Hotels Give “Lean” a Bad Name??


Housekeepers' Giant “Hope Quilt” Puts Hotel Job Injuries in Spotlight | Labor Notes

Articles like this are incredibly frustrating to see. It makes me think of a variation of the famous Bon Jovi song that would go something like “You Give Lean a Bad Name.” As Jamie pointed out in the comments, this is totally “L.A.M.E.

One problem the Lean community has is that there's no ownership of the word “lean.” Companies and people can do whatever they want under the self-proclaimed banner of “lean.” Many of the practices or mentalities described as “lean” have absolutely nothing to do with the Toyota Production System and true “Lean” (I capitalize it when I mean the formal system based on Toyota, Dr. Deming, Training Within Industry, and other methods).

So this piece about hotels (rabble rousing to get hotel workers to join unions) either:

  1. Intentionally misrepresents what is going on with “lean” or
  2. Sadly represents how hotels are really operating under a so-called “lean” umbrella.

The part that jumped out at me:


Lean production—including speedup, understaffing, “just-in-time” production, and the resulting jump in workplace injury rates—hasn't been limited to auto assembly lines or meatpacking. A Wachovia Capital Markets report says hotels employed an average of 71 workers per 100 rooms in 1988. Two decades later, 53 workers are handling the same workload. Speedup has created a tussle over the number of rooms cleaned per shift.

There's nothing Lean about workers getting hurt. Blindly speeding up work (ala the “I Love Lucy” candy factory) is not Lean at all. Cutting staffing levels to the point where work can't get done properly represents everything bad about traditional approaches to management and cost cutting. How people get off calling that “Lean” is beyond me.

The staffing data, in and of itself, isn't necessarily the sign of a problem. Going from 71 workers to 53 per 100 rooms might be OK if there was a reduction in “waste.” I doubt it, but it's possible. True process improvement (true “Lean”) would eliminate wasted motion and give the housekeepers better tools to be able to do their job quickly. They might eliminate some “overprocessing” by not changing the sheets every night during a 5-night guest stay.

Improvements like that would allow housekeepers to clean more rooms per day, without hurting quality or hurting the workers. Determining the number of housekeepers required should be based on standardized work (real data about how long it takes to do work) and real observation of the process. Staffing levels shouldn't be based on spreadsheets or benchmarking data.

One other complaint from workers:

Heavy covers, pillows, mattresses, and linen carts weighing up to 80 pounds add to the chance of injury, housekeepers say. “It's like pushing a bull,” said Eunice Zapata de Juarez, a union supporter who spent months on light duty after being injured on the job.

This sounds like a real problem that should be addressed. Can carts be redesigned? Can they be made smaller? Can linens and materials be moved in smaller batches to reduce the load and the weight?

Just pressuring the housekeepers to work faster or “be careful” to not get hurt in a bad system — that's not Lean at all. How do we spread the word in the hotel industry?

Here's a case study from our friend Jamie Flinchbaugh about real Lean methods at Marriott.

[Lean] worked well, since this was in line with the values of J.W. Marriott himself — take care of the associates and they will take care of the guests.

For example, in assessing what was needed, she saw that the room cleaning process could use more support and structure. To accomplish this, a member of the cleaning staff was appointed as Team Leader. This person has many roles – getting parallel processes such as laundry started earlier instead of having to wait until everything was collected, performing room inspections to ensure quality and coaching staff on key job skills. But, perhaps the most important role is being that key go-to resource. After restructuring this process, it became standard protocol that when one of the cleaning crew enters a room and recognizes that the standard 50-minute cleaning time will be exceeded, the Team Leader is called in for backup. This ensures that every room will be done on time without adversely affecting the rest of the cleaning schedule.

Small changes like this have made cleaning more efficient and effective and, most importantly for the guests, cleaning is now more predictable and reliable. And, despite appointing one of the existing crew to the new Team Leader role, the hotel hasn't had to increase any paid-hours because of the efficiencies that were gained.

That's why I've often used quotes from Mr. Marriott in lean training — it's all about supporting the associates doing the work, they will take better care of the guests.

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. I'm working with a small hotel at the moment under the umberalla of "cutting the crap" from the working day so they can focus on delivering excellent service to the customer. Really there are lots of easy pickings such a tables being kept too far away from the conference room they are used in because the cupboard nearby is full of "important stuff" that is never used. The staff have now started to see how we can make their life easier and are buying in – they are not being whipped to work harder and faster…. we are finding them ways to do less!

  2. How did this not draw the L.A.M.E. moniker?

    Sounds like they are trying to run lean from a corporate office without understanding the consequences of their actions.

  3. It always amazes me when companies chases "lean" with staff reductions first. I have always (at the risk of being called Captain Obvious…) started with the machines involved and then looked at the processes or standard work instructions (if they exist…) to move into lean. I can't count how many times redefining how a company accomplishes a goal makes it easier to achieve their goal. Great story and article break down along with a cutting analysis!


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