Can Big Data make cleaning contracts more sustainable?

There is enormous potential for Big Data to drive more sustainable and lean cleaning operations.

Innovations in digitisation, automation and data analytics are radically changing the way buildings are run. Anything that is powered can now have a sensor attached to it that compiles and analyses information. Business software, personal tracking devices, smart metres, building sensors and digital components embedded in equipment, are producing an unprecedented volume of data that is often referred to as ‘Big Data’.

Will this mountain of data affect the way cleaning services and supplies are procured in the future? Undoubtedly. Can it be used to make the cleaning industry more sustainable? Absolutely. And most importantly, what can you do to stay ahead in this brave new digital world?

These questions are explored in the following article, from the perspective of three main aspects being ‘digitised’:

  1. Digitising assetssmart metres and sensors in buildings and equipment;
  2. Digitising operations and business processes; and
  3. Digitising people: digital skills and the impact that data will have on the workforce1.

Digital assets

In a local government facility management conference I attended last year, speaker after speaker left the audience feeling overwhelmed as they described the rapid digitisation of buildings and the equipment used to operate them.

No longer are Building Management Systems (BIMS) restricted to new buildings in the heart of the CBD.  Any building can now be digitised and the underlying cause of this so-called ‘digital disruption’ is a huge fall in price of electronic sensors – from $500 a few years ago to as little as $15 today.

Digital sensors can be programmed to collect data and control the systems that operate buildings, improving efficiency and occupant comfort, while reducing time and energy costs. Common examples of this are sensors that measure light levels and movement and automatically switch on lights as needed.

More specialised sensors can monitor temperature, humidity, CO2 levels and air flow, in real time, then feed this data into a centralised system that controls the heating, ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC) system.

This level of automation is called a ‘smart building system’. While the set-up costs may be high, it can pay for itself surprisingly quickly.  When Microsoft activated its new smart buildings system at its US headquarters, within moments the system found exhaust fans that had been left running for a year, at a cost of $66,000.

While using energy efficiently and minimising wastage is fundamental to sustainability, there are other ways sensors can make cleaning operations more sustainable.  For example, they can monitor dispensers and send alerts when they need to be refilled to prevent premature disposal; they can activate automatic internal compressors when bins are full – reducing bin-liners, time, transportation and disposal costs. Sensors in bins are also being used to weigh and report the volume of recyclable waste collected from different premises.

Digitising business operations

There is enormous potential for Big Data to drive more sustainable and lean cleaning operations.  Melbourne’s RMIT University has developed a program that maps each building surface then uses building sensors to continuously track building usage and condition.

This data is fed into a predictive maintenance modelling program that enables informed decision-making for the sustainable management of buildings, and of budget allocations. It’s not a stretch to imagine the day when occupancy sensors, dust particulate readings, or even smart gloss metres, will be used to inform cleaning staff which areas/surfaces to clean on a day-to-day basis.

As sensors and facility management tools become more sophisticated and cheaper/easier to use, the expectation for greater efficiency, transparency, control and flexibility from service operators and their suppliers will follow as it has in other data-driven industries. Smart buildings could see the replacement of fixed schedule contracts with more flexible pricing arrangements that are billed on an as-needs basis.

To stay competitive, most companies have digitised their business processes, including accounting and payroll processes, Customer Relationship Management systems (CRMs), performance monitoring tools, employer tracking devices and induction training records. Reams of data is being captured in these systems, yet very few businesses have the capacity to analyse their metrics to improve, and report on, the sustainability of their operations.

For example:

  • Suppliers could provide online dashboards, comparing usage patterns across portfolios at different times of year, and integrate this with the results of initiatives to prevent wastage and reduce packaging and transportation.
  • Services could overlay their employee tracking systems with the building plans to automatically map workflows and time spent cleaning each building area, then address the inefficiencies and measure savings in time and energy use (such as from lighting or vacuuming).

Digitising people

The final area of digitisation is arguably the most important for achieving sustainable outcomes: the people that use the systems and implement change.  Employees with good digital skills will become sought-after. Companies with managers that can analyse smart building metrics, and optimise their service in response, will become invaluable to their clients.

Flexible and efficient scheduling; accurate ordering of consumables to reduce transportation; waste audit reporting; scientific ATP hygiene auditing; installing and interpreting sensors in equipment, trolleys and dispensers to reduce energy use and wastage – the sky is the limit when it comes to the potential for sustainability via digitisation.

However, it will be a very poor investment if the managers lack the skill to interpret the data correctly and to deliver efficiencies.

Companies that invest in digital systems and training are future-proofing their company and the environment.  It’s often said that you can’t manage what you don’t measure, but in the world of Big Data, it is even more important to be able to manage what is being measured.

*Bridget Gardner is the director of Fresh Green Clean who are measuring sustainability of the cleaning industry. Contact Bridget on |

McKinsey and Company

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