Sunday, December 1, 2013

New President Interview -- Part 24 Culture of Excellence


Q: Very often I read about dysfunctional organizations with employees more concerned about not getting fired more than their concern to do a good job. Then I read about companies that use what they know about their customers for extraordinary customer service. While the College is not a company, how does the College work toward excellence?  [fn 1]

A: Since the College is a learning organization, we not only have to teach excellence, but also set a good example. We want excellence in instruction, excellence in learning, and excellence in the way we administer the organization.
The first challenge is how we are using the word “excellence.” We have to define the term and not just parrot some nice words. A couple of weeks ago I read an anonymous article in InfoWorld [fn 2] The author uses “Anonymous” as his/her name. The author describes a software development company with no desire to make a quality product. They do not create proper documentation, end-user training, or test the products carefully before implementation on customer sites. They take a rather cavalier attitude toward making a product that would affect teachers, students and administrators. The first part of “excellence” is creating a product or service that actually works as promised.

The next part of “excellence” is to figure out how to make a product that can have a promised performance that can actually be done. In poorly run companies there is disconnect between sales, technology, and product creation. For example I once worked for a state agency that had field service agents. The agents would promise software to the clients, but neglect to tell anyone to create the software. Then they wondered why they didn’t have the discs to give out to clients. No matter how small the software package, it still needs to be created before distribution. Before promising, make sure the foundation is solid.

Q: Does the College have products that are sold?

It does not have products in boxes like a retail store, but there are many products. For example if there is an event there are many pieces that go into the planning, marketing, arranging the event, and creating backup or contingency plans. The pieces have to fit for successful event. For example if someone needs to have a meeting with computer, projector, and Internet access, someone needs to make sure the room and equipment are requested and the hardware works properly. The readied room is the product. If one is preparing flyers for an event, the flyers become the product. All the pieces needed for an event make the finished product which is the event. All the pieces working together are the third part of excellence.

The College also has infrastructure that is the support department that enable the instruction. Their services are part of the product mix. Any time someone requests support services such as information technology (IT), photo reproduction, maintenance, repair, etc. the requestor is the customer and the provider is the vendor.

Q: In Richard Feynman’s book, “Surely you’re joking, Mr. Feynman!” [fn 3] He relates many crazy incidents that concern education and administration. He was on a commission to help the California Board of Education choose math text books. He read every single one and rated them. When they went to meetings he actually told the committee the reasons behind the ratings. Other committee members gave ratings to books they had not completely read. Some books were not give to Feynman. When he asked why, the book distributor said that the book wasn’t finished. All he had was a cover and a blank inside. Feynman asked how one could rate a blank book?

How does this fit into a culture of excellence?

A: The California legislature was probably thinking they knew what is best for their citizens. They even had teachers sit on the textbook selection committees, but they didn’t count on someone as intellectual and ethical as Feynman. He would not accept anything from a textbook publisher. They offered meals and presents and he turned them down. They offered supplemental materials and he said that the books need to stand on their own merits. He even got two rival companies to compete and California paid a lower price because of competition.

Feynman was giving us just a taste of excellence, but some of his behaviors would have gotten him into hot water at the College and in academic circles. As part of his committee work he had to travel. By law he was supposed to get reimbursed for expenses. He turned in expense report and was asked for a receipt for parking. He claimed not to have one. He said that if you trust him enough to evaluate text books, then trust him that parking only costs $2.75.

We have reimbursement rules at the College that seem just as silly. I can’t understand why we waste precious time that costs more than the reimbursement. Even as president I can’t seem to change this. If we had a culture of excellence we would trust our people. If I trust someone to teach our students and use thousands of dollars worth of equipment, I should be able to trust them that transportation cost $5.00. Trust is the next part of excellence.

Trust goes both ways. The administration has to trust the faculty and staff and they have to trust that their requests will be filled. In Thomas Peters’ In Search of Excellence[fn 4] the author talks about many incidences of extraordinary employees. Those of employees who went above and beyond the basics needed to complete the jobs. These employees sometimes bent the rules and over came obstacles to fill the customer needs. They got rewarded for their efforts and the company got rewarded with customer loyalty and positive evaluations that translated into more business. This kind of behavior works in a business but in the public sector or academia. We don’t seem to be able to make this part of the culture.

To create a culture of excellence we need an institution where everyone is part of something within the institution (for example teams, committees, departments) and has an opportunity to be a star or make a type of unique contribution. When someone sticks out in a winning situation, those around him/her share in the honor or accomplishments. That is why we have recognition notices, certificates, and public praise. The next piece of the excellence puzzle is when there is a balance between membership in a group and personal achievement.

“Excellence” is not perfection. Just because something is excellent, does not mean we have stop creating and searching for something better. A circle has a type of perfect because there is no beginning or end. An organization has a beginning, goals, and steps to achieve so that there is no end in sight.

Q: To sum it all up what is “excellence” and what is a culture of “excellence.”

A: First it is easy to find examples of sloppy and poor performance. In the “3 Stooges and a Bozo” article above, the actors in the story did not know their own jobs. They did not have the technical skills to avoid mistakes or the social skills to have productive meetings. They didn’t know how to start, design, test or finish a project. In the creating reports from organizational data bases, the data stored must be correct or the report won’t work. For example a librarian trying to get a report out of the library management system needs excellent bibliographic data to get excellent management reports. While teachers can define and award “excellent” grades, in the organization “excellence” is hard to define.

Let me just rephrase the points I made concerning excellence –

1. Create a product or service that not only works, but it fills a customer need. Create the infrastructure to deliver and support the products.
2. Don’t promise something that you can’t deliver. If you can’t do something, decline. But don’t be afraid to try new endeavors to stretch the limits. The difference is work as hard as you can to accomplish the goal, but don’t promise results that would violate the laws of physics. If the request is not possible try to find an alternative that will accomplish the goal or an alternative goal.
3. Trust your people. If you can’t trust someone, don’t hire them. If you can’t trust them today, figure how to trust them in the future.
4. Have the technical, intellectual, administrative, fiscal and other skills to succeed.
5. Create rules that enable excellence. That means have rules that people work in concert with rather figuring out how to comply or bypass.
6. Recognize, reward, and celebrate group and individual success.
7. Talk, market, encourage excellence in the classroom, administration, and support areas.

Q: Thank you very much.


[1] This is part 24 in a series of interviews with the president of the College.  This is an unnamed president of an imaginary college.  Any connection to a real college is strictly coincidental.

[2] In the column: “Off the record.” “3 Stooges and a Bozo Make a Mockery of the IT Department”  InfoWorld Nov. 20, 2013.   Another source of amusement about a dysfunctional organization is the one described in the Dilbert comic strip.

[3] Feynman, Richard R. “Surely you’re joking Mr. Feynman!” : adventures of a curious character.  New York, Bantam Books, 1989.

[4] Peters, Thomas J and Robert H. Waterman, Jr.  In search of excellence : lessons from America’s best-run companies.  New York : Warner Books,  1984.

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