A Hotel, Time Quotas, Systemic Problems, and Employees Not Having the Right Tools


I travel a lot and, thanks to my work, I'm pretty well attuned to the idea of not blaming individuals for systemic problems in an organization. Or, at least I try to be good about this. I'm human, so I slip up sometimes… like the time I wrongly blamed a bartender for a bad attitude, only to learn the systemic reason behind their frustration.

Before I ever got involved with Lean, I learned from studying Dr. Deming's books that we have to be careful and avoid blaming individuals for systemic problems. This is true in hospitals and it's true with airlines or hotels.

I'm also sensitive to issues about making sure employees aren't given unreasonable time standards or quotas, such as “you have to clean X rooms per hour.” The tyranny of unreasonable targets leads to widespread systemic cheating in the VA (for which we shouldn't blame or fire individuals) and it leads to hotel maids using lemon pledge to polish drinking glasses instead of properly cleaning or replacing them.

I'm pretty forgiving of good people in a bad system, a lesson I learned during my days at General Motors.

I've been staying a hotel, let's just call it a major global hotel chain. I've been at one particular location five or six times now and I often notice that the bed is not made properly, with the top sheet not being tucked in at the end of the bed as is normally done.

Here's what it should look like:


When it's not made properly, the sheet just hangs down over the end of the bed. When you climb into bed and pull up covers… oops, now your feet are exposed.

For what seems like the tenth time here, I went to sleep on my first night here and that top sheet wasn't tucked in properly. I tucked the sheet in at the end of the bed, but it no longer came up far enough toward the head of the bed. It's like the bed had the wrong size sheet on it, or so it seemed. But, I was tired and it was late, so I dealt with it.

Hang in there for the systemic cause of this problem… it's more interesting than a bed that's not made properly, which is a “first world problem,” I realize.

It's tempting to think “the housekeepers are incompetent” (which is a blaming statement and might not be true) or to think “the housekeepers aren't trained properly” (which would be a systemic problem, but might not be true, either).

The evening of my second night at the hotel, I told the front desk about the bedding problem after returning from a day's work with my client. I asked them to re-make the bed and see if it indeed had the correct sheet on it or not.

A night housekeeping manager came to my room and confirmed that the bed was made incorrectly and that the sheet was too small.

He was pretty forthcoming (and said “maybe I shouldn't be saying this”) so I will keep the hotel chain's name out of the story.

The guy said that the housekeepers are under a lot of pressure to clean rooms in a certain time, to hit a certain rooms per hour target. The target isn't his decision and I think he realizes that it causes systemic problems that lead guests to complain (which happens a lot, he said).

When the housekeepers don't have enough time and when they don't have the proper bedding available for a particular room, they'll use whatever sheet they have available, even if it's wrong.

I can't blame them for this. It's a systemic problem. It happens all the time. I'm sure it has nothing to do with any individual housekeeper. They're pressured into hitting a target. They can create a problem that they might get away with (if a guest doesn't complain) or it's somebody else's problem to deal with later (as Dr. Deming said… you burn the toast, I'll scrape it… that's not quality).

What does the hotel need to do?

  • They should make sure the time standards aren't impossible to achieve, since if they are, people will have to cut corners
  • They need to make sure they have enough clean linens of the right size, or people will cut corners
  • If there are problems, they should have a process like Toyota's “andon” or Virginia Mason Medical Center's “patient safety alert” process so that a housekeeper can ask for help and get it, without being blamed or punished
  • Management should pay attention to systemic problems that lead to a lot of complaints and solve the root cause(s). Maybe they need to buy more sheets.

While I was typing this, I got a phone call in my room from a manager, asking if everything had been resolved.

“Yeah, he got the problem resolved… and he confirmed that the wrong-sized sheet had been used, and apparently this happens a lot and maybe y'all should look into this,” I said.

The manager replied, “Well, I just wanted to make sure you got the proper bedding this time,” not even acknowledging the more systemic nature of the problem. I sighed and said, “OK, thanks.”

It's hard to blame people for what they've never been taught… and that includes managers who haven't been taught to manage systemically. I should leave a copy of Deming's Out of the Crisis in the nightstand. Seriously, though, I will try to talk with the general manager about this situation and some of the possible systemic causes and I should probably write a letter to the chain's corporate office. The story here isn't about what's wrong with a certain housekeeper, a certain manager, or a certain location. I bet this happens at other hotels…

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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. Every manager has a manager. Could you have escalated?

    There are lots of hotel options out there. Why do you use this particular one?

    • Yeah, my blog rant is not the end of my efforts. I left a message for the general manager to call me and I hope he or she is willing to discuss the systemic issues and not just chew somebody out. The hotel is convenient to the client site. But I don’t have huge loyalty to this chain.

  2. I was able to have a good discussion with the General Manager over breakfast this morning. I don’t think he was really aware of a systemic problem around linen availability, but he did seem to pretty intuitively understand that we can’t blame individuals for systemic problems. It was good to be able to talk and get beyond a simple complaint and a simple apology.

    There are probably opportunities for the hotel GM to even work with the local hospital… what lessons can be brought from good hospitality or food service industry practices into hospital service, in general), or their cafeteria more specifically?

  3. Hi Mark

    It would seem to me the hotel chain has a problem of over control, that in fact is getting in the way of things always being done right. This is one of the big signs that tell you an organization is run by short-term management thinking. They have designed and push their people to deliver short sighted financial results (clean x rooms per hour) instead of long-term thinking, properly cleaning as many rooms per hour to ensure guests never complain. The second way of thinking may not result in identical cost each day, but it does ensure something far more important, that being guests always experience the correct level of service, something which builds loyalty with the consumer. Getting your people to do their best is not about controlling their level of production, but giving them the training and resources they need to always do their work right. This has to include ways to deal with the problems they encounter during their work day, without being punished for it.

  4. Mark,

    Just came across this old post. Great points. I haven’t encountered the wrong bed sheet, but once I have a tech come out and perform maintenance on my water softener. He was on time, pleasant enough and he got my water softener working just fine, but here’s what got. He hands me a customer satisfaction survey to fill out right then and there while he’s standing there. Then he tells me if he doesn’t get the highest score for each category he gets in trouble!!! If I remember correctly not all of the categories were relevant to his visit. I was satisfied with his work, but I really questioned the way the survey was delivered and written. More importantly, I wondered what kind of draconian system does this guy work in?

    I had a similar experience with a service manager at an automobile dealership after I got my car serviced. Yikes. Again the service was great, but either the survey seemed contrived, irrelevant, and punitive. I suppose these fellows could be gaming the system too, but even so that would be similar to establish quotas. And as Dr. Deming said (I’m paraphrasing here, so forgive me) you’re going to get bad data.

    Thank you for the post and I’m sorry to rant. I feel better now!

    Rick, Mpls.


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