TASC List: Seeking improvement

Many organizations search for perfection. Few actually achieve it. In fact most experts would agree that such a search would likely prove fruitless. The currents of change, the complexities of measuring progress, and the frailties of human effort — our own imperfections and inabilities — all work to limit such expectations.

For some of us, it may be useful perhaps to consider Tennyson’s admonition: “That men may rise on stepping-stones of their dead selves to higher things.” In the striving for excellence, we can in many ways improve ourselves and the life and times of those around us. Quality campaigns and process engineering are built on the notion of continuous improvement. That goal underpins everything from education to human relations to government to the world around us, and every important space in between.

A nearly perfect organization would have an overall mission statement, goals and objectives, and functions (or departments) that understood them clearly. In pursuing its own plans and programs, each function then would have individual performance plans with quantified and measurable objectives for each member. It would have annually signed business practices and ethics agreements. It would have responsive systems to support it, and tests for adherence to controls and auditability requirements.                                                                              

Such an organization might then be positioned to examine itself for opportunities for improvement, increased productivity, more efficient processes, methods, and procedures. In a word, more responsiveness and adherence to those critical words and intentions first outlined in its mission statement.

Here in Wilton the organization we are concerned with is the one that includes town government and operations and the district-wide education effort. There are encouraging signs that this important (combined) enterprise has become increasingly attuned to its several missions, its operational awareness, and its fiscal responsibility to its funding principals — the town taxpayers.

In an effort to reduce the payroll and consolidate resources in overall facilities and financial management, there is now a single individual in charge for town and schools. This is a significant first step in providing one set of eyes and controls on what were previously two separate and distinct functional areas. Now they are one. The dual function implementation holds the promise for more consolidation and more focus on improvement. It represents one of several organizational change templates available to Wilton on the path to managed change. It is, indeed, a stepping-stone, for all.

Let’s consider other possibilities from the classic organization playbook. Together they represent the systematic search for effectiveness in operations. In order of importance, they will be briefly outlined below.  Think of the list as elements of a search pattern to evaluate where savings and efficiencies can be obtained. Or as a decision table which we enter at the top.  

1) Essentiality. Is this function/process/activity directly and critically associated with the overall organization’s mission? If not, eliminate it in its entirety.

2) Consolidation. Is there a like function within the organization with which it can be combined? If not proceed down the table.

3) Simplification. Can it be reduced to require fewer resources or streamlined to refocus on basics and fundamentals? If not, proceed with the examination.

4) Integration. Can it be delegated or deployed somewhere else in the organization where it can then be assumed as a collateral duty and assimilated at a lower priority and with no additional resource?  If not, continue the search.

5) Automation. Only here, after the preceding steps have been considered, should the function be a candidate for additional machine-aided assistance or information-technology support. Those applications should comprise the very last resort in the improvement hunt.

In Wilton’s case, the consolidation examples already taken and mentioned above, suggest there is promise for this kind of approach. One hopes that this entire exercise, employing all these stepping-stones on a much broader panorama of activities, will be considered jointly by the first selectman’s office and by the chairman of the Board of Education.

TASC stands for Toward A Stronger Community. Contact: brennerjoe@aol.com.