Cleaning & Maintenance Management Online
December 2012 Contractor Success

Saving Lives — One Clean Surface At A Time

Adopting a checklist mentality and stressing the importance of process improvement makes for cleaner, healthier spaces.

December 4, 2012

As a society, we celebrate the hard work and medical expertise of doctors, nurses and healthcare specialists, and we venerate the world-class hospitals and medical facilities that deliver that care.

Rightly so: These men and women save lives every day.

What we often overlook, however, is that there are others working in the same facilities who save lives — thousands of lives — every year.

Image Courtesy of Diversey Inc.I’m not talking about emergency room surgeons or neonatal nurses, but custodial and facilities management professionals: Unsung heroes who clean restrooms, disinfect equipment and keep infrastructure clean, safe and sanitary.

And, it’s not just in healthcare facilities — people in schools, office buildings and manufacturing facilities all benefit from a properly maintained workspace.

In this field, there are always opportunities to get better.

Just think about it: If our industry can create better processes and engage our teams to make a facility just five percent cleaner, then we can prevent thousands of infections each year and avoid preventable deaths.

An article in the New York Times last year pointed out that healthcare-associated infections (HAIs) have a staggering price tag, costing the American healthcare system between $30 and $40 billion annually.

Moreover, the cost in human suffering and human lives is incalculable.

While the numbers are sobering, it is exciting to think about the progress that can be made with a focus on effective and efficient process improvement.

Promoting Continual Improvement

A fascinating book entitled The Checklist Manifesto offers up some exciting ideas about a very practical and achievable way to make that progress.

The author, Atul Gawande — a doctor himself — explores the power and potential of a very simple and “old school” tool: The checklist.

The basic premise is that a simple checklist can be an incredibly important professional asset, reducing errors and improving performance across a range of industries and applications.

As the book points out, while highly skilled professionals in some complex professions already routinely use checklists to great effect, there are a number of industries where this simple-but-effective strategy is missing.

It would seem that there are valuable opportunities here to make big strides in efficiency and productivity by conscientiously applying a checklist-based approach.

With respect to the cleanliness and sanitation of hospitals and medical facilities, greater efficiency and productivity translates to cleaner, safer environments and fewer avoidable infections.

Educational facilities are another example of the kinds of places where a more rigorous and systematic approach to process improvement and refinement can have a dramatic impact on health outcomes.

Kids are germ incubators, and their habits of touching their mouths, faces and other body parts makes sanitation even more important.

This is particularly troubling with elementary-aged children, who are more vulnerable and whose illnesses tend to have an outsized impact on schools and families.

More and more kids are ending up in hospitals because of staph infections from materials and spaces such as wrestling mats and school locker rooms.

This is where checklists and improved processes can make an enormous difference.

The big question, of course, is how: How do we, as an industry, translate and apply a checklist mentality to new and different professional arenas?

What are the procedural priorities and practical implications of a back-to-basics checklist-style approach to our work?

The Power Of Creating A Checklist

Reducing errors and minimizing avoidable mistakes are obvious benefits of a checklist-based approach, but the value goes far beyond procedural rigor.

Working through the process of designing a checklist in the first place can help to dig deeper and take a more systematic approach to balancing risk factors and conducting cost-benefit analyses.

Given the time, money and lives that can be saved, that seems well worth checking a few boxes.Checklist Pencil Red

That said, simply having a process is not good enough; the goal is to create procedures that are clear for every employee to execute and generate a consistently high-quality end result.

Consequently, setting clear and consistent standards — even for seemingly mundane tasks — is essential.

A checklist can help to facilitate and formalize that process, and do so in ways that deliver maximum efficacy and efficiency.

Understand that, no matter how well-established your processes and procedures may be, there is always room for improvement.

The motivation to upgrade and refine processes and identify new efficiencies should be especially clear in healthcare and educational environments, where lives and health are at stake each day and seemingly mundane details can have lasting consequences.

The automotive industry is another good example of how a similar mentality of continuous improvement can pay long-term dividends.

The automotive supply chain has embraced procedural rigor and checklist-style processes, subsequently developing a system that is remarkably efficient from beginning to end.

In the case of carmakers, this approach is a necessity — the professional ecosystem is so closely interconnected that any error in the production process causes global disruption.

There is no reason why adopting an approach that leads to high degree of consistency and continuity would be any less valuable in other professional environments.

Getting The Team Onboard

One of the most underappreciated aspects of checklist-based process improvement is the importance of buy-in.

Even the most elegant and effective processes only work if employees utilize them correctly and consistently, and facilities management decision makers need to be proactive and persuasive in explaining why these steps are important; a checklist is a value, not a burden.

Praise HandshakeEmpower your team with the knowledge that they’re making a difference and work to educate and inform about them about the importance of the checklist and each process.

Ultimately, everyone in a company is responsible for its success, and the more employees know about the impact of their actions, the smarter and more diligent they will be in applying new ideas.

Details matter: In environments where cleanliness is paramount and health and safety are at risk, details can save lives.

Like a checklist, improvements happen one step at a time.

Whether it’s an upgraded process or better training for those who are implementing and following those processes, sweating the small stuff is how progress is made.

And, in the final analysis, paying attention to the details is what makes the difference between mediocrity and above-average performance; details are the difference between good and great.

As service professionals in what is, at its core, a service-based business, rigorous and passionate attention to detail is at the very heart of what we do.