The Terrible Truth About Toilets
Tuesday, July 3, 2012 at 10:52PM
Tax1031 in Operations, Success

The Terrible Truth About Toilets

There’s a good chance that unless you’re in the hospitality business, your retail store or office is open to the public, or you have a career in building/facility maintenance, you probably don’t give much thought to toilets. 

In fact, if you’re a guy – you probably don’t spend any time at all thinking about them. 

Unless you need one.

On the other hand, if you were to ask your wife, daughter, or girlfriend as to the “state of the art” of public toilets, you’re liable to get an earful.

I’ll bet she can immediately tell you which ones she will never visit again and about some that simply blew her away. 

I should know.

Over the years, my wife has pointed out problems with toilets in restaurants, hotels, commercial office buildings, and even a medical facility or two. 

While I am a bit slow sometimes, I’ve learned to make the connection – with her help – between operations (of all sorts) that can maintain a decent restroom and those who can not; and it’s not a pretty picture. 

Too bad there’s not some way I could parlay that information into a profitable trade because whenever she points outs a deficiency to me – and it remains uncorrected – there will be a consequence; usually in the form of new management, a company-wide reorganization complete with an overhaul of priorities, or a bankruptcy.

Could it be that one of the most important clues to whether your business, office, or operation is at the “top of its game”  is in plain sight for all to see and right under your … nose?

How could this possibly be important? 

Don’t worry.

A lot of folks are confused right along with you.

James hurries along the hallway.

It’s a busy morning. He and hundreds of fellow students are on their way to class.  He slows down for a moment to thread his way through the crowd and around an elderly man pushing a broom; it’s only Bill, the custodian. 

As he passes Bill, their eyes meet for a moment and James nods in recognition and Bill returns the nod with a slow half-smile but doesn’t say a word. 

That’s their routine. 

Whatever happens, Bill just keeps his head down and continues to work while James and the others  move purposefully past him like fish around a rock in the water. 

Just another day for James and Bill.

Sometime after lunch that day, James picks up a book. He’s a big reader, James is.  And he’s reading a little bit of military history when he stumbles across a report in the book  and gets the surprise of his life.

In 1943, Private William Crawford, assigned to the 36th Infantry Division, “… in the face of intense and overwhelming hostile fire … with no regard for personal safety … on his own initiative, Private Crawford single-handedly attacked fortified enemy positions.” 

There was more – “ for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk above and beyond the call of duty, the President of the United States …”

As he read those last words aloud, James knew what they meant. 

He didn’t even have to read the rest.

But could this be the same Bill that he saw polishing floors, cleaning toilets, and carrying out the trash everyday?

No way!

James thinks about it all day. Later, he confides in his roommate who thinks James may be losing his mind. That his “cheese has slipped off his cracker.”

“Let’s ask him.”

And so they did.

Early the next Monday, James and his roommate catch up to Bill as he makes his rounds. Opening the book and pointing at the report, James asks, “Was that you?”

Bill Crawford, looking every bit his age and a little tired, glances at the book, shrugs, and says, “Yes.”

“Why didn’t you tell anyone?”

“That was one day in my life and it happened a long time ago. ” With that, Bill just turned and walked away. 

He had things to do.

James and his roommate stood silently; watching him go without a word.

I guess I owe you a little bit of background. 

James is no ordinary student,  his college is no ordinary school, and – as you may have guessed – Bill Crawford was no ordinary man.

James is a student at the Air Force Academy in Colorado. 

Bill Crawford is the custodian assigned to a squadron of cadets.  It will fall to him to make sure the floors are clean and shiny, the toilets sparkling, and the trash always out of sight. 

What about Bill, you ask?

For his actions that day in 1943, William Crawford received the highest honor our country can bestow, the Medal of Honor. 

Authorized by President Lincoln during the Civil War, only 3,459 people have received the award (as of 2012).

In the years since World War II began, 861 Medals of Honor have been awarded and 627 of those were awarded posthumously.

James gets the word out and it’s not long before all the other cadets realize just who is cleaning up “their messes”. 

Cadets begin to take more notice of Bill greeting him with “Good Morning, Mr. Crawford”. Some even go so far as to “police” their own areas from now on.  They welcome Bill as a member of the team and in turn, Bill adopts them as “his squadron”.

James Moshgat goes on to a very successful career in the Air Force but he never forgets the lessons of William Crawford.  

At 19, Joel was the new recruit and as such he got the plum assignment of a lifetime: the mess hall. 

Working 16 hour days, his hands red and chapped, Joel wanted out. Anything had to be  better. 

Or so he thought.

By some miracle he found himself working for “ a high-ranking Sargent-Major” with years of experience, twenty years his senior, and the disciplinarian of the base.

Dressed immaculately in a starched, pressed, and spotless uniform, he presented the perfect picture of the career professional soldier right down to his highly polished shoes.  Nothing fazed him – not even the dust and dirt. 

And so it is that Joel  finds himself at the mercy of the most fastidious, demanding, and uncompromising soldier at the base.

“What would his first day be like?”, he worries. 

He doesn’t have to worry long. 

Escorting Joel to the officer’s bathroom, the Sargent-Major explains that it will be up to Joel – and Joel  alone – to keep it spotless.  And then he did something that stuck with Joel for the rest of his life.

Here’s Joel with his story:

“Here’s how you clean a toilet,” he said. 

And he got down on his knees in front of the porcelain bowl, in his pressed starched spotless dress uniform, and scrubbed the toilet with his bare hands.

To a 19 year old who has to clean toilets, something which is almost by definition the worst possible job in the world, the sight of this high-ranking, 38-year old, immaculate, pampered, discipline officer cleaning a toilet completely reset my attitude.

If he can clean a toilet, I can clean a toilet.

There’s nothing wrong with cleaning toilets, My loyalty and inspiration from that moment on were unflagging. That’s leadership.

Ok, so those are two very nice stories but what do they have to do with me or my organization?

What could anything about a public restroom teach me about operational excellence, maintaining a competitive edge, or sustainable results?

Trust me. A lot.

Find out the answer in The Terrible Truth About Toilets Part 2. Stay tuned.  

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