Cleaning & Maintenance Management Online

Work smarter, not harder

September 19, 2010

There have been numerous practical articles about productivity and cleaning, and I have enjoyed reading, analyzing and incorporating that information into seminars, training materials and problem-solving.

However, productivity (or the rate of work) is often a difficult concept for cleaners to fully appreciate or even care about when customers are demanding quality service (and often with reduced resources).

For 27 years, I have had the pleasure of working with cleaning professionals, and would like to share some of the “smart” ways to clean versus the “hard” ways.

One caveat: Technological enhancements have certainly benefited the professional cleaner, and will continue to do so.

However, the principles that I share are just as applicable to the newest technology as they are to older, more traditional ways of cleaning.

Many thanks to the custodians, janitors, housekeepers and stationary engineers who embrace their jobs with pride and dignity.

Clean water will serve you well
Clean water is an absolute must for any cleaning, whether the water is used in a small bucket or an autoscrubber.

Too often, custodians try to stretch the life of the water, whether they want to save a trip to the custodial closet utility sink, or whether it is nearing break time.

Regardless of the reason, if the water is not clean, then the cleaning concentrates will not mix properly, and/or soil will not emulsify properly.

Further, if the water is dirty, when the liquid evaporates from the surface, bacteria and soil will remain.

At a large school district in the San Francisco Bay area, I watched a custodian damp-mop a 5,000-square-foot cafeteria floor with a single bucket of water and neutral cleaner.

By the time she had completed this task, the floor at the far end of the room had a distinctly different color than at the beginning point.

You could not see the bottom of the bucket through the murky, sullied water.

Don’t be a glug-glugger
A few years ago, Bill Griffin and I were conducting a cleaning seminar at a university. We both asked which custodian was the best “glug-glugger” (a person who just pours the chemicals directly into a bucket and guesses how much concentrate has been dispensed).

Several volunteers demonstrated their mixing skills — we only asked for 2 ounces — and the closest anyone came was 8 ounces.

An improper mixing ratio has an immediate fiscal impact. In our example, using four times the chemical reduces the effectiveness of the cleaning product and may result in a premature visit from the vendor to replenish the product.

Further, too much or too little chemical results in harder work on the part of the custodian as soil may not loosen or too much residue remains on a surface.

At a minimum, custodians should use a measuring cup or 1-ounce pump or other reliable dispensing device.

Numerous vendors supply dependable proportioning systems with their chemical dispensing systems.

Have the right tools
My father never studied music, although he fantasized that he would one day perform at Carnegie Hall.

In his efforts to impress local neighbors, he built a unique structure that housed several instruments.

He took an old broom stick and removed the bottom portion. He attached a bicycle horn, tambourine, cow bell, whistle, triangle, and a wash board, and arranged them vertically on this stick.

He outfitted himself with a drum stick (not from a chicken) and a sewing thimble, and would entertain folks with his stationary music machine.

Although his dream was never fulfilled (he did play the instrument at several retirement homes where folks were hard of hearing), he illustrated a key concept of smart cleaning.

He had all his tools with him when he went to entertain.

This principle certainly applies to the professional cleaner.

The cleaning cart (or barrel on wheels with an apron) should have all the tools, chemicals, rags and other cleaning products so the custodian does not need to return once, twice or multiple times to retrieve something he/she forgot.

I once observed a custodian traipse nearly a half mile with his cleaning cart (most of it uphill, by the way), and when he arrived at his destination, realized he had forgotten his extension cord.

The return journey took 20 minutes, and though he let out an occasional profane utterance, no cleaning was accomplished during this replenishment trip.

Some custodians have a written checklist in the custodial office to remind them of the appropriate items that should be on the cart.

Other custodians “prepare” the cart at the end of the shift so it is ready for the next day, minus a couple of quick preparations.

“Inspect your work” is the final step in the cleaning process.

It should also be a habit before departing from the custodial closet with cleaning equipment and tools. (As an example, carrying a spare vacuum filter bag is an excellent habit to adopt.)

Don’t let it get dirty
I was conducting a cleaning audit for a school district in Concord, CA, and at one of the elementary schools, there was a birthday celebration in the staff lounge.

When I asked who the happy birthday person was, I was informed it was the day custodian.

As I toured the school, I found every classroom and restroom incredibly clean.

When I finally caught up with the birthday boy, I asked him why his school was so clean compared to others in his district.

Rather than take credit for his energy, loyalty, work ethic, etc., he shared with me his cleaning philosophy, “If it doesn’t get dirty, then I don’t have to clean it.”

He pointed out several examples of this point of view in action.

Every classroom had two 6-foot entrance mats — one immediately inside the doorway and one outside.

He explained that every morning he would wash the sidewalks to remove debris that students might otherwise track into the buildings and rooms.

In the staff lounge, even though it was his birthday celebration, he had set out plastic tablecloths over the tables and placed an extra trash bin in the room for the gift wrapping that would be tossed.

Preventing surfaces from becoming soiled results in less work for the custodian.

He also pointed out to me that each classroom placed its waste bins at the door, and students were reminded to place trash and litter in these receptacles as they left the room at the end of the day.

Maintenance matters
As a cleaning consultant, I am invited to school districts throughout the country.

Recently, I visited a district in Kentucky where the schools had just been modernized. One of the newest surfaces in these renovated buildings was carpet.

The district was quite proud of this beautiful surface and had purchased backpack vacuums as part of its carpet cleaning system.

While inspecting the facilities, I opened the cover of each backpack vacuum and every one had a dirty filter.

When I asked about the training procedure for servicing the vacuum, it was apparent that most of the cleaning staff thought the backpack machine was indestructible, and that emptying the filter was only necessary about once a month.

One of the custodians complained to me that the vacuum generated too much heat when the machine was worn; as soon as we cleaned all of the filters, the vacuum picked up soil easier and the alleged heat disappeared.

Whether it is the final step in the cleaning process or the first step, ensure that the equipment is clean and in proper working order.

Duct tape isn’t always the answer
Not to be outdone by custodians from Kentucky, I found a vacuum in Union City, CA, where the custodian was proud that there were four kinds of tape on the vacuum machine: Duct tape, masking tape, electrician’s tape and strapping tape.

When I asked the custodian why the tape parade, he said that the cover of the vacuum did not seal properly so he used the tape to create a “vacuum.”

I pointed out to the custodian that he had failed to replace the cloth liner in the machine, which provided the airtight seal when the cover was screwed into place.

Even with all this decorative tape, the vacuum still spewed out a trail of dust as the custodian vacuumed an area.

The economics of motion
St. Helena, CA, is a beautiful, wine-growing community in Napa Valley. Two years ago, I visited this district and was immediately impressed with the lack of litter at any of its four schools.

As I visited each campus, I noticed that the day custodians were always engaged in some form of cleaning even when serving as a tour guide for me.

One custodian would disinfect exterior classroom door handles; another had glass cleaning products to wash exterior windows.

I watched a third custodian pop gum off the sidewalk (there were less than a half dozen pieces, by the way) — he told me he inspected for gum three times a day as part of his restroom inspections.

All of these custodians embraced the “motion economy” principle of accomplishing work while expending energy.

The high school custodian told me that when he would receive a call from the administrative office, he always snatched his litter grabber just in case students had left wrappers or bottles around.

When opportunity knocks
Monterey (CA) Peninsula College provides semi-annual training to its cleaning staff.

Recently, we conducted a class on spot removal, and I provided carpet remnants, spotting chemicals, white terry cloth rags, gloves and other training materials including ketchup, mustard and chocolate, which we poured onto each piece of carpet.

When we finished the hands-on phase of the class, we reviewed the spot-removal process.

One custodian commented that he carried spot remover on his utility belt so when he saw a spot he would initiate the cleaning process by spraying the chemical so it could dwell for a few minutes before he would return and try to remove the soil.

In other words, he was prepared to remove spots.

Just like the custodian who carries as extra filter for the vacuum, having the appropriate tools with the custodian demonstrates the “work smarter, not harder” philosophy.

Make training a priority
When I was in the Marine Corps (a long time ago), promotions were not based solely on longevity. As a Marine, you had to successfully complete rigorous training as part of the selection process.

In the cleaning industry, training often takes a back seat to other priorities.

When school districts reduce budgets, custodial training seems to be at the top of the list for elimination.

So what can custodians do to remain current with changes taking place in cleaning?

At a Ventura County (CA) school district, officials have set up a custodial resource center where custodians can visit and access magazines, tapes, DVDs, books and even the Internet to learn more about cleaning.

Another district in Stanislaus County (CA) has provided funds for the custodians to publish a quarterly newsletter, which is sent home to parents and teachers.

The Veterans Hospital in San Francisco requires all custodians to access its website for cleaning information, articles and research.

Several companies are now offering webinars (seminars on the web), so custodians can participate via the Internet in these learning sessions.

One district I worked with has set aside the first Wednesday of each month for custodial training — custodians cannot be promoted without successfully completing dozens of required classes.

Read labels, MSDS sheets
Recently, I was observing a group of custodians clean a high school campus.

I asked each custodian what chemical he or she mixed in the bucket with the water.

There were four custodians, and I recorded four separate responses.

One custodian stated that he did not put any chemical in the water, since he had run out of the neutral cleaner.

A second custodian added degreaser, since it worked better than the regular chemical.

A third custodian was pouring in a disinfectant at a 10-percent ratio (the label said 2 ounces per gallon), and then adding a capful of bleach.

The fourth custodian told me he mixed the yellow stuff with the water.

The point of this vignette is to share a simple but powerful comment about cleaning: Read the label and the MSDS sheet.

At the Clovis USD (east of Fresno CA), the MSDS sheets have been laminated and inserted in a binder attached to the cleaning cart.

This district has color-coded equipment as well, so bathroom cleaning tools are not used in the cafeteria, kitchen or nurse’s office.

Have the right attitude
When custodians clean with dignity and pride, the entire facility manifests this professional attitude.

Grounds are litter-free; students, teachers and staff treat the campus with respect; and the community enjoys using the facilities and offers them to outside organizations and visitors.

On the other hand, when customers see the custodian aimlessly walking around with a large coffee mug, this image usually sends the wrong message about cleaning and pride.

When custodians wear shabby clothing, flip flops or other inappropriate attire, the perception is one of someone who does not care about the job, the facility or the customers.

I am confident that I can predict the level of cleanliness by engaging in two preliminary tasks: Inspecting the cleaning closet and inspecting the appearance of the custodian.


Perry S. Shimanoff is founder and president of San Carlos, CA-based Management and Communication Consultants (MC2). Since 1979, MC2 has worked with school districts and community colleges by conducting cleaning audits, staffing analysis, hands-on workshops, and other maintenance- and operations-related services.