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Motivating Employees to Clean Up: Dos and Don’ts

Jonathan Wells /

Think managing workplace health and safety is tough? Try being a kindergarten teacher.

Actually, when it comes to keeping spaces clean and organized, the two jobs aren’t that different. Whether you’re in charge of a bunch of 5-year-olds or 50-year-olds, housekeeping is never high on anyone’s priority list. There always seem to be more urgent, necessary, and fun things to do (e.g. getting orders out the door, finger painting).

But as any kindergarten teacher will tell you, cleaning up is an essential part of every project and a necessary daily activity. From crayons left on the floor to heavy equipment blocking exit routes, messiness poses safety hazards for people of all ages.

So, how do you convince your team to clean up, clean up (everybody do your share)? How do you turn housekeeping into a habit?

You don’t need to sing songs or hand out stickers, but you do need to make it a priority, and make it interesting. Here’s what to do and not do.

Do: Champion Housekeeping Early and Often

You’ll need to make the case to your workforce that cleanliness matters. Show them what they have to gain by practicing good housekeeping, and reinforce the message over time. Your employees should be keenly aware of the benefits of cleaning up—how less clutter means less stress, fewer accidents, and better workflows.

Don’t: Rely on Scare Tactics

Focus on the positive aspects of your housekeeping program rather than dwelling completely on the bad stuff that could happen if people don’t clean up. Studies show that even minor rewards and forms of encouragement (such as a “good job!” message for washing one’s hands) can be stronger than fear in terms of motivating action and change.

Do: Provide Evidence—with Examples

Whether it’s before-and-after pictures or case studies from organizations that have completed 5S projects, there’s plenty of compelling evidence out there about how effective this discipline can be. At first, you may have to draw these examples from other companies whose programs you’re emulating. But as your 5S initiatives gain traction, the evidence could easily come from the early adopters within your company.

Don’t: Try to Do Everything At Once

Be careful not to present housekeeping as a massive undertaking or daunting task. You can’t expect your employees to focus all their time on your 5S initiative, nor can you expect it to be done within a day or two. It will likely take several days, if not weeks or months, to complete just stages 1 and 2 of the process.

Do: Break It Into Manageable Pieces

Divide everything into simple tasks—activities that are easy to start and finish, and which don’t require long time commitments. Assign tasks to various employees, so everyone is accountable and participating, and no one person is overloaded. Housekeeping should be embedded in everyday work—for instance, an employee who uses a tool should be responsible for wiping down work surfaces and putting the tool away when they’re done.  

Don’t: Spring It on Your Employees

The 5S system can significantly disrupt operations—and fail as a result—if program managers aren’t careful about introducing it to their workforces. According to Industry Week, employees at most organizations “will have to figure out how to get it done while still capably fulfilling their day-to-day job responsibilities.” It can’t be a totally separate, top-down initiative.

Do: Take Your Time

The same Industry Week article recommends that organizations “respect [the] reality” of 5S implementation by doing the following:

  • Provide a long project runway. Be realistic about how long 5S will take—3 months is a typical timeline.
  • Give advance notice. Inform your employees about the initiative well before kickoff. It’s not unusual for organizations adopting 5S to give advance notice several months in advance of the program beginning.
  • Supply guidelines, not deadlines. As the article states:

    “It’s perfectly okay to provide your operations with recommendations about how long each step should take; for example we advised our personnel to plan on about one week apiece for sorting, setting in order and shining. But resist the urge to micromanage operations beyond that point, and trust your operations’ personnel to make the call about when they get things done. It may cause you to lose a little sleep in the short run. But it will ultimately win you more allies and a vastly superior rate of compliance in the long run.”

Don’t: Expect Employees to Get It Right Immediately

As with any workforce initiative, 5S necessitates training and practices. Employees will need to learn the system front to back. There may (will) be mistakes, gaps, and delays. The mess may seem to get worse before it gets better. Take a deep breath and be patient.

Do: Offer Support

Support your team members with morale-boosting efforts as well as the practical tools they need for housekeeping: cleaning supplies, labels, boxes, and so forth. No one should be left wondering about their role or when they should be doing something, or if they need to go to the store and buy materials themselves.

Don’t: Let Unwanted Materials Pile Up

One of the most difficult parts of 5S can be disposing of unneeded or unwanted items. You can’t just dump everything, but you can’t allow it to continue taking space in your facility either. Look for opportunities to reuse, reallocate, or sell what you aren’t using. Those materials may be of use to employees in other departments or locations, or to your neighbors—the organizations in your local community. Before getting rid of items, be sure to ask around or even host a “yard sale.” In any case, consider formally designating someone as a disposal manager to ensure the process runs smoothly.

Do: Get Leadership Involved

One of the most powerful motivators is executive advocacy—communication from the top that this is something the organization cares about and is paying close attention to. Moreover, to avoid confusion and duplication of effort, leadership should be in charge of standardizing, implementing, and measuring the program. In other words, housekeeping needs to involve the whole house.

Cleaning up, much like workforce safety, is everyone’s job. In fact, the two are frequently one and the same. In our fourth and final installment in this series, we’ll explore the relationship between safety and housekeeping in greater detail, looking at some of the most common (and egregious) ways clutter can threaten employee well-being.

Don’t wait until then to start cleaning and improve your organization’s housekeeping. KPA’s workforce safety and compliance team can help—contact us.

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