Definitely Doug 8/25/23: Check It Off the List!

8.25.2023
by Doug Rice
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This week I will cover software that goes under various descriptions, including quality assurance, audit, and checklist management. It includes anything that involves a standard list of things that someone needs to perform or verify. In hospitality, this is still an emerging field, but is growing very rapidly.

Historically, hotels have managed these tasks mostly by pen and paper, in Excel spreadsheets, or in siloed departmental apps such as housekeeping, engineering, or restaurant management. But paper and spreadsheets are time-consuming, inconsistent, and error prone. Departmental software can work very well within its scope but does address the needs of other departments or (usually) multiple hotels. These options cannot fully meet the needs of most brands or management companies, nor of many general managers.

Why do metrics around completion of tasks matter? Edwards Deming, a leading management guru often credited with inventing quality management, famously said that you should “expect what you inspect.” To achieve the quality that guests want, you must inspect what guests expect. Software can collect the right data faster and more consistently than manual methods. In addition, many tasks are required by regulatory authorities such as health and fire departments, or by brand standards. Failure to execute them can cause serious business issues.

Guests have been trained by companies like Amazon, Starbucks, and many fast-food franchises to expect consistency across time and location. Those companies did not achieve consistency just by thinking it; they invested in sophisticated systems to measure, report, and manage to quality metrics.

Aside from quality assurance, checklists can be used for staff training for many tasks (if augmented by detailed instructions or explainer videos) and for some types of project management. Checklists also provide audit trails that can be used to document regulatory compliance, staff performance, and historical details on maintenance issues.

While there are many quality assurance products on the market, only a few are designed to support hotels. There are some (very expensive) enterprise solutions that are used in other industries, but hotel groups that have looked at them found them both costly and poorly adapted to the nuances of the hotel industry. I did, however, find five companies with packages focused (in varying degrees) on hotels. Four of them provided senior executives for me to speak with, and I thank them all for sharing their insights. They include GoAudits, Intouch Insight, Yipy, and Pacer. These companies are quite different, but I found much to like in all four.

The first three provide various software and services around quality control and compliance audits, focusing on tasks that must be continually repeated within a property or department. Pacer is distinct in that it supports checklists for managing projects, particularly those that must be repeated across multiple hotels (new construction, rebranding, software rollouts, lobby redesigns, etc.). Key functionality is quite similar across all four products – they enable the completion of checklists across a dispersed organization and the reporting of results. But there are some significant differences with Pacer, which I will address in the section on Project Management.

The remainder of this article will provide a checklist to help you evaluate solutions (see what I did there?). They vary widely in capability and cost, but the four listed here are enjoying market success. Every hotel will have its own needs; this guide will identify some key questions to focus on when evaluating these or other solutions.

Questionnaires and Checklists

Each product has sets of questions or tasks that form checklists usable for auditing, compliance, or project management. They are completed by a staff member or contractor that I will refer to here as an auditor. Usually these are not specialized roles; departmental supervisors or managers or (for certain activities) even front-line staff are the most common auditors.

Some of the vendors provide starter checklists based on common industry practices or existing brand or management company standards; in most cases they can be modified by the hotel. They can also integrate supporting materials such as how to complete a task, specifications, explainer videos, and the like.

Different types of answers can be supported: selection from a list (such as compliant, noncompliant, not applicable), a number (such as food temperature), or freeform text. Answers may be required or optional, and additional information might be required depending on the answer, such as a photo to document compliance or noncompliance, an action plan to correct an issue, or a document to be uploaded (such as results of a fire inspection).

Some questions may only be relevant based on the answers to prior questions, so conditional logic (ask question 2 only if the answer to question 1 is “No”) is useful.

Uploading photos sounds simple, but there are important nuances. The ability to annotate a photo of a wall to point to the location of a peeling wallpaper seam makes it easier for maintenance to find and fix it. Some packages can restrict photos to only “live” ones taken (and potentially taken only within a geofenced area), to ensure that photos documenting compliance are not reused by lazy auditors.

Similarly, some solutions mark the time and exact location on a facility map when an auditor submits a report, so that they cannot “fake” having audited multiple rooms.

Some solutions offer the ability to trigger workflows based on answers or comments. If an auditor says that a television is not working in a particular room, for example, a workflow might be set up to send an action item to the engineering department to fix it. Depending on the circumstance, these workflows might be triggered manually or based on specific audit responses.

Other common functionality includes the ability to require a signature from the person completing the checklist, to restrict checklists to be completed only by certain individuals, to require approvals for submitted reports or actions generated by them, and to review relevant history (such as the last audit of the same person, space, or object) to see if defects have been corrected.

Scheduling

Scheduling audits in a hotel can be quite challenging, particularly for audits that measure the performance of staff or the conformance of a guest room. In any 24x7 operation, the schedule overlap between a staff member and auditor can be minimal or even nonexistent. If supervisors are left to schedule their own audits, they may audit certain staff frequently but others not at all, based on schedule overlap and other demands on their time. Deeper room inspections may need to be coordinated around times when rooms are vacant, and public space inspections may be subject to booked events or heavy-use periods.

Ideally, scheduling should integrate with human resources, scheduling systems, room occupancy, and public space commitments. Unfortunately, none of the solutions can yet do this, although some can help managers identify who and what may have the highest priority to audit, based on factors like how much time has passed since the last audit. A few housekeeping and preventive maintenance systems that are in common use within hotels do support more automated inspection scheduling, and while some of these are excellent and I would use them, I have excluded them here because they address only one department.

Scheduling should also consider whether the frequency of an audit should be fixed or variable. An audit of freezer temperatures or hot water temperature should probably be conducted on a fixed schedule, whereas audits of a housekeeper might vary depending on tenure and prior audit scores. This allows auditing resources to spend more time on new or underperforming staff.

Look closely at how staff and roles are updated for new hires and departures. This may be the responsibility of the hotel, the vendor, or could be managed via integration with a human resources (HR) solution or with roles in an Active Directory implementation. HR integration was on the radar for a couple of the products I looked at, but not yet implemented; this could both enable scheduling and better integration of audit scores into performance evaluations.

Corrective Actions

Whenever an audit finds something not to standard, corrective action may be appropriate. In some cases, this might be handled through employee coaching. In others, it may require actions by maintenance staff, IT support, or external contractors.

Look for systems that both enable auditors to manually create an action and assign it to a particular person, department, or contractor, and that can automatically create them in response to specific audit responses (for example, schedule maintenance if a telephone is not working). When someone is assigned an action item, they should be alerted, be able to add comments and close it out when finished, and have the option to assign it to someone else. Certain action items might need sign-off by a second person, which some but not all systems support. Due dates and measures of criticality can also be very useful for differentiating revenue-critical issues from minor touch-ups.

If your hotel uses a work-order management and/or preventive maintenance system, check whether there is an interface that allows action items to be delivered electronically directly into those systems, rather than by email. Any interface should be two-way, meaning that new tasks are delivered to the other system, and tasks closed in the other system are also closed in the audit system; updates and comments made in either system should ideally also be reflected in the other.

It is not enough to create action items; you want to know that they are being completed. This can involve a combination of reminders, updates, and escalations for incomplete tasks, and reporting that tracks which properties, departments, and individuals are regularly completing their action items vs. which are falling behind.

Reporting and Dashboards

The most important goal of audits and checklists is to ensure that a hotel is delivering a level of quality that meets the expectations of guests and franchisors. Performing regular audits only helps if it results in actions that correct problems. This only happens if management has simple and effective means of discovering issues and pinpointing the likely causes. Are performance issues clustered in a department or team, suggesting a need for coaching or even replacing a manager? Or are they specific to one person? Are specific issues, such as a high failure rate for hair dryers in every guest room, dragging down scores, or are problems more widespread?

Reports and dashboards provide powerful ways of answering these questions based on audit results, but they do not tell the entire picture. You can run a hotel 100% to standards, but still have unhappy guests if the standards themselves do not reflect guest expectations. Some reports and dashboards can integrate external data and help correlate audit scores to various measures of guest satisfaction, such as survey results, sentiment analysis from online reviews, mystery shopping scores, and non-quality-related factors that can influence guest perceptions, such as occupancy rates or even weather.

Summarized reports should be delivered by email on a preset schedule specified by the recipient, as well as being available on demand, and at different levels of aggregation. A departmental manager might prefer to see performance by employee, a general manager by department, a regional vice president by property, a chief operating officer by region. Dashboards may provide similar data but with the ability to quickly change filters to focus in on specific properties, dates, tasks, people, or questions, and drill-down options to see the details behind summary numbers.

Reports and dashboards should cover compliance (to what extent are the standards being met) and coverage (to what extent everyone and everything has been audited). Low coverage can lead to misleading compliance statistics, especially if the people or things that were missed would have had better or worse results than those that were included. Coverage reports should make it clear if there are specific people, rooms, tasks, or assets that are not being audited as often as needed; this is particularly critical with respect to regulatory compliance items.

Auditors are humans, usually with many conflicting demands on their time. Reports and dashboards need to track whether they are keeping up with their audit tasks. Managers will want an easy way to see summary activity by auditor, as well as which auditors are ahead of or behind on auditing. Day-to-day variations may be unavoidable, but if a supervisor who should be doing five audits per day has not done any for three weeks, you may want to investigate.

Longer-term trends are important as well. Most hotels will have identified specific areas for improvement, and it should be simple to see in tabular or graphical form how the relevant metrics are trending over time.

While management needs to see summaries and be able to drill down into detail, this is not necessarily the best way to make sure your team stays on top of things. Some systems offer workflows that can be triggered by either specific audit results or metrics indicating whether they have been completed, typically by sending form emails to the responsible person. These can take the form of recognition letters from a regional vice president to a property that achieved or exceeded goals, specific recommended action plans for correcting low scores on a particular item, or coaching recommendations for an underperforming staff member. Such capabilities typically provide (or allow for the creation of) templates that can be personalized.

Enterprise Considerations

Audit software can be used at any hotel, but it can be particularly helpful in larger hotel groups to measure compliance with brand standards or to track execution of complex projects that are repeated across many hotels. Certain design features are essential to meeting these needs, however.

Hotels should be able to limit individuals to seeing audit results only within their scope of responsibility, whether that is a team, department, hotel, region, division, or the entire enterprise. With project audits, such as Pacer focuses on, there can be the need for more granular control, where certain questions should only be visible to certain teams, or where teams should only gain visibility to their audit questions after certain events have already happened. This can be particularly important in rebrandings, where even the fact of an upcoming rebranding should not be communicated to hotel staff until other steps have been completed.

In enterprise deployments, multiple levels of the organization may generate audit questionnaires, including the brand, management company, general manager, and department head. As needs change, the brand or management company may need to update questions, and when they do, the changes need to flow down to every property. Some solutions allow only the creator of an audit questionnaire to modify it. Others allow the hotel to override a question in a brand-level audit (for example to require a higher level of performance); if this is done and the brand later modifies the question, the hotel will need to be notified to review it. Brand auditors will audit from their own copy of the official brand standards, but if the hotel’s questionnaire is out of date, it may be managing to outdated standards.

Finally, enterprise deployments may require functionality to suppress certain questions in hotels where they are not relevant. This suppression needs to be reflected in aggregate reporting as well. If some hotels in a brand have swimming pools and others do not, questions about the pool either need to be included or omitted. Statistics showing the number of audits or questions completed will not be directly comparable across hotels answering versions of the audit that have been modified in this way, although ratios or percentages may be. As with any reporting, it is critical to understand any limitations to avoid comparing apples and oranges.

Project Management Checklists

Solutions like Pacer (and to an extent the other solutions) can be useful to measure progress on complex projects that may be executed at multiple hotels, whether simultaneously or at different times, and that may involve multiple departments within the hotel, management company, and brand.

Standard commercial project management tools are typically used within a single organization or department, under supervision of a trained project manager who is in regular contact with the project participants. This is typically not the case when a brand or management company is rolling out a project across multiple properties, such as for reflaggings, technology rollouts, implementation of new design concepts for guest rooms or public spaces, and other initiatives.

For this, additional capabilities are needed to delegate tasks to people in other organizations and to maintain auditability and visibility of progress, while segregating access to data by organization and/or role. Historically, this may have been done by sending spreadsheets with task lists and asking managers in other organizations to complete and return them, but this is time-consuming at both ends, and compliance is often very low, particularly between brands and franchisees (where there is little or no ability to mandate responses).

At its core, any project still has a list of things that need to be done and who (or what department) needs to do them. But unlike quality assurance audits, there is often a specific order in which things must be completed, and the tasks may need to be undertaken by multiple departments in different organizations. Documentation is often required either to initiate or to complete any given step, and one or more management signoffs might be required for different tasks.

There are other differences between project task checklists and quality assurance checklists. Reporting needs to be organized around each project and target implementation location (typically a hotel), and contributions documenting the project’s progress may come from multiple organizations. The project owner needs to be able to control who can see, update, or report on progress, and this may change over the course of project execution. Management of user roles and rights is therefore much more complex.

Whereas quality assurance checklists can often be completed in any order, project checklists often have dependencies and prerequisites, for example if you cannot start task B until task A has been completed. Since the person responsible for task B may or may not even be “in the loop” on the project until task A has been completed, or may need information that is produced in task A, they need notification when it is time for them to start their assigned task.

Each step in a project may have an expected duration or due date, and tracking progress against due dates is essential. Additionally, some aspects of a project might be skipped for some hotels that lack certain facilities, so conditional logic may be needed. Many projects will start at different dates for different properties, so the ability to set task durations and a start or end date can enable the software to calculate specific dates for each hotel “on the fly.”

The specifics of projects often evolve over time, so (as with quality assurance audits) it is important that checklists be changeable. Changes should roll out to all future instances of the same project. They should also usually update any uncompleted tasks on in-progress instances. This capability adds an important level of agility to project management that is almost impossible in the spreadsheet-and-email world.

Projects often require consultation with additional people that are situation-specific and not known in advance. For example, a restaurant opening project might have a task to “create the menu.” The person assigned might, however, need to consult with colleagues to do this. The ability to request that a colleague review a task and provide input is a nice-to-have in a quality assurance checklist, but essential for project management. That colleague needs notification and access to the task so they can enter comments. The project manager needs to know if a pending consultation is holding up overall progress so that they can escalate the request or find a different approach.

Ease of Use

Checklist software will be used by (mostly) non-technical staff, often from many departments; it needs to be intuitive, easy to use, multilingual, and mobile-first (especially for auditors). Hotels often have locations that require inspections but have little or no Wi-Fi connectivity, in which case the mobile app should be able to complete the audit while offline.

In some cases, auditors will be unfamiliar with the standards, so the ability to provide necessary guidance (detailed documentation, photos, etc.) can be important. As with most software, there is no substitute for testing ease of use with the actual intended users.

Most of the packages I saw had lots of features to help navigate the software and each audit, but the audit instructions and reference material (e.g., how to inspect a bathroom) usually need to be developed and entered by the hotel. The staff who will be responsible for this should review how easy this is in any package under consideration. They should review the key tasks: creating and pushing new standards, adding process clarifications, incorporating training materials, and the like. If the hotel will be maintaining questionnaires in multiple languages, then someone will need to translate the questionnaires, and also any reference and training materials; there may be special facilities to help them do this more effectively, such as alerts that someone changed something in the base language, that now needs to be re-translated.

The role of the vendor will vary; some vendors provide white-glove service that eliminates the need for the hotel to do much of the setup and maintenance, while others do not.

Cost Considerations

Costs for quality assurance and checklist software vary dramatically based on the size, scope, capabilities, and deployment model; a 200-room full-service hotel can spend anywhere between $150 a month and well over $1000. Cost for a brand will depend on whether it will use the software only for its own auditors visiting properties, or make it available for properties to use as well.

Pricing may be per location, per user, or based on use of specific modules; enterprise pricing may use a combination of these, plus volume discounts. With per-user pricing, it is important to understand who needs a user license. If this is limited to staff performing audits or accessing reports or dashboards at one hotel, it may be quite small; if it applies to employees or contractors who need to be notified of actions coming out of audits it may be larger; if it applies to staff who are being audited, it will be larger still.

Some vendors offer a free trial, which can be useful to test ease of use with staff, but these trials can be quite short, so I would want to spend some time making sure all the key people are on board with the trial and have the time to give the package a full trial before the trial ends (although if the license converts to month-to-month after the trial, the cost of a short extension may be modest).

Conclusion

Measuring quality and performance is important, and need not be expensive or time consuming. Some of the software that has emerged on the market in recent years can dramatically improve hotels’ ability to deliver consistent quality without adding much cost, and it can reduce the staff time needed for audits, enabling more audits or less cost. It can help management focus on the right issues and the right staff to move the needle on guest satisfaction. If you should expect what you inspect, you cannot ignore inspecting – and managing based on what the inspections find.

Douglas Rice
Email: douglas.rice@hosptech.net
LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/ricedouglas

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