The Worshipful Company of Launderers, a City Livery, believes in giving back something to the industry where its members have found success.

It also wants to encourage a new generation of leaders so, through its Education Committee, it has founded the Travelling Scholarship, which, for 2015 was sponsored by Ecolab. The Scholarship allows younger workers to visit European laundries so they can see how this industry compares with that in the UK. It is hoped that the scholarship winners will bring back innovative ideas and best practices from our neighbours to influence and develop the UK industry.
I travelled with winners Sam Deeble and Whitney Hall and discussing the visits, we found many interesting ideas in production from automation to environmentally friendly machines but the ethos and treatment of people was particularly noticeable.

Production styles and methods
Both the German and Dutch laundries we visited adopted a lean management approach. They follow a strategy of constantly making small incremental changes, each of which will improve efficiency and or quality and so the business improves continuously
and smoothly. The management style seeks to eliminate any waste of time, effort or money.
The degree of automation was noticeable. Conveyor belts rather than barrows carried linen along the production line. Automated pickers separated the pieces after drying and these machines are programmed to tell the difference between towels and sheets by their weight. This automation minimises contamination by reducing human contact and makes the workers’ jobs easier and safer by avoiding the need to lift the linen.
The environment seemed to be an important focus. Very little plastic wrapping was used. Fabric cage bags were favoured. Cages were disinfected and neutral, biodegradable tissue paper separated the different batches. Many laundries had energy-saving systems and there was a big push towards eliminating boiler rooms by using
gas-heated ironers and recovering the waste heat, then using it to heat the water for the tunnel washer.
The lean management style encourages efficiency in employees by paying a fixed hourly rate for a 38.5hour week but with flexibility built in. Employees contracts cover overtime but there is also the possibility to work fewer hours if production gets ahead of schedule.
This policy allows the production line time to catch up if a machine breaks down or a delivery is delayed. Work is arranged so that orders always arrive and are returned on the same day of the week – Monday’s orders will be delivered to the customer on the following Monday. This allows staff to become accustomed to a particular routine and delivery schedule, prompting a working environment where they can spot errors and problems more easily.
Production staff are kept informed about customers’ complaints by posts on a notice board but charts on the notice board also show staff how the laundry is performing in terms of customer satisfaction and loyalty. Because of the route management, employees develop a strong attachment to customers and this encourages improved service.

Workwear tasks
In workwear laundries, production staff employed in the post-wash areas will be taught at least three basic tasks: Hanging, quality control, and repairs.
The way garments are hung affects the whole process, so it is important that all staff know how to arrange garments correctly on hangers and will also understand the consequences of failure to do this properly.
Quality Control (QC) is handled on a track system. Garments continually move past the QC stations and staff have just 4seconds to decide if a garment needs to be taken out of line for further attention. They will be looking only for visual repairs.
During training they will make themselves familiar with a catalogue of 50 standard repairs so they know exactly where to look on a garment.
QC stations are adjustable and staff can stop the line to redirect garments where necessary.
If an individual is sending too many garments to repair, or not catching ripped garments, then they are retrained against the catalogue.
Customers may also request other repairs or alterations. They will be briefed about how to do this by customer services and such repairs will be marked electronically on a system that links to the RFID tag on the garment’s hanger.
Employees stationed on the repairs section understand that the laundry’s agreed charges cover basic repairs but that there will be an extra charge for unusual repairs or for adding another feature such as an award badge. Staff will also be trained to pull a garment out of circulation if the required repairs cost more than the garment’s residual value.
Lean management means arranging the production line in work stations with multi-skilled operators. If an employee becomes ill, agency workers can be trained within an hour on the simplest tasks. Each work station has a list of tasks for the day on a nearby wall so employees know what they have to do at any particular station.

Sales and service
In the sales and marketing departments of the laundries we visited, quality was key and the buzzword was service. Marketing teams were staffed by product experts who trained the sales and service teams and gave full briefings on new products, covering both the textiles and safety features.
European best practice recognises that those who deliver and collect the customer’s work are at the front line. They are called service staff, rather than drivers, and given incentives to encourage customers to upgrade or extend the services they use, or at least to provide sales teams with leads.
If a customer asks for garments or textiles that are not in the catalogue, they will pass details to marketing who will sign off or reject the request.
This is a great way to ensure that customers do not provide their staff with garments that are unsuitable for their jobs.
Sales teams are taught to let the customer know that individuality carries a premium and they work to margins rather than just a sales target so they have an incentive to keep the garments within regulations.
Service advisors run fitting sessions for workwear and laundries continuously interact with customers so they can check whether the contracted garments are still suitable and take action if they become aware if a customer is thinking of leaving.

Market mind-set
People in the Benelux region have a mind-set that is focussed on caring for products and minimising waste.
There is less of a throwaway society here so this immediately creates a different attitude towards linen and garment rental.
Customers may not own the stock but they still treat it with a level of respect that not only helps to reduce linen losses in the laundry sector but also makes customers more willing to take responsibility when they do occur.
All contracts have loss charges written in and customers seem to honour these. However, laundries may overlook very small losses in the interests of good customer relations.
Containers or cages are used to deliver the product but are left for the customer to use for storage. This helps laundries keep track and if any containers are not returned with the next order, the customer will be charged for the container and its cover as well as for the linen.
Customers with known high linen loss rates have a monthly surcharge for lost linen written into their contract and invoice. If a customer takes ten cages a month but the laundry knows they regularly only return six, they will be automatically billed for those extra four.
The market operates on kilograms rather than pieces, which reduces the margin for discrepancies. Weight per item is agreed in the contract and the price is based on process length so a towelling item will be more expensive per kilo than a napkin.
The scales used to weigh linen in and out are calibrated by an external accredited company once a year and it is illegal to change settings on them in between audits.
Customers are invited to borrow a pair of calibrated scales for a couple of weeks to check that the laundry is invoicing them correctly and this helps to build trust between the customer and the laundry.
Invoices are billed on weight-out rather than the weight of the returned linen. This gives the laundry more control over pricing and the customer has fewer opportunities to question charges.

The healthcare sector
Linen losses are significantly fewer in healthcare as the hospital does the sorting rather than the laundry. As in the UK, the hospitals use colour coded bags but the onus is on them to sort correctly and Health and Safety regulations restrict what the laundries can do.
Given society’s respect for the environment and its wariness of contributing to the impact of waste, hospital staff tend to be more diligent with the sorting and so less linen gets placed straight into incineration bags.
If linen does get sorted incorrectly, laundry managers will visit the customer and talk to the staff. This will probably be done informally over a coffee and the conversation will be general at first, leading on to discussions of the problem and advice.
Explaining the effect the problem is having on the business in this informal and personal manner tends to lead to the best resolution.
If necessary, the laundry can use the contract as back-up but the approach is mainly based on trust and good customer relations. If that breaks down, the contract is in danger of being lost.
Not all customers are receptive to this approach but the laundry aims to talk directly to staff rather than complaining to management, so a positive result is likely.

Next generation
The industry builds relations with the next generation by holding open weeks for schools and colleges. Promoting laundry work in this way means more students are likely to consider this as a career option. "Textile Cleaning" is recognised as an official career route, with a Master level and apprenticeship scheme. Laundry work is seen as a craft and scholarships for specific projects are often available.
Reaching out to the next generation through open weeks has another benefit as it helps the laundries to interact with their next generation of customers. This can be a great long-term benefit.
By educating future housekeepers and general managers, a laundry can help to ensure a knowledgeable industry and a more informed customer base.

Staying on top
This comparison of the EU laundry industry with that in the UK, points up the necessity of investing in innovation and increased efficiency to stay ahead in a fast paced market.
Connecting with staff, current or future, on a personal level, learning why they chose this job or career can help to develop their relationship with the product and their sense of service.
Knowledge is power. Providing as many members of your staff as possible with the knowledge to advise customers and spot opportunities will lead to more market options. It will help to build relationships, and in turn to protect that all important bottom line.

MULTI-SKILLS: Workwear laundries often depend on staff being multi-skilled so all operators will learn how to hang garments, how to check finished garments for quality and how to handle repairs