Author Archives: tolu

Cleaning as Practice

Cleaning is a humble activity but it can be a rewarding activity. Personally, I do not think anyone should do cleaning full time for the rest of their lives and we encourage our staff to have something else going on in their lives than cleaning as people who do, do better in cleaning. However, while engaged in cleaning, I think it is worthwhile to do it as a practice, a place to hone skills that are required in other domains. At Zenith Cleaners, we have always maintained that cleaning is much more than cleaning. As someone engaged in every aspect of cleaning, I think it can be a practice that helps develop vital skills, if one is attuned to learning even from humble activities and one does not think that the cleaning activity somehow diminishes them..

In cleaning, there are opportunities to stretch yourself mentally, physically and spiritually. Recently, we started a new cleaning engagement which I assigned to myself. I was almost certain at the beginning that it was impossible to complete the tasks within the time that we needed to complete them to have a profitable relationship. But I decided to take a risk by allowing myself to think that I could complete the required tasks in about 60% of the time it would normally take without compromising on quality. I set that goal for myself and was able to achieve it consistently, without compromising on quality. This required stretching myself – improving my speed while remaining present so as not to miss anything. Achieving that goal required practicing how to do more with less (less time, less resources, etc.)

I am presently in transition to a new project and I am glad for the opportunity to practice much needed skills: concentration, operating under a tight time and resource budget, improvisation, practicing presence, testing and stretching my limits. I think of Karate Kid, learning how to fight by waxing cars. It seems to me that approach is much more rewarding for everyone than if he simply went to the gym or a training arena to train his hands.

Cleaning is not just about keeping someone else’s space clean. Depending on one’s perspective, the cleaner may benefit much more from the process than the beneficiary of the cleaning task and I think understanding and experiencing ways a cleaner may benefit from the activity makes it much more rewarding for everyone. As a cleaner, you probably will not be cleaning for the rest of your life but while you are doing it, why not fully participate and experience what makes cleaning rewarding for you.

Trading Places

A few years ago, a thought came to me while cleaning at one of our commercial clients, that there may be people like me, who want to clean, not because they have to, but for other reasons. I thought that like me, there may be people who consider cleaning to be therapeutic, meditative and physically exerting. At a Santropol Roulant board meeting, I proposed the idea to fellow board members and Tana Paddock, who was a board member then, took me up on the offer to work with Zenith Cleaners, not as a “cleaner” but as someone who wants to experience cleaning for reasons other than needing a job. Tana worked with Zenith Cleaners for about one year and it was a great experience for her. Tana ended up cleaning for organizations she had either had either led or consulted for. I thought that was really exciting.

For me, cleaning is not just about cleaning. It is about relationships, it is about working out, it is about meditation, it is about seeing the world through a different lens and being in a different role than my training and background has prepared me for. I cannot describe what it feels like to be a cleaner doing high dusting in a clothing store one night and the next morning be speaking to a graduating MBA class at HEC Montreal. It tends to enlarge your frame of reference, at the very least.

We are open to people who want to trade places, meditate, work out, lose weight – everyone who was slightly overweight when they joined Zenith Cleaners get to lose weight without having to pay a dime to do so. Instead, they get paid. One thing to note though is that when we are cleaners, we are cleaners and we are present with the work that needs to be done. We are present with the need to satisfy our clients and ensure they have a great experience with us.

Qualities of a good cleaner

Last Friday, August 20, 2010 was Sarah Mann’s last day at Zenith Cleaners. Sarah was our oldest staff and while we will miss her, we are happy to see her go, and flourish somewhere else, taking with her some of the qualities of a Zenith Cleaner. Ronke and I had a short debriefing session with her last week. We spoke about her experience over the last 5 years and how that connected with the next phase of her life. Sarah came on board shortly before she left McGill University and while she was with Zenith Cleaners, she did a Masters in Social Work from University of Victoria.

It may be hard to see how several years in a cleaning company prepares you for anything else in life but cleaning. But it is clear that the skills and attitudes needed to thrive in Zenith Cleaners or as a good cleaner at all, are universal, and prepare one for greater responsibilities. This is in no way exhaustive and is in no particular order.

Discipline
It takes an amazing amount of self discipline to consistently deliver top quality performance to clients even in something as basic as cleaning, where performance naturally declines over time. It takes discipline to be always punctual, show up at clients’ premises rain, snowstorm or shine and follow assigned tasks when the natural tendency is to do otherwise. It takes discipline to pursue and complete a Masters full time while working 30+ hours a week in something as physically (and mentally) demanding as cleaning. Discipline transcends occupations.

Humility
This is obvious. Cleaning up after people humbles you, for many reasons, especially if you attended one of the most prestigious Universities in Canada. For most people, cleaners are at the bottom of the chain and it is very hard not to see how “small” you are when you do cleaning. This is an attitude that I think all humans need, because only with humility can we consistently improve. Only humble people can grow and become more than they presently are. Only humble people can learn. Only humble people can keep an open mind to possibilities beyond their field of experience. Only humble people can create new things. Which occupation does not need humility?

Servant heart
As a cleaner, you are practically a servant. If you did not know how to serve others before coming on board, you would need to learn it in a matter of months. At Zenith Cleaners, our clients have the freedom to disengage without notice and so the servant heart is even more needed because we retain clients only because of our service quality. The world can only be made better by those who have the willingness and the heart to extend beyond themselves and serve, whether or not they stand to benefit significantly. As a cleaner, you learn to serve with all your heart, mind and body for comparatively little financial benefit. At Zenith Cleaners, we are blessed to have people like Sarah, who do it joyfully day in day out. Such people should lead because they have learnt to serve joyfully with little compensation.

Confidence
This may seem to contradict the idea of humility, but really, who is truly humble unless they have something to be proud about? As a cleaner, you need to be confident of who you are and be able to separate who you are from society’s conception of you, which is dependent on what you do. If you allow yourself to be defined by what society thinks of you, you are internally defeated and once you are internally defeated, the quality of your work suffers. As a cleaner, you need to take pride in the work you do and know that even if others do not appreciate you much for it, it is worthwhile. This is why we have the Martin Luther quote on our website. If a cleaner can learn to do their work as well as Shakespeare wrote poetry, they will most likely be able to do anything else as well.

Discretion
This is big. Sarah herself mentioned this during our conversation. As a cleaner, you need discretion. We do work with task lists but as a cleaner you need that unique human endowment of personal judgement to know when to stick to the task list and when to set it aside. If you are someone who only follows task lists and loves routine, contrary to what most people may think, you cannot be a good cleaner. You need discretion to be a good custodian of people’s physical and information assets. More than most of our staff, Sarah had access to people’s homes and information and she was a faithful custodian while she was with us. She could easily have destroyed the company and any one of our clients by simply misusing what was entrusted to her. That takes discretion and it is needed everywhere. In cleaning, you learn it if you did not have it.

Presence
A good cleaner needs to be present. At Zenith Cleaners, we always say that people should bring their whole selves to work. It is not just a physical activity. It is mental as well as spiritual. Discretion for example requires using your intuition, which is beyond mental. If you are not present, you must of necessity do a poor job. Cleaning allows one to practice being present. At Zenith Cleaners, after consistent complaints about your work, you either learn presence or leave. Don’t we all love people who are just present? There is a serenity about them that is contagious and you can be sure that when they are doing anything, they are not doing something else. When they are here, they are here, now.

Trust
This is perhaps the biggest quality in cleaning. Who wants to give anyone access to their space, their lives, their information, their assets if they cannot be trusted? No matter how good a cleaning company is in terms of quality of work, trust is what determines who consistently wins with clients and gets rave reviews. Intuitively, most clients know that it all comes down to trustworthiness and not the size of the company or the age of the company. Our clients must trust us to do a good job, to care for their space, their assets, their information, to be honest and open about what we can or cannot do and to keep our word. Our staff must be trustworthy for us to retain our clients’ trust. Sarah was trustworthy throughout her time with Zenith Cleaners, because she is trustworthy. Trustworthiness is a quality cleaners need and it is a quality in very short supply in our world.

Zenith Cleaners, 6 years after

This week made it 6 years since Ronke and I started Zenith Cleaners. It has been a rewarding adventure. We have had staff, clients and suppliers who have been with us almost since inception. People who believed in us when we were not even sure of ourselves. We are grateful to them because without them we would not have made it this far. I have to say Namaste, “I salute the God in you.”

Some staff, clients and suppliers were with us but no longer. We are grateful to them because they contributed to what we are now. We are grateful to them because they help to drive home the reality that we are only with each other for a short while and that creates an urgency to make a difference with each other, while holding each other loosely. We realize that we may not become what we are not yet, if we have no freedom to leave where we have always been. Namaste to those who touched our lives and allowed us to touch theirs.

We have learnt many things doing this and this is an experience Ronke and I will not trade for anything else in the world. We came into this knowing that it was a ‘lowly’ occupation but we chose to be ‘lowly’ instead of ‘exalted’ and while we had a sense of it when we started, we realize in retrospect that there are many things you learn in lowliness that you cannot learn otherwise. We are grateful to all the people who gave us and continue to give us the opportunity to make mistakes, to learn and to attempt to love.

We have tried to show that we are not so much about cleaning and contracts and payments as we are about relating with people. For us, being environmentally friendly is only part of relating with people. We are grateful to the people who allowed us to enter into and to be in their lives through Zenith Cleaners.

One of the things we have learnt is that true greatness is at home with smallness and the true test of a person’s greatness of heart is how they treat people who appear ‘insignificant’, people they can get away with mistreating. We appreciate our staff, clients and suppliers for exemplifying that.

Has Zenith Cleaners been successful? We have existed for 6 years so something is working, financially. However, we are neither inspired nor motivated by traditional definitions of success. For us, success has more to do with our contribution to people and that exists only in the heart. We believe J.F. Kennedy’s statement: “After the dust of centuries has passed over our cities, we will be remembered not for our victories or defeats in battle or politics (or if I may add, business) but for our contribution to the human spirit.”

Looking forward, we do not know what is in store. We know we will keep learning and we will keep loving even though we make mistakes in the process. We believe that the future holds boundless opportunities to make a difference and we will seize those opportunities, which our experience at Zenith Cleaners has prepared us for, thanks to all the people who allowed and allow us to be.