What Makes a Person Clean Drinking Glasses with Pledge? A Bad System


A bad system, will defeat a good person, every time.” — W. Edwards Deming

Would you polish drinking glasses at home with the furniture cleaner Lemon Pledge? Of course not – it's got to be poisonous or at least harmful. Would you use Lemon Pledge to polish the glasses if you were a hotel housekeeper? No?

So what would make somebody do that?

The tell-all book about the hotel industry, Heads in Beds: A Reckless Memoir of Hotels, Hustles, and So-Called Hospitality, has a story about this supposedly happening. Per the NY Times review:

Don't ever drink from hotel glasses: they might very well have been rinsed with hot water, wiped with a dirty hand towel and polished with Lemon Pledge.

From the book:

‘To be absolutely sure they won't be singled out for spotty glasses, [housekeepers] might spray furniture polish all over them,” Tomsky writes. ”So the next time you put a little tap water into the minibar glass and wonder to yourself why it has a pleasant lemon aftertaste, that's because you just took a shot of Pledge.”

Ah… it seems like our old friend “management by fear” is rearing it's ugly (yet common) head again.

For fear of being yelled at by the bosses…

Instead of asking why glasses are spotty, a bad boss will just yell at the housekeepers.

Why are they spotty? It could be the hotel is too cheap to run the glasses through a dishwasher, considering the time and effort and soap that would be required. Maybe the housekeepers don't have the right equipment or cleaners to properly clean (and sterilize??) a glass there in the room. Maybe they don't have enough time to do quality work, if they are given a quota how many rooms they must clean per hour.

When people are under extreme pressure or working in an environment of fear, they'll do all sorts of awful things. The system drove them to do it.

The same thing might happen in hospitals if housekeeping staff is given just five minutes to clean an operating room. That's not long enough to do a proper “terminal clean.” Why do corners get cut? Lack of time. Fear of being yelled at. Infections are higher. Healthcare costs are higher. Patient suffering and mortality is higher. But, we didn't get yelled at.

I'm not blaming the workers.

As Deming taught, quality starts at the top (in the boardroom). Management owns the system. Or, they work in a system that's created by their boards (or shareholders in a public company).

Would you save a few bucks at home by serving horse meat to your guests while calling it beef? No? Some European food companies have done exactly that – and it's the system's fault… I agree with John Seddon on this one.

The culpable should reflect on their responsibility for breaking their psychological contract with their customers and understand that its roots are in their obsession with managing cost downwards. They and our political leaders should reflect on why this scandal should occur in an already heavily regulated sector.

You can't blame individuals for reacting to a tyranny of fear-based management and short-term performance measures.

Washing down that horse meat lasagna from room service with that lemon-flavored water from the tap???

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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. A good reminder, Mark, to those of us in leadership positions. It’s much easier on the ego to blame the people doing the work than to take responsibility for creating/supporting a culture that enables such work – particularly when stuck in an office or boardroom with only results. One of the best attributes of lean I’ve found in our hospital’s early journey is the gemba walk. Particularly when tied to managing for daily improvement efforts, being where the action is with the folks doing it makes blaming harder and asking “why” much more obvious. What I’m finding harder to overcome, though, is historical perceptions of staff about hierarchy and leaders (fear of what used to be). Behavioral change “at the top” is hard stuff – overcoming preconceived notions and obtaining widespread acceptance of a new reality may be even tougher. Gemba time helps here, too, but it seems only time and persistence get one to Gladwell’s tipping point. Any tips for accelerating this process – or traps to avoid?

    • It’s only a matter of time and persistence. Leaders have to build trust with their teams and that usually takes a lot of time and honesty and humility.

      Staff/employees will often freak out at first when they senior leaders- they will think, “what’s wrong? what happened?”

      That goes away over time when being at the gemba becomes normal and regular.


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