ALTOM: Can new technology make a toilet cleaner?

October 23, 2010

In a previous issue of IBJ, another columnist wrote that technology can raise the productivity of toilet cleaners. It wasn’t a central part of his argument, but as you might imagine, it caught my eye. I couldn’t resist looking into bathroom technology.

First, I wasn’t sure what kind of technology might promote the productivity of those who swab out our toilets for a living. A better mop? A breakthrough in spray bottles? And would it actually improve productivity?

Let’s talk first about “productivity.” I’ve seen a lot of definitions of productivity; unfortunately most of them were uttered by politicians and other people who quite probably make up their own definitions as they go along, to suit their audience. It turns out that economists have a pretty simple definition—it’s how much you get out of a system compared to how much goes into it.

Labor productivity, therefore, can be measured as the amount of work done per dollar of pay. In fact, the U.S. Department of Labor has a measurement of productivity specifically for janitorial workers. As an ironic aside, they also designed one for video-and disc-rental workers, just in time to watch it land with a thud on top of that industry’s coffin, the lid of which was nailed into place by online rental companies.

The Department of Labor (www.bls.gov) concluded in 2004 that janitorial output had gone up during 2001-2002, but by a measly 1.1 percent per hour. At the same time, unit cost had gone down an even punier .1 percent in that time. The best times for janitorial improvement came in 1995-2000, when output crawled upward by 6 percent, and costs dropped by nearly 2 percent.

Clearly, this is an industry segment sorely in need of technological bolstering. There have been some small steps, of course, such as many public toilets getting automatic flushing devices that don’t depend on unreliable humans to manually pull down those handles. But it’s hard to see how they improve productivity, except possibly to forestall multi-user toilet-paper jams. In point of fact, I suspect that whatever small productivity gains you might achieve from them would be lost due to the need to have someone replace the batteries. Those little urinal cakes undoubtedly do some good, too. But neither of these promises much productivity improvement for the janitorial work force.

The Japanese get points for trying to upgrade the “john” experience, but mostly with an eye to making the user more satisfied, not to making the janitorial crew’s job any easier. For example, Daiwa (www.daiwahouse.co.jp) has designed the Intelligent Toilet, which takes the user’s blood pressure, weight, body-fat, and sugar-level readings and issues a report on the user’s overall health. At around $4,000, however, it’s not going to appear in commercial restrooms any time soon.

A brief Web survey of janitorial services reveals that there’s an emphasis on technology, but it’s almost entirely about tracking and ensuring cleanliness, not about how individual employees gain anything from technology. One janitorial service, for example, emphasizes that it has Web-based work orders. In today’s Web-driven world, I would certainly hope it would. It also proudly proclaims a dedication to “cleaning green,” none of which seems to promote substantial productivity. Some parts of cleaning green have a little promise, like the emphasis on catching dirt at entryways so janitorial workers don’t have to clean it up piecemeal throughout the building, but I suspect it helps too little to be a real contributor to individual productivity.

I don’t want to leave the impression that technology hasn’t made janitorial work more efficient. It has, at times. Installing air hand dryers instead of paper towel dispensers has made a difference, because it reduces paper clutter and pick-up time even as it annoys the customers. Automatic cleaning-solution dispensers also help reduce janitorial costs. Technical Concepts (www.technicalconcepts.com), for instance, offers the SaniCell, which pumps sanitizing fluid into toilets on a schedule. The SaniCell doesn’t use batteries; instead it uses a fuel cell that operates up to 60 days. That, however, is as high-tech as the device gets.

These technologies have been around for years now, so whatever productivity they goosed upward has already been heralded and is now old news. What neither SaniCell, nor any other technological advance, has managed to do is continually clean the outside of toilets, which is where most of the mess is. They can’t mop floors, wash down walls, or clean bugs out of overhead lights. I’ve been unable to find any technology that reduces the time or effort needed for those things. It would appear that bathroom cleaning has reached its pinnacle of efficiency today, and is likely to stay that way.•

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Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at taltom@ibj.com.

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