Keep It Clean!

Tom Peters

Despite the best efforts of a professional photographer, the photo in Fortune of a Japanese-owned and -managed auto component factory in the Midwest was somewhat washed out. Washing out occurs when there is too much reflected light. In this case, the reflected light came from the mirror-like, highly polished floors and metal fittings.

There go the Japanese, cheating again. This time it’s unreasonably clean plants—on U.S. soil.

Perhaps it seems odd to devote a column to cleanliness. Between the occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the labor law history of the last five decades, surely workplace filth is a passé issue.

Not so. I constantly observe vast differences in cleanliness, which has a dramatic impact on customers and employees alike.

Sewell Village Cadillac in Dallas and the New Phoenix Motor Co., that area’s leading Mercedes dealership, make the service bays the first stop on a customer’s tour. Both successful dealers consider the service bays’ sparkle their top selling point.

The McDonald’s-led revolution in American eating habits is based on consistent delivery—especially the consistent delivery of cleanliness. Disney, likewise, has made a science of cleanliness. Obsessive cleaning of its parks throughout the day is a trademark—in addition to the all-night drone of what may be the world’s largest sweeping machines. Fast-food purveyors and theme parks tout wholesomeness, with the family as their primary focus, but they usually fail miserably at cleanliness. How silly. Cleanliness can be a strategic advantage of the first rank.

Milliken & Company, which I recently honored as 1986’s “best managed company in America,” will go to any length to entice a customer to visit a plant. “We never lose an order once we get the guy into the plant,” a senior manager flatly asserts. Many firms keep the customer as far away from the plant as possible, often on the flimsy pretense of protecting production secrets. The real reason is usually the plant’s questionable appearance. It’s impossible to earn credibility about high quality and timely delivery, when your plant or distribution center looks—as many do—more like a garbage dump than a hospital’s operating room.

Frito-Lay and Federal Express are obsessive about keeping their trucks spic-and-span—white trucks, no less. Sure, winter slush makes this a daunting chore; but that’s all the more reason to do it. The dirtier the surroundings, the more a spiffy vehicle stands out as an advertisement.

There is a second, even more important, attribute of fanatical housekeeping: respect for employees. After a speech I gave in Cleveland, a septuagenarian reproached me, “You forgot the most important point—clean toilets.” He avowed that that’s where respect begins. And I agree heartily.

If the workplace feels shabby, if the toilets are foul, with graffiti on the bathroom walls to boot, how can you dare to preach about commitment, participation, quality, and service?

Worthington Industries founder John McConnell was looking to buy a company a while ago. During his pre-acquisition tour of the facilities, he noticed a net temporarily rigged beneath the ceiling in the employee cafeteria—to catch the crumbling plaster and keep it out of the food! He eventually approved the deal, but sprucing up work and rest areas was near the top of his list of fix-up tasks.

A bucket of paint, sparkling fittings, and clean washrooms alone may not renew American competitiveness, but becoming a “neat freak,” as one executive calls it, can be a surprisingly powerful step in the right direction.

Here are some actions to take:

1. Become a keen observer of the “housekeeping” standards at your firm, among your competitors and at other businesses.

2. Look at all of your work spaces for opportunities to make small improvements in cleanliness and amenities. I consistently observe that even the most macho workers respond to fresh flowers in the cafeteria!

3. Become a “neat freak,” a “paint and potty” zealot! Demand nearly fanatic levels of cleanliness and sparkle in every nook of your work areas. Make the look of the workplace a prime selling point to customers and employees alike. Spend money on it. For instance, uniforms cleaned daily—for food-preparation people, housekeepers, and factory workers—are a must.

4. Set stringent objectives: Cleanest service trucks on the highway; cleanest and cheeriest employee cafeterias in the industry; cleanest factory floors anywhere in the industry, city, etc; cleanest customer dressing rooms among retailers in your region. And so on.

If you don’t think cleanliness is an important factor in your business, think again. In the grocery trade, price, and location conventionally are seen to be the key to success. Yet virtually every customer poll puts cleanliness at the top of the list of reasons that customers come back—far ahead of location and even price.

Respect your customers. Respect your employees. That is, keep it clean.

(c) 1987 TPG Communications.

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