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One of the secrets of national success – clean toilets

Jul 15, 2012 Strategy, Success, Sunday Nation

I was fascinated to read this on the Harvard Business Review blog network recently:

“Recently I asked a high-level Singapore official how Singapore’s companies would be able to compete in a world of countries whose companies have greater access to low-cost labor (as in China) and cutting-edge innovation (as in the U.S.). His response was to ask me: “Have you seen our toilets at Changi Airport?” I said that I had, and that they were spotless. He nodded: “That’s our competitive advantage.””

This was written by Vinod Aggarwal, a Berkeley professor and economist. Now, I was in Singapore just last year myself, and can confirm that the toilets at Changi Airport are indeed spotless – they would put most of our five-star hotels here to shame. But so what? What do clean toilets have to do with national competitiveness?

They have everything to do with it. Many years ago, when the Kenya Airports Authority was seeking my advice on matters strategic, I recall making a simple recommendation: all the fancy stuff – new terminal, runways, aprons – can come later. The very first thing, the thing to do right now, is to provide clean toilets at all airports. That is strategic priority number one.

Well, we’re still waiting for the fancy stuff at JKIA – and the clean toilets. Which speaks volumes.

Back to Singapore Airport. It is by no means the world’s largest or fanciest. In fact, it’s quite humdrum in appearance compared to Dubai or Hong Kong. But it is undoubtedly the most efficient. Getting out of a plane, through immigration, baggage retrieval and customs to the car park rarely takes more than 15 minutes. When it comes to speed and efficiency in most things, Singapore takes the prize.

To have clean toilets, you have to have three things: a very high standard of cleanliness that is not negotiable downwards; process integrity that allows you to keep the toilets clean, day after day; and a culture in which ordinary people feel the need for cleanliness in themselves, without reminders or enforcement from above.

Those things may sound straightforward, but they are not. They require strong leadership, intelligent process design and a nuanced understanding of human nature. Which, sadly, most organizations and nations do not have.

That is why I was so keen on Kenya working on the toilets first. If you can get those right, the chances are good you will pull off the bigger investments and facilities, and run them to a high standard.

On the other hand, if you can’t get toilets to be clean, you are very unlikely to be able to have standards, processes and cultures that allow you to do anything very well. Hygiene is a basic human necessity. Not getting that right does not set a correct foundation. It also sends a very bad signal to a visitor, and is suggestive of further bad experiences to come.

That is why Singapore remains possibly the only country to leap from third world to first in a single generation. China, India and the rest have some way to go before they can feel like a first-world country to all their citizenry. And it is why in Kenya we are also marking time on the starting block.

It is not just about putting up expensive infrastucture that looks good; it is equally about setting standards of performance that have to be met; understanding that efficiency comes from repeated processes that cannot be violated; and taking the sentiments of the populace with you, so that the emotional climate is also right. As Prof. Aggarwal pointed out, it’s about the human software as much as the hardware.

Toilets are no minor matter. If you can’t get them working to a high standard, there isn’t much else you will achieve in your home, corporation or nation.

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