If you only get to walk through a factory or warehouse for a few minutes. What is the single best measure of how effective and efficient the operation is? If you ask any operations executive or consultant with any degree of experience this question, they will ponder the question for a moment and most likely respond with one word: cleanliness.
It is absolutely true. If you have never been in a place and have to make a five minute assessment of the operation, cleanliness and orderliness is the best indicator. Simply, an operation is not very likely to produce low quality goods and services, be laden with cost overruns, and mismanagement while looking pristine. Actually, it is nearly impossible to do that on any sustained basis.
This is related to an old quality perception adage often attributed to Deming. If you settle into your seat on an airplane, flip down the tray table, and see a coffee stain on it… it is quite natural to glance out at the engines and both wonder and hope their engine maintenance is better managed than their cabin cleanliness. Cleanliness sets the perception of how the overall enterprise is run. It has to be part of the culture and it is not independent of quality. It is actually subsequent to quality.
There is an old practice that many executives employ when they visit a factories or distribution centers that they are responsible for. We will stop and pick up any scraps of paper, packing tape, pallet pieces, food wrappers, and other debris they see lying about whenever they walk the floor. We don’t say anything or draw any attention to their action. We do it as it was a natural act; something we would do anywhere and anytime. Their direct reports, of course, see them do this and learn the lesson. More importantly, the hourly folks, the associates, see the “Big Boss” picking up debris and are more motivated to keep the premises clean themselves.
We refer to this as an old and a good practice because it is simple and leading by example. Some might call this a ploy or cheap trick. It is not. It only works if the executive is sincere in his or her intention to set a good example. Those that think it is a ploy are, instead, more likely to dress down their subordinates for their pig sty (freely insert obscenities for more emphasis) operations.
Here is an interesting question to ask ourselves? Do we still stop and pick up the debris when no one is watching? This is a quick and probably very reliable test of our core value in this regard.