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Shifting Paradigms: Cedar Rapids Schools’ CleaningCulture

Written by  Mark Schanou

Supervisors share how floor care procedures changed how they do business

floor care procedures

Cedar Rapids School District’s Manager Matthew Dunbar and Supervisor, Mark Schanou used a change in floor care procedure to make necessary budget cuts and ultimately change their organization’s culture for the better. Courtesy Trung Vo Photography

What began as a part-time custodial job while attending college, has matured into a lifelong vocation for Matthew Dunbar, Manager of Custodial and Grounds for the Cedar Rapids Community School District, (CRCSD). In this role, Dunbar directs custodian janitor operations for the second largest school district in Iowa; overseeing one hundred-fifteen building engineers and custodians spread out amongst thirty-three facilities. As a member of his team, I too have witnessed how our cleaning crews’ effectiveness plays a significant role in shaping the overall organizational culture in our school district. So, while you may not clean for a school district, these principles are universally applicable because a company’s culture creates a vibe, sets the standard and defines the quality of work that is done.

What is organizational culture?
A cleaning culture is the shared mind-set, practices, myths, rituals and values that exist amongst a group. These attributes form a collective belief system that creates an atmosphere of outward behaviors. Because these behaviors are measurable by work output, performance, and perceived morale, managers can evaluate their organization’s culture once they learn which factors are most important to them. Dunbar says, “I have spent over forty years with the district, so when it comes to identifying, understanding and working with custodial organizational culture, you could literally say that I have seen it all.” Culture shapes the purpose of custodial work, how time is spent and the reasons why work decisions are made. Culture can be summed up with the phrase, ‘That’s just the way we do things around here.’ “But, here in Cedar Rapids school district,” says Dunbar, “the way things are done by the custodial department directly impacts the health and safety of those who enter the halls every day and impacts the education of students, so maintaining a consistently positive organizational culture is important.”

“I soon realized the effect organizational culture had, even in my own professional realm” ~ mark schanou

How are cultures created?
Cultures are formed through the interaction between custodian janitors working over a period of time and achieving actual or perceived success on the job. The tasks, challenges, and problems custodians encounter, and then appear to solve become patterns of behavior. Eventually these patterns develop into a culture—a way of doing things—and form standard processes for solving problems that custodians use to reduce stress and eliminate uncertainty.

Why is organizational custodial culture so important?
Overlooking, or under-estimating the power that culture holds over a group will thwart even the best manager’s strategies and efforts. Dunbar puts it this way. “What I’ve observed over time, is a direct correlation between the strength of a cleaning culture and the effect it has on the school community. The stronger the culture, the bigger the impact on a school.” This truth was epitomized last year when custodial management tried to shift a paradigm regarding floor care that’s been a big part of our culture for the last fifty-five years.

The Cedar Rapids Community School District has been applying finish to terrazzo flooring since 1959. As a common floor care process for terrazzo, annual scrubbing and recoating has worked for half a decade. However, faced with budget cuts, Dunbar had to examine expensive and time consuming processes to save money. That led him to reconsider the endless cost cycle of refinishing the terrazzo flooring, in search for more cost effective solutions. That’s when Dunbar started to explore the possibilities of polishing instead of refinishing terrazzo flooring. All the research showed polishing to be a more financially sound option for the future of district floor care, but he remained hesitant about changing this longstanding process, because he was worried about getting employee buy-in.

Sure, the process would be different, and personnel would have to learn new techniques, but the district stood to save in excess of $112,000 over the next four years by polishing in-house, and that simply could not be ignored. I will tell you more about the terrazzo floor situation and how that change in procedure played into a serious improvement in custodial organizational culture, but for now, let me tell you why custodial culture is such a big deal for me, personally.

While earning my Business Administration degree at the University of Nebraska, I got hooked on the concepts of organizational behavior and subsequently, I have become a proponent of the concepts and on their practical application. I soon realized the effect organizational culture had, even in my own professional realm. Especially with the terrazzo floor example, I observed how appropriately accounting for employee pushback—because it was culturally necessary—could enable change to happen more smoothly.

Early on in my career, I watched other managers fail who discounted the influence of culture. We learned by trial and error about the negative results of arbitrarily mandating process changes from on high. So, Dunbar and I had serious conversations about the sub-cultures at each of our schools, and about what we could do to make the organizational culture better. After taking an honest look at each one, we admitted there was room for improvement.

Then, after we faced the issue, we had to determine exactly what type of culture we had in place. Once we had established a baseline, we could make changes that could be measured. Culture identification is key for management. Taking culture into account in the early stages of a plan can help leaders predict and account for frustrations, and prevent and all-out coup. Dunbar and I ultimately determined that most custodial organizational cultures can be loosely classified into Four Basic Types of Custodial Culture.

1. Coercive culture: A coercive culture uses threats, both perceived and real, as a way to motivate subordinates. In this regard, principals, managers, and supervisors are seen as enforcers of the law because of their constant need for compliance. In addition, custodians believe these bullies live to punish them for infractions such as slacking-off, texting, or taking long breaks and lunches. In this type of culture, the custodian’s fear of being caught and punished can be so overwhelming that their performance suffers. As a result, employees will typically leave the department in search of employment elsewhere.

2. Controlling culture: A controlling organizational culture can be identified by its extraordinary number of seemingly arbitrary rules to follow. These regulations are management’s efforts to control and avoid outcomes. For instance, if an employee violates one of the rules, management’s first response would tend to be the creation of yet another policy to ensure the infraction doesn’t happen again. The flow of information and policies are typically reactionary. Eventually, there can be so many rules that custodians’ work processes become too confusing. What to clean, when…how to clean it, which products to use, and a litany of other stifling procedures becomes too much for most employees and they quit, in search of a less stressful and controlling job.

“People act as if they are being rewarded or punished. For this, to them, rightly, is the true expression of the values of the institution and of its true, as against its professed, purpose and role.” ~ peter f. drucker

3. Competent culture: A competent organizational culture provides adequate information to new employees regarding the department’s policies, cleaning methods, and equipment, effectively answering the what question. And though morale is higher here than that of coercive and controlling culture types—based on the simple fact supervisors tend not be control freaks—competent culture still fails to hit the mark. Good enough usually translates into managers not investing the time to give customer service coaching, or making customer service a part of the cultural norm. When the customer connection is left out, custodians feel less accountability and connectivity to their job and how their own quality of work affects the school’s end customers; the staff and students. The teaching of what good customer service looks like, smells like, and feels like is the missing component. In essence, the organization fails to answer the who or why questions for the employee. As a result, custodians generally clean well technically, but are unable to differentiate the order of importance among tasks and fail to prioritize cleaning responsibilities. Competent cultures are identified by custodians who are frustrated, because, although they do a decent job completing their duties assigned to them, the customer is not happy. Staff, administration, parents and students might complain about their personal interaction, or a custodian’s apparent lack of hospitality.

4. Connected culture: A connected organizational culture also provides loads of training, but custodians and engineers also feel personally responsible for areas that don’t get cleaned or might get missed due to short-handedness or uncommunicated expectations. Cross-accountability is present. The entire crew goes above and beyond to communicate the values of the team. They take pride in their work and their school’s cleanliness image with customers. Principals, teachers, parents, and the community are proud of their school’s appearance and everyone is content and connected. As a result of developing a connected culture, districts can expect higher custodial job satisfaction because staff becomes accountable for the work they perform. They become valued members of the community, there are fewer customer complaints, and the schools are consistently cleaner facilities.

Walking Shoes

Courtesy Trung Vo Photography

The big shift
Transforming your department’s custodial organizational culture is not mission impossible. Consultants differ on how management should change an organization’s culture, but several experts agree that reform requires leaders to first transform themselves. As a manager you must become what you would like to see in your custodians, so subordinates can learn by example. Are your beliefs and values about school cleanliness consistently visible and audible in your day to day discussions, decisions, and employee discipline? One of my favorite quotes regarding company culture is from Peter F. Drucker, of the The Daily Drucker. He professes, “People act as if they are being rewarded or punished. For this, to them, rightly, is the true expression of the values of the institution and of its true, as against its professed, purpose and role.”

“I can train people on our district’s cleaning standards and processes, but what I can’t do is train culture.” ~ matthew dunbar

Revisit your organization’s policies and procedures. Do they reinforce the elements and values of a connected or controlling organizational culture? Take a look at your custodial performance review criteria. What employee contributions and attributes are not listed…and what others should be included?

Hire for culture
The single best strategy to change culture in your school is through your custodial recruiting efforts. “I can train people on our district’s cleaning standards and processes,” says Dunbar, “but what I can’t do, is train culture.” Do candidates truly need prior custodial experience? Or should you consider those who have a service background? Having a firm grasp on the type of organizational culture that you are striving for in your school should make it easy to outline a set of character traits to look for in potential candidates. So, seek out those individuals when you have the opportunity, and let those go who no longer fit the mold. And don’t forget to meet with your human resources department about your new found cultural awareness. HR needs to know you’re no longer simply hiring custodians, but know you are developing your department’s ideal culture. HR can also help you avoid prejudicial wording in your interview questions so potential employees won’t perceive your questions as bias or prejudicial.

Floor Buffer

Lee Guerrero, custodian and Supervisor, Mark Schanou discuss floor care processes at Thomas Jefferson High School in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The polisher nicknamed, Big Bertha was re-engineered by a machinist to be used for terrazzo tile floor polishing. Courtesy Trung Vo Photography

Embrace the crisis
Case study after case study on organizations that have had success in transforming culture, did so through a need…or perceived need for change; a budget cut for instance. It seems that the necessity for change makes employees more likely to jump on board with the idea.

Back to my terrazzo flooring example. Last year CRCSD’s catalyst for change of culture came in the form of another two-million-dollar reduction in state funding. Rather than stressing out, Dunbar and I capitalized on the opportunity to transform the way custodians maintain terrazzo flooring. In the midst of having to cut custodial positions, Dunbar simply had to change procedure to save money. Priorities suddenly changed and employees who might have balked at new procedures before, were suddenly just thankful to have a job. They were happy to learn a new way of doing business, despite a disruption to the norm.

The entire staff had to learn a new way to clean terrazzo flooring but we ended up saving tax payers over three-hundred-seventy dollars each year. Through investing the time and energy to develop new skills, staff members had to work together in new ways and felt the pride of learning new skills. The culture became more connected and the over-all culture of all district custodians improved. Crises have a way of forcing the re-examination of myths, rituals, and past practices of the group, and in this case, the challenge of learning how to polish terrazzo flooring was overcame and subsequently learning and working together created a better culture.

Mark Schanou is the Custodial Supervisor for The Cedar Rapids Community School District (CRCSD) in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. With a Master’s Degree from TEDS, and more than twenty years of organizational and management experience, Schanou supervises the custodial department for the second largest school district in the state of Iowa. Contact: www.bngonline.info or email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


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