Thursday, February 10, 2011

In Search of Excellence

During most of the Eighties I worked as a business and computing lecturer or head of department in several colleges of Technical and Further Education (TAFE). The key management buzzword for most of that period was "excellence".

It seemed to be something everyone was discussing and striving for, but nobody ever seemed to attain. After hearing my director talking about how our college would become a "centre for excellence" so many times, I almost became nauseous when I heard the phrase ... like Pavlov's dog salivating on cue. I knew the reality, at least in my college, was vastly different. Everywhere one looked there were inefficiencies and dysfunction.

At about this time in Australia, there had been a Federal Government enquiry into the standard of management across the nation. The results were abysmal indicating that as a nation, we were lagging behind almost everyone else in the Western world. This may have been hyperbole, but it commenced a huge push for anyone involved in supervision to complete what is still taught today, the "Certificate IV in Frontline Management".

Fortunately, I had completed a tertiary education in management at just the right time. I became involved in teaching others about management: planning, leading, organising and monitoring (or control as it was then). I was also in an excellent position to practise what I preached. My team consisted of 23 teachers/instructors with a variety of different disciplines. One man was a plumber who had evolved into a computer programming instructor and I was responsible for two hairdresser trades teachers (for some reason better known to my director).

What I found then is that while there are elements of our own work environment we can control, hopefully for the better, as soon as something is outside our sphere of influence, anything can happen. And usually does. For me, that was the signal to ensure that what I did was excellent (there's that word again!) and at least I would go home every day knowing I had done my best and provided the best possible service to earn my salary.

I spent a lot of my time meticulously planning for my department, the Department of Business and Computing Studies. I carried with me a pack of around eight Gantt charts, each of which documented a course, student group, or some other element of my work area. I knew what was to happen, when, where, and with whom for every hour of every week. I agreed with my teachers to give them a minimum three months notice if I was going to change their subject areas. By the end of one semester I had already planned the next, down to the finest detail. Yes, I am a pedant, but I found that by planning one avoids crises; no classroom sharing conflicts, no teachers who didn't know when an exam was scheduled, no students who didn't know what their schedule was. It all ticked along like a Swiss watch. It also meant that I could leave most of my department running on autopilot with occasional intervention, allowing me to get on with other issues.

This is very similar to the method of Quality Control first used by the Japanese, Kaizen. Kaizen didn't leave quality control until the end of a process at which time it was too costly and too difficult to fix errors. They took a quality approach at every minute step in a process. Which brings me to today's dilemma.

While I still have a personal commitment to do everything well, I'm surrounded by people who think half a job is good enough. Many of them are young people who haven't been at work sufficiently long to learn by trial and error. Others should know better, but can't seem to do good work. Even something as simple as an email message appears with a subject line that has no bearing on the content, spelling mistakes, bad formatting, and occasionally sub-standard language. Almost no-one seems to be able to use initiative to change things that don't work, to see potential for a problem and avoid it. Some people can't envisage the result a particular action of theirs will have. Many people just don't seem to care. You only have to consider the decline in customer service to gauge the problem.

Recently when I bought a new telephone, it took 12 days for my new telecom provider to have the number ported from my old provider and perhaps 16 telephone calls from me. I don't believe it should be that hard or take that long.

As I roll on towards the end of my full-time working life, I'm becoming increasingly disappointed that my search for the evidence of excellence has been as fruitless as the search for Lasseter's Gold. How are things at your end? Do people with whom you work strive for excellence and demonstrate it?

Robin Henry

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