Sunday, December 22, 2013

Ambiguous Language

Language by its very nature is limiting.  It is a symbolic representation of thought. The job of a librarian is to organize the chaos of information.  I like to make fun of imprecise language.  I saw a sign for an event that said, “Limited seating.” The creator of the sign wants the readers to sign up right away.  He wants to fill the venue.  What does “limited” mean? It could mean the size of the seats is limited.

I checked and found the width of economy airline seats are between 17” and18”.  Train seats are about 20” and the desk chair I am sitting in while writing this blog is 24” Every chair is limited, but how does this limitation work?  A person with a 32” waist has about a 12 inch diameter, leaving about 5” of wiggle room.  I doubt the sign creator wants the readers to even care about size of the seats.  The limitation must be the number of seats in the venue.  Since every venue has a finite number of seats and space, they are limited.  So—what does “limited” mean in this context?  If the venue is a sports stadium there could be 50, 60, or 70 thousand seats.  If you wanted to go to a big game, the venue could be sold out. If you wanted season tickets, there could be none available. Is 70,000 a limited seating place?  “Yes!”  I doubt the event in the above sign has 70,000 seats available in the venue. I doubt 1000 seats are available.

What if a theatrical play had a limited run of two weeks?  The limitation could be based on contractual agreements to be in several cities.  The run in one city could not be extended because the production needs to move to the next place.  If the play had an open run has seating unlimited by a planned end date. The open run will continue as long as they can make money and fill the theater.  But it still would be limited by the laws of time and space. They could not schedule more performances in a day than can be fit into 24 hours. The play could be sold out one night and have plenty of empty seats the next.  Everything has limits.  Perhaps the sign creator could have conveyed the message more precisely by stating, “seating limited to the first 125 reservations?” That would tell the reader to make a reservation quickly to avoid disappointment and tell them they could not bring 126 friends.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Durable Goods -- II

Two weeks ago I had to replace my microwave oven. The old one served me well and the outside still looked new. The electronics, which had been warning me for two months, finally gave out.  It is hard to say good bye to my machines.  If you read my columns in March 2013 and December 2010 I said good bye to my blender and mixer.  In November I had to replace my garage door opener and last week I replaced a kitchen light fixture.

Microwave from 1999
It is not so much that I hate new things; it is just difficult to decide what to buy and find what I want.  The budget for the microwave oven gave me lots of choices.  I wanted a big one so that I could use it for multiple dishes at the same time or a big casserole dish.  The new one has a 2.0 cubic foot interior.  I wanted one that had a good rating. After checking online I found a store with an oven with all of the requirements.  We went over to the store to see that machine in action and wanted to buy it.  Alas! None were in stock.  The store had a free shipping option and we accepted the free delivery.  The electronic features and options are much more advanced than the previous oven. It fits right on the counter top in the place of the old microwave. 

Old light fixture
For a long time I wanted to replace the light fixture in my kitchen.  The halogen fixture used 300 watts and was very hot.  I didn’t really like the quality of the light.  But inertia kept me from spending the time to find a new fixture and spending the money. When the light bulb burnt out last month, I tried to replace it.  The new ones refused to work.  I cleaned to contact, but that didn’t help.  I investigated and found that the lamp socket wear out because of the high heat.  I thought that I would replace the socket, but the local home improvement stores did have the parts.  The electrician said that to fix the fixture would cost about 1.5 hours of his time, but a new one could be installed in 30 minutes. After I decided to purchase a new one, the process for finding a satisfactory fixture began. 

I didn’t want another halogen because I wanted one that more economical.  That also precluded incandescent.  That left florescent or LED.  My friends and so said not to get florescent.  I didn’t see a big problem, but I listened.  The LED bulbs offer several choices of white light colors, burn very cool, and use very little electricity per lumen.  The initial cost is very high, but the manufactures claim they will last more than 22 years.  My requirements were: budget of $100, look appropriate for a kitchen, have the ability to deliver at least 2200 lumens of lights, and have options for bulbs.  The local home improvement stores had plenty of fixtures within the budget, but none of the other requirements. Many of the fixtures used specialized bayonet based bulbs which are not interchangeable with other fixtures. Many looked in appropriate for my kitchen.  I finally checked online and found a store a short 15 minute drive away that specializes in light fixtures.

I planned a visit to the light store with my daughter on “Black Friday.”  The store was empty.  Evidently light fixtures are not high on the list for bargain hunters.  The store has lots of fixtures that fit the requirements.  In fact they had so many at about the same price point; the decision was based only on what looked the best for the kitchen.  The search went from frustration at finding nothing to finding so many the choices were hard.  The new fixture has standard screw in lamp sockets and I can choose the bulbs. I bought daylight LED bulbs at $35 each. I should only live and be well to have the privilege of replacing them after the full 22 years life span.  At my age I can not even say I’ll be in my house another 22 years.

I had to call an electrician to install the fixture because I can no longer do those kinds of repairs myself.  It took more than 10 days to arrange for an appointment, but the kitchen is full of light and we can see what we are cooking and baking. 

With my camera equipment so far it is not possible to get a good picture of the new fixture or microwave.

The final question is what to do with the replaced goods.  One old microwave oven was taken when the new one was delivered.  Another old one will be sent for recycling with city’s trash removal.  The old light fixture with a replacement socket is being offered for sale.

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.