This can be tricky, especially in unionized environments, but many contracted services can be performed in-house at a reduced cost.

Sounds like a plan
Now that you have a clear understanding of the current state of your custodial operation, it’s time to determine where to go next.

As I stated before, a little planning will take you a long way. So, it only stands to reason that a lot of planning will take you all the way.

There are three types of plans that in-house facility directors should consider in progressive steps. Use the information you gathered in your analysis of your current operation to develop:

  • Short-term operational planning
  • Intermediate or tactical planning
  • Strategic (long-term) planning.

Operational planning
Operational planning determines how to accomplish specific tasks with the resources you have available now. This level of planning would be applied on a day-to-day or week-to-week basis.

Two examples of operational planning in custodial services are developing a standing procedure for covering assignments left open due to absences or, in addressing the dust mop scenario mentioned above, having all dirty mops brought to a central pick-up location Friday afternoon for service Monday morning.

Planning at this level is carried out by first-line supervisors or managers and is generally in response to the short-term ebb and flow of the operation. It might last several weeks, but usually no more than a few months.

Intermediate or tactical planning
Intermediate or tactical planning addresses the main issues identified by your analysis of the operation.

Intermediate planning is done by middle management and is more clearly aimed at supporting the organization’s long-range plans.

Tactical planning brings into focus more clearly defined, attainable and measurable objectives in relation to the vision and mission on a departmental level.

Tactical planning would address measures on a time horizon of six months to one year.

For example, an objective within a tactical plan may be to have standardization of custodial materials complete by the end of the current fiscal year.

That objective would fit the criteria of being defined, attainable and measurable.

In the context of custodial services in higher education, operational and tactical planning are the tools to implement when short-term adjustments are necessary and to begin building a platform for a long-term plan.

Strategic planning
Strategic planning is aimed at the long-range opportunities for improvement and overall success of the department.

Planning at this level should be a participatory process involving all levels of the custodial department.

Departmental strategic plans must be related to the organization’s strategic plans. Of paramount importance is a strategic plan that supports the broad goals and objectives of the organization as a whole.

Every organization must have a long-term plan in place. Within this plan, the organization’s vision is defined, followed by the organizational mission, which then leads to the development of broad goals and objectives.

From there, implementation strategies can be developed.

Hamilton College plans
Hamilton College Custodial Services, as an example, has successfully developed a three-year strategic plan (See Four clearly defined goals, sidebar.) to guide the department’s growth.

The Custodial Services Strategic Plan was developed using the strategic planning process described above. It had three primary drivers, the Hamilton College Strategic Plan, the Hamilton College Diversity Strategic Plan, and the REACH Initiative

The Hamilton College Strategic Plan
Within the Hamilton College Strategic Plan is a supporting statement: “Hamilton will provide the infrastructure necessary to implement the core strategies.”

This infrastructure includes facilities that are clean, sanitary and conducive to a comfortable and healthy living, learning and working environment.

With this in mind, Custodial Services established Goal A: “Develop and sustain a high level of customer satisfaction through service delivery.”

Additionally, Hamilton College’s Strategic Plan states: “A talented staff is also essential to carrying out Hamilton’s mission. Sustaining a work environment that is supportive of all employees remains a college priority.”

That led to Goal B: “Develop and implement a comprehensive and continuous training and development plan.”

The Hamilton College Diversity Strategic Plan
The Hamilton College Diversity Strategic Plan states: “Enhancing the diversity of the college workforce generally will enhance our educational mission while also making our community one in which everyone feels welcome and valued.”

Therefore, developing and fostering diversity within the custodial staff is embraced as objective B-4 of the Custodial Services Plan: “Develop and implement diversity focused recruiting, selection and hiring practice.”

Diversity within the custodial workforce brings a broad range of perspectives to the work environment that melds into an open and understanding organization able to serve the needs of the campus community.

The REACH Initiative
The Hamilton College Division of Administration and Finance REACH Initiative (Resources-Environment-Alignment-Community-Highest quality) proposes that a staff operates as a team, delivers the highest quality services to the college community, is innovative, and collaborates and continuously improves the college.

To incorporate this, the Custodial Services Strategic Plan includes Goal D: “Develop and sustain a high level of custodial staff job satisfaction,” which, in turn, fosters a “supportive, pleasant and respectful work environment that provides the flexibility to innovate and continually improve the quality of our services.”

Additionally, Goal C of the Custodial Services Strategic Plan states that we strive to: “Develop, implement and sustain an efficient resource allocation structure,” which is a goal of sound budgetary management.

The Hamilton College Custodial Services Strategic Plan clearly demonstrates how integral parts of the institution’s strategic plans are woven into divisional, departmental and unit-level plans.

Find the time
Very often, custodial departments become a blur of chaos and reactivity, struggling with absenteeism, high turnover and tight resources.

Day-to-day “firefighting” takes so much time that there is no effort directed at developing a long-term plan to end the chaos.

Custodial managers must set aside time out of their already busy schedules to define what the department strives to be, the goals the department needs to achieve, and what steps are necessary to accomplish those goals.

By developing a clear and guiding vision, an appropriate mission and an accepted set of core values, a solid and achievable strategic plan can be written.

Remember the importance of communicating not only the plan but the rationale behind it, including the desired outcome. Be willing to talk about the details with your staff.

Lastly, celebrate the achievement of milestones within the plan with the entire department.

Sharing achievements with the staff will not only reinforce the plan’s validity, but will also allow the staff to develop a sense of ownership in the plan.

Casey Wick is Assistant Director of Physical Plant, Custodial Services, at Hamilton College. Previously, he was Maintenance Group Leader and Facilities Management Intern/Recycling Coordinator at Penn State Hazleton. He is a member of the Association of Higher Education Facilities Officers and is a Registered Executive Housekeeper with the International Executive Housekeeping Association. He can be reached at

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