Dirty Business, Bright Ideas

You don't have to be glamorous to be cutting edge. Finland's SOL Cleaning Service combines radical innovation with disciplined execution -- a winning formula that mops up the competition.

Walk into SOL City, headquarters of one of northern Europe's most admired companies, and it feels like you've entered a business playground. Located in a renovated film studio in the heart of Helsinki, the office explodes with color, creativity, and chaos. The walls are bright red, white, and yellow; the employees wander the halls talking on portable phones (also yellow) and meet, when necessary, in "neighborhoods" with distinct personalities. One neighborhood has oddly shaped conference tables that can be pieced together like a jigsaw puzzle. Another resembles a tree house. The all-important training room looks more like a multicultural version of "Romper Room," with everything from overhead projectors and VCRs to chalkboards and window shades decorated with circus scenes.

It's an environment tailor-made for software developers in Silicon Valley, creative types on Madison Avenue, or Hollywood screenwriters. But SOL does not compete in any of these glamorous businesses. In fact, it competes in one of the world's least glamorous businesses -- industrial cleaning. SOL is a high-energy, fast-paced, knowledge-driven company whose employees scrub hospital floors, sweep grocery aisles, and make hotel beds.

"Life is hard, work is hard," says Liisa Joronen, 52, SOL's chairman and owner, "but in a service business, if you're not happy with yourself, how can you make the customer happy?"

It's a simple question -- and answering it has created a wildly successful company. Joronen founded SOL Cleaning Service five years ago, when she carved the business out of a 150-year-old industrial empire owned by her family. The "new" operation opened its doors on January 1, 1992 with 2,000 employees, 1,500 customers, and revenues of $35 million. It now has 3,500 employees, 3,000 customers, and revenues of $60 million. In Finland, and increasingly across Europe, SOL isn't just a company. It's an icon of what it takes to win in the new world of business.

How does Joronen clean up in an industry notorious for low wages, high turnover, and lousy service? SOL's competitive formula has five key ingredients.

Hard work has to be fun.

Few people dream about becoming a cleaner. But that doesn't mean cleaners can't find satisfaction in their work. The keys to satisfaction, Joronen believes, are fun and individual freedom. SOL's culture is built relentlessly -- almost excessively -- around optimism and good cheer. Its cleaners wear red-and-yellow jumpsuits that reinforce the company's upbeat image. SOL's logo, a yellow happy face, is plastered on everything from her blazer to the company's stationery to its most important budget reports.

Freedom means abolishing all the rules and regulations of conventional corporate life. There are no titles or secretaries at SOL, no individual offices or set working hours. The company has eliminated all perks and status symbols. Most days, despite her membership in one of Finland's wealthiest families, Joronen commutes to work on her (bright yellow) bicycle. Her mantra is simple: "Kill routine before it kills you."

There are no low-skill jobs.

SOL's training program would be the envy of any high-tech giant. The core curriculum consists of seven modules, each of which lasts four months and ends with a rigorous exam. Of course, there are just so many ways to polish a table or shampoo a carpet. That's why SOL employees also study time management, budgeting, and people skills. Training is really about upgrading mindsets -- turning cleaners into customer-service specialists.

"Our main goal is to change how cleaners work," Joronen says. "To let them use their brains as well as their hands."

By upgrading its people, SOL upgrade its business. Some of the hospitals that employ SOL's cleaners have begun using them for "night nurse" duties: helping patients to the bathroom, notifying the doctor-on-call during an emergency. In a number of large grocery stores, SOL cleaners stock the shelves as well as sweep the aisles.

People who set their own targets shoot for the stars.

Lots of companies talk about decentralizing responsibility and authority. At SOL it's a way of life. The company's real power players are its 135 supervisors, each of whom leads a team of up to 50 cleaners. These supervisors work with their teams to create their own budgets, do their own hiring, negotiate their own deals with customers. "People are ambitious and unrealistic," Joronen says. "They set targets for themselves that are higher than what you would set for them. And because they set them, they hit them."

These self-managed teams even build their own offices. SOL now has 23 satellite "studios" across Finland, modeled on the same principles as SOL City. A studio can't open until the people who want it have enough business to cover the rent, equipment, and training. "There are no excuses," Joronen warns. "The studios must never be unprofitable. That's why we open so few of them."

Loose organizations need tight metrics.

Liisa Joronen believes in autonomy, but she's also a stickler for accountability. SOL is fanatical about measuring performance. It does so frequently and visibly, and most of its metrics focus on customer satisfaction. Every time SOL lands a contract, for example, the salesperson works at the new customer's site alongside the team that will do the cleaning in the future. Together they establish performance benchmarks. Then, every month, customers rate the team's performance based on those benchmarks. Individual cleaners carry "quality passports," updated monthly, that document their performance on the customer surveys.

"The more we free our people from rules," Joronen says, "the more we need good measurements."

Great service requires cutting-edge technology.

Who says a "low-end" business has to be a low-tech business? Laptops and cell-phones are standard equipment for all supervisors at SOL, freeing them to work where they want, how they want. Inside the office (whether at SOL City or any of the 23 studios), there's almost no room for paper. So the company stores all critical budget documents and performance reports on its Intranet, along with training schedules, upcoming events, and company news. A sophisticated sales database, also on the Intranet, tracks all of SOL's existing customers and high-priority target accounts, when they were last contacted, by whom, and what promises were made.

"We use computers more than most computer companies," Joronen says. "Ten years ago, we couldn't have done what we do today."

Gina Imperato (gimperato@fastcompany.com) is a member of the Fast Company editorial staff.

For more information on Liisa Joronen and SOL, you can contact the company directly at:

Fax: (0205 700 399)
Snail mail:
SOL Palvelut Oy
Vanha talvitie 19A
00580 Helsinki

Or if your Finnish is up to snuff, visit the Web site at www.sol.fi

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