How Clean is Clean?

April 17, 2003
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In a society increasingly concerned about the very real threat of disease caused by bacteria, a building’s appearance and level of cleanliness plays a critical role in the perception of its healthiness. What was once merely considered a matter for facility managers now has been elevated to a concern of business owners, senior managers and administrators. But how clean is clean?

That really depends on the organization and its needs. In any case, the definition of clean is ultimately an executive-level call, though sometimes entrusted to a qualified facility director or building service contractor. Nonetheless, it can only be determined by answering some fundamental questions relative to the overall objectives of the organization:

  • What type of patrons, employees or customers does the building service?
  • What is the desired image of the organization?
  • What is the facility’s function(s)?
  • What resources are available for cleaning the facility?

    Regardless of the facility and its objectives, cleanliness is often in the eye, and nose, of the beholder. Clean is generally recognized as the absence of soils, visible or not. A knowledgeable public is no longer fooled by deodorizers that simply mask the tell tale smell of odor-causing bacteria. The only way to achieve true cleanliness is to completely remove the soils. No amount of disinfectant can sanitize soiled surfaces.

    Developing Standards

    Increasingly, forward thinking organizations are recognizing the importance of developing quality whole-building cleaning programs based on best practices that are designed to protect the health and improve the environment of their customers, students and employees. Developing such a program requires documented standards that are executed properly.

    For years, even the most disciplined organizations ignored their cleaning programs when it came to establishing and documenting standards. Slowly but surely, however, more organizations are jumping on the bandwagon. While the process requires some up front work, the results justify the effort. Not only does the effective execution of a standardized cleaning program deliver consistently higher quality appearance levels, but it also simplifies the management of associated resources and personnel. Many have also discovered that it provides an objective basis for calculating suitable staffing levels.

    But where do you start such an ambitious effort?

    Identify Standard Spaces. Within a facility, there are typically a variety of types of spaces with differing levels of need. For example, a school may have in excess of 30 unique types of spaces, ranging from classrooms, to art rooms, science labs, restrooms, libraries, kitchens, cafeterias, offices, gyms, hallways, lobbies, stairwells, and so on. Each of these spaces requires a different type and amount of cleaning effort.

    A logical starting point is to take a detailed inventory of all the spaces in the facility that need to be cleaned, including measuring the cleanable square feet. Similar spaces, such as offices or classrooms, can be grouped together based on average size. In other words, rather than have a separate standard for each office or classroom, you could develop a standard for all offices or classrooms based upon averages across the facility. However, each individual office and classroom must be accounted for in the inventory.

    Define appearance levels. For each space, define the desired appearance level based upon what the organization has determined is acceptable. This step requires input from management and users to make sure specific concerns are addressed. This is also the point at which negotiation takes place about what can realistically be accomplished.

    The desired appearance level usually varies according to the type of space. For example, what is acceptable in an employee break room my not be in a conference room frequented by current and prospective customers. Or the high-gloss shine of a floor in a high visibility area such as a lobby may not be required or practical in a classroom or hallway setting.

    Identify cleaning tasks and frequencies. Next, determine what tasks are required to clean each individual area to the desired appearance level as well as how often each task must be performed.

    Determine how long it takes to perform each task. For each activity, establish appropriate cleaning times required to satisfy the desired appearance level. Once the basic information is gathered, determining and justifying staffing levels becomes much more objective. There is a direct correlation between staffing levels and cleanliness.

    Documenting the Standards

    While information about facility spaces, cleaning tasks and times is being gathered, it is important to formally document it. This includes noting the tools, chemicals and methods required for each task, as well as what criteria will be used for measuring success. Furthermore, it is beneficial to make procedural and operational documentation on tools and chemicals easily accessible to remove any guesswork. All documented information should be kept up to date and be available to all appropriate personnel. Once completed, the documentation serves as a useful guideline for training or working with custodial staff.

    The Importance of Training

    One of the greatest deficiencies in today’s cleaning programs is a general lack of structured custodial training. For the most part, custodians today are self-taught; important procedures are often left to custodians to figure out on their own. This would explain why it’s unusual for any two custodians to perform the same task in the same way and in the same time. Not only is this frustrating for the worker, but extremely unproductive, costly, and the final results are inconsistent.

    The sad fact is that too many organizations have either never considered investing in custodial training or view it as simply a waste of money. As a result, most custodians never benefit from new methodologies that have been developed. High-quality cleaning programs recognize the value of training and readily testify to the positive returns on this investment.

    Measuring for Results

    It has often been said that what gets measured gets done, which is certainly true for cleaning. The groundwork of documenting the desired appearance levels of the various spaces within the facility lays a good foundation for measurement. With good documentation, most areas can be inspected by simple sight and smell. However, this will vary by space type. It is therefore important to document measurement criteria for each different space type as well. For example, in a restroom, beyond the obvious, odors and grout lines are good indicators of cleanliness. If it looks clean and smells clean, it probably is clean. If it smells bad or there is a heavy deodorizer scent, then there may be an issue with residual soil and bacteria.

    Again, with good groundwork laid in terms of documenting acceptable appearance levels as well as appropriate cleaning times and tasks, measuring effectiveness becomes more straightforward. Of course, there are more elaborate measurements, such as testing with ultraviolet lights and petri dishes. However, these methods are best reserved for specific situations and settings that require such precision. In normal settings they are often impractical and therefore omitted.

    Aligning Resources

    At the end of the day, perhaps the greatest factor affecting a cleaning program is budget. And there is certainly a correlation between the amount of available resources and the appearance of the building. After going through this exercise, organizations often discover what they suspected all along – they don’t have enough resources to consistently clean at the levels they desire. Over the years budgets for cleaning and maintenance have been slashed across the board. This has left the typical custodian today responsible for cleaning an unimaginable 25,000 square feet of space a night. That’s the equivalent of ten good-sized homes a night! Considering this, is there any wonder that custodians are constantly just trying to catch up?

    Many organizations have reacted to budget crunches by trying to squeeze every last penny out of equipment and supplies. While on the surface this may appear to be the sensible response, more often than not it results in the ineffective use of their labor force. In an effort to stretch their budgets, many organizations make cuts in the cleaning program without considering the impact on their people. As a result, facilities managers often end up with an assortment of supplies and equipment from multiple vendors that aren’t compatible and don’t work well together. They are left to their own devices to pull the pieces together.

    What’s worse, most custodians are forced to use outdated tools. Not only are these tools ineffective for cleaning, they are also painfully slow and often result in fatigue, injury and workers’ compensation claims.

    Successful cleaning programs have discovered that equipping custodial workers with new tools that clean more thoroughly delivers quantum leaps in productivity. Innovative tools often enable them to multiply their resources. Besides being more efficient and effective at cleaning, these newer tools simplify equipment requirements by replacing a variety of tools, such as cotton mops, buckets, wringers, and sometimes even costly auto scrubbers.

    Many organizations “can’t see the forest for the trees.” Saving a few dollars on equipment and supplies here and there may cost dearly in terms of lost productivity and cleaning effectiveness. And ultimately, it often results in higher equipment and supply costs because of lost efficiency benefits.

    Enlist Help from Good Partners

    A good, reputable distributor can be a tremendous advantage in helping you develop a strategic cleaning program for your facility. Top-quality distributors don’t just sell products, they are experts at the business of cleaning. They know how to apply the products in the most effective ways and are adept at transferring that knowledge to your facilities staff. They keep up with the latest developments, not just knowing the product names but understanding the best ways to use them. First-rate distributors can help identify potential areas of improvement and the optimum mix of equipment and supplies as well as identify underutilized or redundant equipment.

    Good distributors may not always be the cheapest; however, in general they are competitively priced. They have to be. They can save organizations a tremendous amount of money by helping to avoid redundant and incompatible products. Beware of working with distributors whose sole value is lower price. They are often able to do this because they have cut back in other areas, such as training, quality, and service.

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