Workers have been re-roofing a host of ’80s-era, several-story apartment buildings in my neighborhood, and from my 18th-floor balcony I’ve had a birds-eye view. I predict leaks.
Good roofing practice everywhere follows one cardinal principle: Work from the bottom up, laying each additional element on top of the lower one, with sufficient overlap, and laying the topmost bits last. When roofers work from the top down, trying to insert the next bits under ones already laid, they risk tearing, punctures or gaps, all of which lead to leaks.
The roofers in my neighborhood regularly violate this principle, when process or planning mistakes lead them to slide new corrugated sheets under sheets already laid above, sometimes undoing and then redoing the fasteners holding those upper layers. Watching them, one can hear the project managers saying, “labor is cheap, we don’t have time for all those detailed process discussions, so let’s just get the job done as fast as we can, and get paid. Someone will fix any problems later.”
Managers are tempted to achieve short-term gain at the expense of longer-term benefit everywhere. CEOs of major multinationals know that they are measured on stock price quarter by quarter, and will likely be out of their companies by the time any failure to capture long-term opportunity, or even any long-term damage they’ve done, manifests itself. For the buildings in my neighborhood, the roofers and perhaps the roofing company itself will be long gone by the time that the residents start complaining about leaks.
Moreover, neither the roofers in my neighborhood nor their managers are likely to have any clue about the value of good process management – reasonable, given that they’ve grown up in a system with no market-based incentive for applying such rigor.
Local universities’ administration teams sometimes remind me of these roofers – lacking awareness of the value of operations quality, focusing on short-term outcomes. One often hears “We’ll do this the Chinese way,” as if China didn’t have two thousand years of leadership in developing world-leading products and services, a history interrupted for too long, but relatively briefly, by the period of wars and insanity that began in the mid 19th century and ended only a few decades ago. Some locals wrongly believe that sloppy process is not only justified, but required, by the Chinese environment. Not these people’s fault, given the environment they were raised in, but the results are no less sad in terms of their own development, and no less damaging for their institutions.
Moreover, unlike the roofers, universities are in a pure service business (“production” and “consumption” occur at the same time). Unlike bad roofing practices, degraded operations quality in service-sector organizations doesn’t take time to produce “leaks.” Facing poor teaching quality and bad operations at her b-school, one MBA student I know is telling her network, while she’s still a student, that the program isn’t worth the time and money. These “leaks” in a local b-school’s operations may not be apparent to the b-school’s leadership (they conduct student surveys, but the surveys are often a charade), but the school experiences an incremental loss of students, a degradation of student quality and fewer of the corporate relations that satisfied students might bring the b-school from their subsequent employers.
Physics isn’t Chinese, or Western, or even human. The physical laws governing the flow of water are true on every planet that has water and gravity. As China globalizes and becomes part of a market-driven global economy, those who use “China is different” as an excuse for bad management practices, or those who choose to remain ignorant about why such practices are bad, will find that they are losing tenants because of the leaks they’ve created in their roofs.
John D. Van Fleet works in the university sector in China. He lives in Shanghai.