Sanitation success rests on a foundation of three groupings of prerequisites—the legs of a stool, if you will. Although the premise of this idea is simple, the details are more complex and worthy of investigating. This article discusses the three legs supporting our sanitation success and the interrelationships between these supporting legs.

What are the three legs that support our sanitation success? They are people, programs, and hygienic design and maintenance. These three groups have interrelationships that are not always fully considered. Intentionally considering these interrelationships helps improve investigations of sanitation failures. It also allows existing sanitation successes to be recognized and strengthened.

The author was formerly of the opinion that sanitation standard operating procedures (SSOPs) could make sanitation success challenges magically disappear. If SSOPs included extra detail, pictures, and specific things to watch out for, then it would help safeguard from variability in results. Looking back, however, this seems myopic. Rarely, if ever, have sanitation failures been strictly due to weak SSOPs—or any other single cause, for that matter. Sanitation failures are usually rooted in multiple causes. Application of this three-legged stool approach will make root-cause analysis more comprehensive, efficient, and effective.

Let us look at examples of the three legs of people, programs, and hygienic design and maintenance.


To support sanitation success, enough people are needed to clean in the time allotted. They need to be properly trained, supervised, and at work when scheduled. Factory culture and morale to support sanitation success is vital. High turnover often creates persistent open positions and is a common driver of sanitation failures. This problem is discussed in the author's earlier article, "The Top 10 Reasons Why I Couldn't Keep Sanitation People."1

Production that runs later than scheduled results in sanitation starting later than scheduled. This creates the temptation to use the usual number of people to clean in a shorter time. An on-time startup is often achieved by cutting corners. While this may be a short-term solution, over time, this cutting of corners tends to degrade standards and processes, which is rarely sustainable. The ideal solution is to complete the work based on the labor-hours needed to complete the tasks. In other words, a smaller cleaning window of time requires more people to clean.

Another weakness to the "people" leg comes from improperly trained personnel doing their best to perform important sanitation work. This generates significant variability in sanitation outcomes, increases the risk of damage to equipment, and jeopardizes personnel safety. Ensuring that only properly trained personnel perform these important sanitation tasks is always the best practice.

Effective supervision is also critical to sanitation success. Are supervisors knowledgeable, present on the factory floor during sanitation, attentive to detail, and using effective coaching methodologies? Are supervisors focused on processes and standards that are well-defined, clearly communicated, and uncompromised? If the answers are "yes," then the factory has a priceless strength in this stool leg supporting sanitation success. If the answers are "no," then there is important work to be done immediately to salvage the sanitation process.

Absenteeism also has a negative influence on sanitation success. Perpetual staffing shortages can be caused by third-shift schedules, factory culture and morale, as well as ineffective attendance policies and enforcement. Continually operating with fewer people than budgeted runs the risk of having that head count become the new budget number. Fewer people cleaning can only be sustained by having more time to clean, equipment that takes less time to clean, and/or cleaning processes that reduce labor requirements. Anything else is not sustainable.

Finally, positive culture and morale have a powerful influence on sanitation success. It is interesting how the integrity of the people leg drives culture and morale. Conversely, culture and morale drive the success of the people leg.

Weaknesses identified in the people leg of the sanitation success stool will require increased reliance on the other two legs: programs, and hygienic design and maintenance. When this occurs, consider increasing dependence on the examples listed in the next two section such as inspections, developing more robust SSOPs, intensifying environmental pathogen monitoring, eliminating hygienic design flaws that increase sanitation complexity, and other solutions.


Many programs influence sanitation success. Some of these programs include training, cleaning procedures, master sanitation schedule (MSS), sanitary preventive maintenance (PM), housekeeping, cleaning validations, cleaning verifications, cleaning monitoring, hygienic zoning, and environmental pathogen monitoring.

As mentioned in the "people" section, having properly trained associates is critical. If training programs are weak, then problems with sanitation success tend to compound. In addition to training required by regulatory and certification bodies, on-the-job training specific to cleaning procedures (SSOPs) and any unique elements of the facility setting is important.

A robust program of creating SSOPs and monitoring performance against them is always foundational to sanitation success. The cleaning process is described in, and controlled by, the SSOPs. The more controlled the sanitation process is, the more consistent and predictable are the cleaning outcomes. Furthermore, cleaning process improvement cannot be meaningful unless the process is under control. Typically, the more details that are provided in the SSOP that define the cleaning process and desired outcomes, the better are the control and consistency.

Similarly, robust programs of the MSS and sanitary PM are critical to support sanitation success. A weak MSS and sanitary PM eventually lead to larger accumulations of soils, more difficulty in cleaning, possible micro-issues, potential pest problems, elevated safety concerns, increased quality nonconformance, more unplanned line stoppages, and other issues. Strong MSS and sanitary PM programs define frequencies of work, details of each task, and the standards for outcomes. Compliance against the scheduled frequencies is a good measure of program strength.

Housekeeping programs have an important impact on sanitation success. Preventing soil accumulations not only makes cleaning easier, it also improves quality performance and line efficiencies. Furthermore, employee morale is improved when work environments are clean and organized. Setting housekeeping standards, monitoring against the standards, and eliminating sources of soils are good starts toward great housekeeping.

The programs of cleaning validations, verifications, and monitoring are critical to predicting and assessing sanitation success. These programs are described in the author's article, "Validation, Verification, and Monitoring of Cleaning in Food Processing Factories."2 In this article, the author describes how success is supported by knowing why cleaning is being performed, how clean the equipment and facility must be, and how soon cleaning must be performed again. The article also goes into detail about how control of the cleaning process must be demonstrated in the future (validation), in the past (verification), and in the present (monitoring). These programs provide the control that drives predictable and repeatable support to sanitation success.

The facility's hygienic zoning program is a prerequisite to sanitation success, and vice versa. An excellent hygienic zoning program will provide barriers and controls that prevent identified contaminants from entering sensitive facility areas. Likewise, sanitation success will prevent contaminants from residing in an area and potentially stressing hygienic zoning barriers and controls between areas. These principles are explained in more detail in the article, "Hygienic Zoning in Food Manufacturing Factories."3 

Strong linkages exist between a facility's environmental pathogen monitoring program and the three legs of sanitation success. A robust program will serve to identify strengths and weaknesses in the three legs of people, programs, and hygienic design and maintenance. Interestingly, all three legs of sanitation success have powerful influence on the program results. This next point is important: Ensure that the program is representative of the actual factory environment. One of the author's favorite phrases is, "If you don't want to find environmental pathogens, then you won't." Approach your environment pathogen monitoring program with a "seek-and-destroy" attitude.

If the programs leg is weak, then more reliance should be placed on the people leg described above and the hygienic design and maintenance leg described below. Examples include increasing associate training, having a heavier supervisor presence on the factory floor, and improving equipment and facility hygienic design to promote more effective and efficient cleaning.

Hygienic Design and Maintenance

"You can't clean what is un-cleanable, and it's hard to clean what is hard to clean." While this is one of the author's favorite catch phrases, the reality is that these conditions have the potential of existing in the best facilities. The "hygienic design and maintenance" leg is a critical part of any facility's three-legged stool for sanitation success, but if the equipment is well-designed and well-maintained, and if the equipment resides in a well-designed and well-maintained facility, then this leg of the stool can bear extra weight.

How can a facility's hygienic design and maintenance be evaluated? Assessment and indicators are a couple of ways to gauge success. Assessment of hygienic design conditions is an acquired skill. It comes from practice, and is greatly accelerated when cross-functional teams are utilized. Several trade associations provide excellent hygienic design checklists that can help guide the assessment criteria. Gaps identified in the assessment must result in immediate risk mitigation actions. If longer-term solutions are needed, then short-term mitigations must be put in place.

Another way to know if good hygienic design and maintenance are present is to establish and monitor leading and lagging indicators. Inspections and audits, combined with design assessments, are examples of leading indicators. These indicators demonstrate ongoing control and provide immediate feedback on the integrity of this leg. Lagging indicators include consumer complaints, finished goods micro-testing results, and environmental pathogen monitoring results. These are considered lagging indicators because the results and trends indicate what happened days, weeks, or months prior. When looking at leading and lagging indicators, analysis should lead to awareness of systemic issues and generate appropriate corrective and preventive actions.

A word of caution: The tendency can arise to focus on hygienic design and equipment conditions and not as much on where the equipment resides. Great equipment in a poor facility is a perpetual challenge to sanitation success, and vice versa. The goal is to have great equipment and great facilities supporting sanitation success.

Weakness in the hygienic design and maintenance leg should be counteracted with increased reliance from the people and program legs above. Examples could include more focus on training and supervision, bolstered MSS and sanitary PM, as well as inspection and monitoring programs.


When faced with sanitation failures, the author used to zero in on the cleaning process and drive improvement starting from that point. Today, the author recommends taking a more comprehensive look at the cause of the failure, which will result in corrective and preventive actions becoming more strategic. It is important to assess all legs of the three-legged stool, identify which leg has become weak, and determine how the remaining two legs can bear extra weight.

Sanitation success is a prerequisite to the safety and quality of food, and sanitation failures are usually rooted in multiple causes. This three-legged stool visualization can help create more awareness of which stool legs are strong and which are weak. This new awareness can help intentionally shift the weight of sanitation success to where it is most stable while identified weaknesses are strengthened.


  1. Grassmann, Duane. "The Top 10 Reasons Why I Couldn't Keep Sanitation People." Food Safety Magazine June/July 2020.
  2. Grassmann, Duane. "Validation, Verification, and Monitoring of Cleaning in Food Processing Factories." Food Safety Magazine February/March 2019.
  3. Grassmann, Duane. "Hygienic Zoning in Food Manufacturing Factories." Food Safety Magazine October/November 2019.

Duane Grassmann is a Corporate Hygienist for Nestlé USA and Canada.