The Misguided Search for Excellence

For a word that has its origins in 14th century Anglo-French, “excellence” has done very well. One can hardly ever attend a meeting of top policy makers in business or education or science without somebody or the other raising the question, “Are we striving enough to achieve excellence in our field?” For policy makers, “excellence” is one of those unquestionable goals.

            For  the  cult following that “excellence” enjoys among policy makers we have to thank Tom Peters and Bob Waterman and their 1982 book, “In Search of Excellence.”  They were consultants at McKinsey when they wrote this  book which went on to sell 3 million copies in the first four years of its existence and is believed to be the most widely held book in libraries in the United States.

            Peters and Waterman observed  traits that  successful companies had in common. Things like a readiness to take  quick action (as opposed to procrastination), a willingness to listen carefully to customers (as opposed to a take-it-or-leave-it attitude), and the discipline to  “stick to their  knitting” (as opposed to venturing into  unrelated businesses).

            These ideas seemed so stunningly obvious  and something that anybody could practice that  the notion for striving for excellence quickly became a corner of management thinking. It soon found its way well beyond the business world and into areas like educational and government policy making.       It mattered little that in a   short few years  after the book came out  several of these “excellent”  companies  ( Atari, Data General, Wang, to name a few) had collapsed financially. The search for excellence marched forward among policy makers.

The idea of searching for excellence has been around in education for a while in an equally unquestioned way.    In engineering education, for example, it led to the starting of a half dozen institutions, equipping them with more and better classrooms, more and better teachers and more and better labs and you now have a half-dozen IITs that meet the criteria of  “excellence.”

            The search for excellence in management education led to the founding if another half dozen institutions , equipping them with more and better classrooms, more and better teachers and more and better libraries and you now have a half-dozen IIMs that meet the criteria of “excellence.”

            And this was repeated in medical studies, in Design education, in Architecture and many other fields..

            All this is very comforting till you start counting the “others”. The several thousand “other” engineering colleges, the two thousand “other” management schools, the several hundred “other” medical, Design and Architecture schools that have not been favored with these extra resources.

            The theory of excellence works on the principle that if in a population of 100, five perform exceedingly well, the job is done. It does not pay attention to the other 95.

            Maybe it is time that we set these excellence theories aside and look to the teachings of William Deming, a .  philosophy that is exactly the opposite of the excellence theorists’. Up until then achieving manufacturing quality meant posting an inspector at the end of a production process to pick out the excellently produced items and send back the others to be reworked or discarded. Much like how we use tough entrance exams to select 0.5 to 1% of applicants to IITs and IIMs and forget  the others.

            Deming’s view was that when a production system turns out items of varying quality, we must ask  “what is the variation trying to tell us about the process?” There are two parts to this variation he pointed out. The first part is  intrinsic to the process.. He called these the “common causes” of variation.  And the second part  is because of things like an  operator falling asleep on his shift or  a particularly poor batch of raw material. These he called the “special causes”.

            The “special causes”  are relatively easy to fix  and can often be fixed by the people directly involved in the production process: the worker who operates the machine needs to get a proper night sleep and not fall asleep at the machine, the man who buys the raw material needs to avoid poor batches.

            The “common causes”, he said is the more insidious part of the variation of quality.  They  are often outside the control of workers and others directly involved in the production process and can only be fixed by those in management positions. Perhaps the product design itself is defective, maybe the operating processes are poorly defined, and maybe the working conditions are too poor.

            Using Deming’s methods, Japanese auto and electronics companies learned to produce 100% of their output of high quality and with little or no rejects.

            When we praise the excellence of our IITs and IIMs and a handful of other elite institutions we may merely be praising the work of pre-Deming quality control inspectors.

            This is perfectly in keeping with the origins of the word “excellence.”  It originates from the 14th century Anglo-French word “excellere” which means someone or something that is much better than others. Intrinsic to it is the idea of selecting a few and not worrying about the rest.

            Is it time we abandoned this search of excellence, embrace the methods of Deming and identify the “common causes” that cause such quality variations in our education system?


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