Benchmarking has been used for years to help improve productivity in large manufacturing companies. More recently, benchmarking techniques have been used in service-oriented companies to the same end. Rightly or wrongly, hospital administrators base many decisions on these data. Thus, knowing how facility housekeeping benchmarks are developed and what can be done to improve them may effect how a facility's environmental services department will be perceived by the hospital's administrator.
Understanding the rules
Before a manager attempts to improve his or her benchmark numbers, he or she must first understand how the facility reports its own information, which eventually results in department benchmark numbers. In the case of "cost per square feet," understanding the definition of both "cost" and of "square feet" can help a manager make his or her benchmark numbers look better from the outset.
How does the facility define and report its costs? Given the same square footage, a lower cost will create a better benchmark. Does "cost" mean the total bottom line figure for everything in the housekeeping department or does it mean just labor costs? If the figure includes labor, does that also mean the labor for departmental management and clerical support? Some facilities don't include that in their reporting. Does cost include waste removal tipping fees and other contracted services? Many times, that figure is maintained outside the housekeeping department's budget. If a manager understands exactly what cost means, he or she will be in a better position to face challenges like, "Why are our benchmarks always higher than at 'XYZ Facility?'"
How does a facility define and report its square footage? Given the same cost figure, a higher square footage number will create a better benchmark. Should a manager report his or her gross square footage or net cleanable square footage? Gross square footage, being a higher number, will create a better benchmark. Does the department clean anything outside the facility like sidewalks or parking decks? If so, it's a safe bet that that square footage is not included in the reporting numbers.
A snapshot in time
A benchmark is a snapshot in time that defines the current situation in financial terms. For example, a company might spend $23,000 to produce 1,000 widgets. At a very basic level, that company's benchmark for producing widgets is $23 per widget. If a company across town can produce the same widget for $21 each, the second company is more productive and has an advantage in the marketplace.
A housekeeping department provides a service (cleaning) to the facility (which is often defined by its square footage). The most basic of all benchmarks for the housekeeping department is "cost per square foot." For example, if a budget is $3 million per year and the department services 1,250,000 square feet of space, the cost for cleaning should be $2.40 per square foot ($3,000,000 divided by 1,250,000). The following are the only two ways to make this benchmark number better:
- Decrease the dollars spent cleaning the same square footage; or
- Increase the square footage cleaned without increasing the cost.
Service level is key
Going back to the widget example, the company spending $23 per widget can only make its benchmark better by either lowering its cost to produce widgets or producing more widgets for the same amount of money. Lowering the salaries of the employees would lower the cost of producing widgets, but that's an impractical solution. Using fewer raw materials and making each widget smaller would lower the cost, too, but the widget designers created specifications and tolerances so that each widget would perform a particular job. A smaller widget, using fewer raw materials, just wouldn't work.
In the area of housekeeping management, the counterpart to design specifications is service level. Service level is the combination of tasks and their performance frequencies. Contracted housekeeping operations are frequently bound by contract to perform at a designated service level. Changes to the service level have to be negotiated and the contract price (a benchmark in itself) can go up or down.
Many in-house housekeeping operations are mandated by CEOs to provide a dictated service level. The key point is that a housekeeping manager seldom has the authority to significantly change the service level, along with the corresponding budget and resulting benchmarks, without prior approval from somewhere up the chain of command. However, when the service level is adjusted, so is the labor. The higher the service level, the higher the labor used. Labor represents roughly 90 percent of some housekeeping budgets.
If labor cannot be adjusted, the only way to change a benchmark is to adjust the amount of money spent on materials. If materials costs represent roughly 10 percent of the budget, it will be difficult to impact the benchmark by purchasing cheaper chemicals and equipment. In fact, cheaper materials may well increase the need for labor. For instance, a cheaper floor finish may need to be burnished more frequently and cheaper vacuum cleaners may mean that housekeeping employees must spend more time vacuuming.
Consequently, the goal should be to modify the service level without impacting the hospital's appearance in a noticeable way. In general, the following two rules of thumb can be used to accomplish this:
- Adjust the service level in areas out of the public eye; and
- Adjust the service level in area types representing the largest percentage of the total square feet.
Thus, a hospital should avoid adjusting service levels in patient rooms, public corridors and rest rooms; and a medical college should avoid adjusting service level in classrooms, corridors and rest rooms. Moreover, it's doubtful that a manager can have a significant impact on benchmarks by adjusting the service level in area types such as storage rooms and file rooms. In fact, an area type that is out of the public eye and also represents a large percentage of the total square feet is often office space.
Lowering the service level in an area type like offices should not be done without the input and the approval of key office workers as well as someone at the executive level. Office workers consider their offices to be their personal territory and don't like to see changes made without their input.
Before approaching a supervisor about lowering a service level, however, managers should explore the possibilities and estimate the savings.
First, fully define the current service level for offices by making a chart similar to the one in Step 1 (left). Then, calculate how long it takes housekeeping employees, on average, to perform each task in 1,000 square feet of typical office space at the facility.
Measure off the space and note the time it takes for employees to clean it on several different occasions. Additionally, managers should clean the area themselves to verify the times.
For any task that has a frequency of less than five times per week, managers must convert the performance time into a daily number. For example, if spot cleaning takes 12 minutes to perform in the measured area and housekeepers perform spot cleaning only twice per week, the 12 minutes should be multiplied by two times per week, then divided by five days per week, to come up with a performance time of 4.8 minutes per day. After the time for each task has been calculated, the chart can be filled out. Step 2 illustrates what such a chart might look like after the calculations have been made.
Managers will want to perform this calculation in several different office spaces of 1,000 square feet in order to come up with a good average. Assuming employees are working with good equipment and using correct techniques, managers can be fairly certain that it takes, on average, 32.8 minutes per 1,000 square feet to clean offices in the example facility.
All managers need to know now is how many thousand square feet of office space is in the facility and they will know how long on average it takes to clean all offices in the facility.
Once this calculation is made, managers are in a position to estimate the potential savings of a change in the service level to offices. Think of which tasks can be eliminated or performed less frequently in offices. Ask peers in other facilities what their service level is in offices. Observe the office space at the end of the office workday. Does every trash can need emptying every day? How long does it take to really notice dust accumulating on ledges? If vacuuming is skipped on one day, is it noticeable? Design a new, lower service level and calculate the estimated cleaning times based on the observations. It will look something like Step 3.
This new, lower service level takes half as much time as the original service level. Depending on how many 1,000 square feet of offices a manager has in his or her health facility, changing the service level in offices could have a major impact on housekeeping costs and resulting benchmarks.
Finally, when a manager starts comparing his or her benchmarks against benchmarks from other facilities, he or she has to look beyond the bottom line numbers to understand the true cost of service at each facility.
Managers cannot accurately compare their facilities to other facilities unless they can normalize the service level between them. Although every difference between two separate service levels cannot be accounted for, managers should be able to account for variables responsible for major differences.
Knowledge is power
An environmental services manager has some control over his or her benchmarks. Knowing and understanding how they are calculated will give him or her the power needed to change them or explain why they cannot be changed.
Ralph Rice is with Housekeeping Systems Inc., St. Louis. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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