Lots of Good Ideas, Except One

When organizations run into financial problems, educated, experienced, and highly paid leaders immediately proceed to do things that someone with no education, no experience, and paid minimum wage can do: lay people off. This is true for public non-profit universities as well as private for-profit industry. Invariably, the cuts maximally impact those who desire the product or service (students or customers). That’s not smart.

It has been an interesting few months at the University of Southern Maine (and elsewhere in the University of Maine System), where financial problems are threatening faculty and staff jobs. The faculty, fortunately, has pushed back on the administration, demanding that the layoffs be re-considered. And, they have put forth a list of 27 ideas for cuts that minimally impact students. It’s nice to see some brainpower at work. It would have been even nicer if such ideas came from educated, experienced, and highly paid leaders such as the President, Provost, and Chief Financial Officer and other members of the leadership team.

All of the 27 ideas put forward by the faculty are practical and reasonable, and should be immediately adopted by the administration. Most ideas, however, probably will not be accepted.

The thing that catches my eye when faculty produce such lists is what’s missing. As always, there is no suggestion that processes must be improved, to reduce costs, improve quality, and reduce lead-times in non-zero-sum (win-win ways). This includes administrative and academic processes, the latter of which is necessary in order to improve teaching and to better serve growing numbers of low income and other disadvantaged students.

Significantly increasing the potion of the US population with college degrees by 2025 can best be achieved by taking the many good, value-creating things that universities do and making them better and better through continuous improvement.

3 thoughts on “Lots of Good Ideas, Except One

  1. Nancy Kress

    I believe that the reason process improvement isn’t on the list is that it is in conflict with a reactive management style that only makes changes when faced with a crisis. Proactive management is seen as taking too long, and many administrators can’t see past tomorrow, let alone see the possibilities 20 to 30 years out, which is the time required for a lean transformation.

    Just as continuous improvement never ends, so does continuous decline. Mike Rother in Toyota Kata p. 11 writes: “Relying on periodic improvements and innovations alone – only improving when we make a special effort or campaign – conceals a system that is static and vulnerable. Here is an interesting point to consider about your own organization: in many cases the normal operating condition of an organization – its nature – is not improving.”

  2. Paul Deuth

    Win-win solutions are impossible when one party desires an adversarial relationship. I have worked in such authoritarian and adversarial cultures and neither Lean nor any other sort of process-centric management method could be used. It all came down to “Do as I say.” There was no opportunity for improvement when the focus of the managers, or administrators, was on their personal claims to power, and a sort of power without responsibility.

    I’m currently witnessing the devolution of a good place to work to a place not so good to work where the new managers are more concerned with exercising power than they are with the customers or those who serve the customers. A once-constructive culture is becoming adversarial, and nothing will be gained from it, at least not for the customer, the organization, and those who do the work. It’s sad. It’s very sad.


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