Japan’s shinkansen (bullet train) is one of the fastest in the world, covering a whopping 200 kilometers in just one hour. But few people outside Japan know that the high-speed train service comes with a high-speed cleaning service to match, which ensures that the shinkansen have virtually no delays. The cleaning crew manage to cover every inch of the train’s interior in just seven minutes flat! The cleaners’ performance is so efficient and impressive that it is known in Japan as the ‘7-minute shinkansen theatre’.
TESSEI is the rail service company in charge of keeping the fleet of bullet trains clean when they make their final stop at Tokyo Station. Their employees are responsible for preparing the trains before the next wave of customers arrive, and they have only seven minutes to do it. The manner in which they’ve organized themselves to complete the job is really quite impressive.
Photo: Richard Young/PBase
Bullet trains shuttle in and out of Tokyo station 210 times a day, making a stop of 12 minutes each time. The company’s 800-odd employees are divided into 11 teams of 22 cleaners. The teams take turns on the platform, so that every employee ends up leaning around 20 trains a day. Once inside the train, each person is assigned one car of 100 seats and they have just seven minutes to make sure the everything is squeaky clean. The toilet cleaning staff also need to have everything sparkling clean in the least possible time.
To meet the stringent deadlines, the work is broken down into smaller blocks. They actually work by an exact time-table that ensures all their work is completed in those crucial seven minutes. In fact they mostly have only six minutes, because the trains are generally crowded and it takes longer than expected for the passengers to disembark.
From 0:00 to 1:30, the cleaners check the luggage racks and down the gaps between the seats for forgotten items. They also rotate the seats to face the right direction and sweep out whatever dropped trash they can find into the aisle. From 1:30 to 4:30, they go back up the aisle pulling down and checking the blinds, and pulling out seat-back trays. They wipe everything clean and change the seat covers if they are dirty. In the last two minutes (4:30 to 6:30), they use a broom to sweep up all the trash brought into the aisle, in one go.
The cleaners’ performance is fascinating to watch – the uniformed staff line up and bow to the train on its arrival and departure, and also to the passengers. They have other unique tricks up their sleeves as well, to put smiles on people’s faces, like wearing seasonal flowers on their hats, or bright Hawaiian shirts in the summers.
TESSEI has completely reinvented itself in the past nine years. At one point its employees suffered from bad working conditions and low morale. But by focusing on good service instead of good cleaning, they have become one of the most respected companies in the world. They’ve now also adopted a few interesting methods of motivation, like sending out appreciations to their team members and using the Japanese concept of hospitality, called ‘omotenashi’. They also have regular meetings where every employee is heard, and the teams are shuffled to ensure that everyone gets a chance to work with each other.
Their incredible service has earned them worldwide admiration and appreciation. In fact, they’ve been dubbed the ‘strongest team’ in the nation by the Nikkei Business magazine. A group of professors from Harvard University visited TESSEI recently to figure out a way to include the company’s work in their teaching materials. The French national railways president also wanted to import ideas from TESSEI to France.
One of their best endorsements came from a much-loved celebrity, actor and former Governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger, who specifically asked to observe the team in action when he visited Japan.