The 'heart' of the district

Maintenance and Operations steps up to keep students safe, comfortable, ready to learn

7/10/2017 | TACOMA, Washington

According to Tom Chalk, if a school were a body, the teachers would be the brains: Intelligent, in control and indispensable. But it takes more than a brain to make a body run, and it takes more than teachers to make a school run. That's where the electricians, custodians, plumbers and other maintenance and operations staff come in.

"We're the heart. We keep things going," said Chalk, maintenance manager within the Maintenance and Operations Department. "We push the life-sustaining fluids and energy into the buildings so the brains can focus on teaching."

If Maintenance and Operations is the heart, the district has spent the past couple years on a heart-healthy diet and a program of cardiac fitness. Changes to leadership, updated procedures and a focus on department culture have brought about improvements in efficiency, more employee satisfaction and happier customers throughout the district.

"I've been here 16 years, and the last two years have been a whirlwind of changes—good changes," said Nancy Sherwood, a maintenance support specialist.

"We're in the best position we've ever been in," said Don Woods, a maintenance foreman in his 24th year in the district.

Listening to learn

Chalk came on board as maintenance manager in 2015, and around that time, Steve Story became director of operations. Steve Murakami, became the district's chief operating officer shortly before that and began overseeing Maintenance and Operations. Murakami left the district this spring.

They evaluated the state of the department in hopes of understanding how to make it more efficient and improve satisfaction for both customers and employees. They focused on recommendations in a department audit based on a 2014 survey of employees and customers asking about work climate, communication and other aspects of the department. They also began holding meetings with staff specifically to listen to their thoughts.

Here's what they learned:

1. Communication matters

Electrician Bill McNeley replaces a light at Truman Middle School
​ ​​​​Communication within the department needed a lot of work. Most employees felt uninformed, unheard and dissatisfied. 

"We just didn't talk enough, and we didn't have enough personal contact with our team members," Story said.

The department offered few established methods for communicating with employees, and rarely called any meetings meant to keep staff up-to-date.

​​​"The report said basically that the only communication channel was that leadership would have a meeting at lunch once in a while," Chalk said.

They learned that staff rarely mentioned negative opinions to leadership because they feared retribution.

So Story, Murakami, Chalk and the other administrators began talking more. They started weekly meetings with the senior leadership teams in maintenance and in operations, as well as monthly meetings with chief custodians and maintenance staff. Twice a year the department holds meetings with all maintenance and operations staff.

"Most of it was about listening to understand, rather than listening to reply," Story said.

The leadership team made it clear that employees could bring concerns without fearing punishment, and they actively sought workers' ideas and suggestions to make things better. As they listened more, they began to understand the depths of many employees' frustration. It was sometimes difficult to criticism directed at them, but they tried their best to listen, Chalk said.

"It's about being open and not being threatened by what you're hearing," Chalk said. "Instead, you can take it as information you need and then turn it into positive action."

For example, some of the trade workers said they were dissatisfied that managers conducted evaluations of their work when they hadn't directly seen the work. This started a discussion where managers and laborers worked together for a solution. Now, employees' team leads, who have first-hand knowledge of their work, also give feedback on employee evaluations.

That kind of resolution can't happen when staff members fear voicing their concerns or when supervisors are unwilling to hear criticism.   

Communication in the department has improved a lot, but employees still have complaints sometimes, Chalk said.

"Communication is never a passive discipline," Chalk said. "You've got to continue to improve it and change it to make sure it meets what people need."

2. Technology makes a big difference

As recently as last year, when someone in a building needed a repair, they had to call into the maintenance office or fill out a paper work request form.  

In an organization with 5,200 employees and 5.2 million square feet space, that meant a lot of paper—and a lot of mess. And every one of those pieces of paper could fall victim to a long list of dangers: Unreadable handwriting, falling behind desks, incorrect filing, as examples If the request didn't have all the necessary information, it meant delays while staff members tracked down answers to questions.

Maintenance employee Kenny Shade
​ ​​​Work order forms routinely got lost or shuffled to the back of a pile, and pressing work sometimes got delayed or left incomplete. Priority tended to go to the jobs requested by the most persistent employees, rather than the jobs of most immediate importance.

The problem was ripe for a technological solution. The district had a computerized work order system, but few knew how to use its full potential, so many useful tools sat dormant gathering digital dust.

In July 2016 the department began using an upgraded online work order management system called Mainsaver Connect. Custodians at the buildings call or email their work requests to the maintenance office, where maintenance support specialists Alice Sobania and Nancy Sherwood create a work order in the system, assign it a priority level and assign it to a team. Team leadersthen assign jobs to staff within the system and an email goes to the custodian who requested it so school staff know when to expect someone and who will do the work.

When maintenance staff members start their work day, they log in on a laptop and see their assignments for the day. If they have questions about an assignment, they can message staff at the building. As they works on a job, they can make notes in the system, which the building custodian can review to know the status of the job.

"We react by priority now, rather than by who hollers the loudest," Woods said.

The new system has improved the relationship between the maintenance staff and the rest of the district, Sobania said.

"We used to get phone calls saying, 'Um, someone was in our building doing work, and we don't really know who,'" Sobania said.

The improved communication made possible by the online system, as well as the increased emphasis on communication, mean staff in the schools know who will be coming and can read updates on what work they did. 

The system also works well for the laborers doing the work, said Ryan Schutt, a laborer who oversees a crew that maintains schools' athletic fields. Schutt started at the district over a year ago, when the department still used paper work orders. He said the online system makes it easier to quickly see what work he and his crew should complete and to communicate with the school staff that requested the work.

3. Focus on metrics, communicate about metrics

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Wainwright Elementary School custodian Don Whitemarsh
​ ​​​The survey also showed that Maintenance and Operations could benefit from a more deliberate focus on the data and metrics.

Chalk said the department has begun to closely attend to the cost of maintaining the district's facilities, tracking factors such as the cost per student and cost per square foot. And, just as importantly, they began talking about those metrics to employees.

For example, Operations Manager Paul Harris, who oversees custodial work in the district, tracks the cost of custodial materials, such as paper products and cleaning equipment. In the past, such data wouldn't have made it beyond the office. But now, Harris regularly updates custodians on how much it costs to maintain their buildings. He also explains the department's cost-saving measures, and how they can benefit the schools, students and staff.

Maintenance workers also know more now about how much work in the district costs and how it fits into the budgeting within the district. Department leaders update their staff on what it costs to maintain the district per work order, per student and per square foot.

Chalk said this empowers laborers to make more responsible decisions about how they complete their work. If an employee understands the cost of maintaining schools, they can better see how their work fits in, which encourages them to make cost-effective decisions in their work.

"When they're part of the process, they have decision-making tools that allow them to mature into leaders," Story said.

Being the district's heart

All of the changes during the past few years have helped Maintenance and Operations staff members better see their role in the district's mission of educating Tacoma students. Mopping up a mess or emptying garbage cans might not always feel important, Chalk said, but if you understand how your efforts keep kids safe and comfortable so they can learn; it can make work more meaningful and increase your motivation.

"You develop a culture where they see that what they do is important, and everything has an impact on the kids," Chalk said.

Staff members showed a recognition of their work's importance this winter when Jason Lee Middle School reported cases of mumps among its students, Chalk said. Custodial employees from multiple schools willingly descended on Jason Lee to clean it overnight in an effort to eradicate possible traces of the disease before students returned for school the next day. When another school later had reports of mumps, they used the same method there.

Story and Chalk emphasize that none of these improvements within Maintenance and Operations could have happened without the commitment of everyone within the department.

"Tom and Paul and I, all we're doing is guiding the ship. It's the members of the team that have made it happen," Story said. "They have jumped on the boat with us, and we're all going."

Chalk agrees.

"We've had a team of professionals that has wanted to contribute and be part of the effort to improve the district," he said. "By demonstrating our desire to get their buy-in, it's changed the culture from confrontational to collaborative, and it's moved us all forward.