Is Eighty The New One-Hundred?

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“What is wrong with this hallway,” I said looking up and down the main corridor. It looked great. The floors were highly polished, there were no markings on the walls, no foul odors, or high dust anywhere. However, during her last facility tour, Karen, the administrator, scored the hallway a two out of a possible five.

“This hallway is fine,” she said starting to walk away. I looked after her, then back down at my notes.

“Just a sec,” I said turning the inspection report towards her so she could see the score. “You gave this hallway a two,” I said. She smiled without meaning to. “I mean, the hallway can’t be both a two and be fine,” I said. She looked around and nodded.

“You’re right,” she said. “I may have judged this one too harshly. Move it up to a three.” She said, turning to continue the tour. I stopped her.

“Karen,” I said. “This is the question I need to answer, what can we do to get this hallway to be a five?” She shook her head from side to side.

“Nothing,” she said. “There is no such thing as a five.” With that she turned on her heels and continued walking.

“No such thing as a five?” I mimicked in disbelief. I look back down at the inspection sheet and took in some air. Letting it out slowly, I change the two to a three and then ran to catch up with her.

Karen is in her late 20’s, a new administrator in charge of a 120 bed rehab center in a busy suburb. Every month, in addition to our own inspection processes, we ask the administrator to go on a facility tour with our manager so that we can see what she is seeing. The facility tours are graded from one, (the worst), to five, (the best) and are supposed to judge one thing; is the building clean.

Ever since Karen has started (3 months now) our facility tour scores have been going down. Prior to Karen, our facility tour scored an average of 89 out of 100. Two days ago she gave us the lowest score we have ever received (52), which prompted the need for a performance improvement plan (PIP) and my visit.

The facility was not without issues. We found cobwebs in room 4c, fans with a lot of buildup, cubicle curtains that needed to be changed and toilet bases that could use a good scrubbing. However, those issues were few and far between a mostly clean building; with shiny floors, very little dust and odor free. We walked into the main dining room and looked around. On the unit inspection Karen had rated it as a three.

“I don’t understand,” I said looking around. “The tables are clean, the chairs are clean, the floors are buffed, there are no cobwebs and there are no spots or spills on the walls.” Karen didn’t look at me; instead she kept walking around the room looking, hoping, to find an issue. “It doesn’t smell bad,” I continued. “In fact, it smells pretty good.” I smiled at a dietary aid who was setting up for lunch. She smiled back.

“It’s not perfect,” Karen said starting to get annoyed with me. “Nothing is ever perfect.”

“Who is shooting for perfection,” I said trying to hide my own annoyance. “The question isn’t about perfection, it’s about clean vs. dirty. And more to the point, if it isn’t clean, or clean enough, to find out what we can do to make it cleaner. So that you are satisfied.” Karen held my gaze, formulating a response but I didn’t give her time.

“With all due respect,” I said thinking about the last three months of unit inspections and how the scores keep getting worse and worse; and how she is fortuitously missing the bigger picture. “We are talking about housekeeping here. Housekeeping in a very busy, 120 bed nursing home. A nursing home that has, in addition to 120 residents, more than 100 staff members, dozens of visitors. There are more than 60 bathrooms, 10,000 square feet of floor care, and literally hundreds of nooks and crannies and places that collect dust and dirt every single day.

“It is so large of an operation that the only thing I can guarantee is that right now, this very minute, there is someone in this nursing home that is making a mess. They just marked up a wall, or spilled coffee, or brought in mud on their feet, or missed the trash can (and didn’t bend over to pick it up), or they just used a cubicle curtain for more than just privacy, and don’t even get me started on what is happening in probably a half dozen bathrooms right now.” Karen gave me a half smile and a knowing shrug.

I get animated when I talk and I realized when I finished my hands had stopped in mid-air. My right hand was still stretched out, pointing to countless, unseen dirty bathrooms in the distance. I dropped my hands, found my pockets and leaned back against the nearest wall.

The idea that everything has to be perfect, or 100% is nothing new and even though it difficult to deal with in a clean vs. dirty environment, when it comes to performance based pay, it can be even more difficult to understand and deal with.

Case in point: A few months after I was promoted to my current position I got into a heated discussion with my boss over bonus pay. The promotion came with an attractive pay and benefits package that included performance based bonuses. However, right from the beginning, I have never received 100% of my bonuses. It didn’t seem to matter how hard I worked, or how great the performance was, the most I ever received was 80%.

“Look,” he said after I kept arguing the point. “No one ever gets 100% of their bonus pay; ever. 80% is about the max that anyone gets.” I stared at him, wide eyed. “In fact, most people don’t even make 80%,” he said, as a matter of fact.

“Eighty percent,” I said slowly. I knew I couldn’t hide the look of confusion and disgust on my face so I didn’t even try. “Eighty percent,” I said again, more to myself than to him. “I didn’t sign up for 80% of the pay package that I was guaranteed.”

“You were not guaranteed that you would receive 100% of your bonuses,” he said dismissing my exasperation. ”100% is what you work towards. It’s what keeps you working.”

“But you just said I’ll never get it.”

“No one does.”

“I don’t understand,” I said.

“What don’t you understand? We have to give you something to work towards. Something that will keep you motivated, so that you keep working harder every day.”

“You do know that I’m not an ass, right?” I said. He looked at me blank faced.

“A donkey!” I said. “You do know that I’m not a donkey, right?” He smiled.

“No one is calling you a donkey.”

“Sure you are,” I said. I slid my hands into my back pockets in an attempt to keep them from flailing around. It didn’t work. “You are saying that I need some unattainable carrot to be dangled in front of my face in order to get me to keep moving… to stay motivated, to work hard; and to do my job.”

“We all do,” he said.

I remember sitting there, understanding what he was saying, not liking it, not exactly believing it, but then again, I wasn’t able to entirely rule it out either. We all need goals, and things to work toward, but when it becomes clear that whatever it is that you are working toward is unattainable, do you keep moving… keep working… even though you know it will never be enough… never be right… never be 100%?

Karen had enough of the tour and my lecture and grabbed the inspection sheet I had set on one of the dining room tables. She began rereading her notes and making adjustments to her original scores. As she did, Alice, one of my long time housekeepers walked past the dining room and stopped, waiting for me to notice her. When I did she looked at me and mouthed, “Is everything okay?” I smiled and nodded. “Everything is great,” I silently mouthed back; lying.

“At the end of the day these inspections and facility tours are a necessary component that ensures that we are doing what we are supposed to be doing,” I said. Karen looked up and nodded. “I get it. We all get it. However, what these inspection forms do not take into account is that people need a win. We, the housekeeping department, needs a win. We all work very hard, cleaning up after hundreds of people a day; many of whom have no regard for the condition they leave a room or an area. Which is fine. That is our job.

“But then you just add insult to injury by saying, not only do we never get it right, but that we never can get it right. I mean, if 80% is the most anyone can ever get, if 80% is the cleanest this place will ever be, then isn’t 80% the new 100%?” Karen nodded in spite of herself; agreeing.

“I know what you are thinking,” I continued. “I know what the rationale is in not wanting to give 100%. I know that it seems like if you give someone 100%, then you are saying that they are perfect and that they are doing everything right and therefore no longer need to work hard, but I’m begging you to consider the other side of this.

“You know that there are a lot of areas in this facility that are as clean as they can be. Just as we know that there are areas that need more work. You don’t need to dangle a carrot in front of our faces to get us to do the right thing, to work harder, and clean more. And even if you do, keep in mind that even the donkey gets to enjoy the carrot in the end. Not a piece of the carrot. Not eighty percent of the carrot. The donkey gets the w-h-o-l-e carrot.

Karen looked at me and laughed. “The donkey,” she said and I smiled.

“That’s right,” I said. “Even the donkey.”

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