University of New Mexico Converts to Team Cleaning

Mary S. Vosevich was a reluctant convert to the team-cleaning concept. Now she’s a zealous advocate.

In 1998, the University of New Mexico’s (UNM) Physical Plant department was preparing a list of nonmandatory budget-cut strategies just in case such steps should become necessary in the fiscally uncertain future. The team-cleaning method for custodial personnel was suggested as an area that warranted a look, particularly since it promised not only to improve safety and produce better results but also produce cost savings and increased efficiency.

Custodial team cleaning relies on specialists with specific responsibilities -- individuals assigned to restrooms, vacuuming, trash and utility duties, but cross-trained in all the specialties to enable periodic rotating and substituting of duties. The individuals are assigned to work systematically, moving into an area on the heels of specialists who preceded them. The approach differs from conventional “zone cleaning” in which one person assumes all responsibilities for a particular physical location.

The university’s then-director of the Physical Plant made a decision to send two managers and his associate director, Mary Vosevich (who remained yet to be convinced of team cleaning’s merits), to attend Janitor University in Salt Lake City, for a week of team cleaning training.

The experience was not only educational, but created a surprisingly cohesive attitude of teamwork “in a week’s time, which was remarkable to me,” Vosevich says. At the end the week, some of the attendees were “crying because their teams had to split up and go back to where they came from,” she recalls. Such was the camaraderie-building effect of the method, even in such a short period of time. Vosevich also notes that “all of the participants came from nonteam-cleaning environments.”

Ultimately, UNM sent all of its managers and supervisors through the training. “We wanted our folks to be in that training environment and all singing from the same sheet of music,” Vosevich says. “They learned the whole concept. It was important that they all hear the same thing.”

Once back at UNM, the Janitor University experience was discussed at length. “We contemplated this (idea) six months before we decided to go with it,” says Vosevich. “It’s an enormous change to make, staffing-wise, equipment-wise. It’s a change for your clients to get used to. We had doubts going in. That’s why we decided to do it with a pilot program first.”

Results during the first week of the pilot program were promising.

Custodial personnel improved from seven hours to four hours to finish their daily duties, all the while being cautioned, “not to make it a race.”

By the second week, it became apparent to participants that the process was not only in their best interest, but that it worked. The teams were getting compliments on building cleanliness, and team spirit was growing.

Four weeks into the pilot effort, the teams were continually looking for ways to improve, Vosevich observes. “Since the total process and teamwork has been emphasized, as opposed to individual performance, all improvements were shared by other teams.”

One particularly noteworthy development was in the use of the backpack vacuum, the unit that initially participants refused to use. “Now they fight for it,” Vosevich reports. “Ergonomically vacuuming with that type of equipment is safer. You don’t have the type of injuries you have with an upright vacuum. It has been more efficient for us. By using the backpack vacuums, we can cut our vacuuming time by 40 percent to 50 percent.”

The pilot program led to the ultimate training of all 195 custodial, supervisory and managerial personnel in the physical plant -- where they are responsible for 4.5 million sq. ft. of facilities -- through two years. In addition, higher-level university administration officials have been very supportive of the program.

“It took two years of one-week classroom training, then an implementation period of working with supervisors and managers,” Vosevich recalls. “We had groups of no more than 10 people. Sometimes it was smaller. We wanted it to be a small-enough group that we could interact and successfully get the message across and do some hands-on training as well.”

“We have all of our employees trained, and we are engaged in the team cleaning process now,” Vosevich says. “Any new employee that comes on board is immediately put into the process.

“They train on cleaning for health with safety in mind, and appearance follows from that,” Vosevich says. Such attention to physical well being pervades the department. “We have our wellness center come and teach our custodians stretching exercises.

“We have also eliminated numerous chemicals,” notes Vosevich. “Our primary goal was the safety of our employees. Where they may have had 10 different types of cleaning products they were using, now they probably have four.”

UNM is also in the process of developing a new utility metering system, so it is unknown what energy savings may have been experienced because of team cleaning. In other locales where team cleaning has been adapted, energy savings have been significant because, as team members leave an area, they turn off lights rather than keeping the entire building lit all night, as they had at UNM.

“As far as (direct) savings go,” Vosevich says, “we believe that, in time, we will realize a 10 percent to 20 percent savings in labor cost.”

The team cleaning approach is reinforced at UNM by a philosophy that seeks to imbue a sense of value in every participant. “We stress that (custodians) should never tell anyone they are ‘just’ a custodian,” Vosevich says. “The role they play in this institution can be significant. If people go into a restroom and it isn’t clean, it can be detrimental. We constantly try to build our folks up. We try to recognize them for the work they do,” she says.

Vosevich, who is now director of the physical plant, summarizes the team cleaning experience this way: “This has been a powerful, positive undertaking for the physical plant at UNM. We have not experienced any custodial program that has given so many benefits to our department.”

John Walker is the founder of Salt Lake City-based ManageMen, a cleaning consulting company that develops training materials and information programs that focus on cleaning for health, safety, worker productivity and morale.

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