The TASC List: Learning from curves

Now while the budget process swings into high gear, there are perhaps a few details to consider from some familiar and continuously bending lines. Let’s be clear at the outset. What most people in Wilton want is to bend down the cost curve of overall operations so this driver of the budget and subsequently the tax burden can be brought under control and aligned with taxpayer interests.

A look at a few of these two-dimensional representations of trend and tendency might be useful. The first is the rather historical “learning curve” which arose from manufacturing production during WWII; it was widely applied in the airframe industry. The theory holds that the more often an operation is repeated the more proficient the operator will become, and that this proficiency increases steadily. It may be expressed by this rule: “whenever the total quantity of units doubles, the cumulative average cost per unit declines by a constant percentage.” The curve found widespread application in assessing vendor contracts and performance and has been extended for use in nontraditional environments, e.g., outside the manufacturing floor.

Ask yourself. After administrators and staff support have operated in the same field for a decade or two, might you expect them to be able to reduce job preparation, execution, and report time, and thus be able to take on new responsibilities, collateral duties, or expanded workloads? Then overlay the technological tools and available computer assists in their workplace environment. You may conclude that there may be significant cost savings close at hand.

Turning to the enrollment curve. We are also the beneficiaries of a nationwide decline in K-12 populations. There is no debate on that point. In Wilton we experienced a student buildup beginning about two dozen years ago, and an accompanying growth of staff and administrative hiring. The ratio was one additional staff for every seven students. Now as we come down the curve (and project hundreds of total student losses) would you agree that it is reasonable to reduce those overhead positions added during the period of rising enrollment? Would such a recovery of attendant costs help to contain the budget increases, and bring the student-staff ratio back into alignment? Surely the Board of Finance thinks so.

A nationwide homebuilder was noted for hiring more MBA graduates than any other employer during his “go-go” years of massive residential construction expansion. When that bubble burst, he was asked: “what do you plan to do with all those folks now?” He replied of course that he’d have to let many of them go if he wanted to remain solvent. Is our educational district operation fundamentally any different?

Now let’s look at on-the-job productivity and performance itself. The distinguished British Professor C. Northcote Parkinson examined administrative workers and bureaucrats along with their work outputs. He expressed his findings in the now popular Parkinson’s Law this way. “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” A colleague of mine once opined that he wished the boss had given us the project task just 30 minutes before the close of business rather than first thing in the morning, because we would have reached and reported the very same conclusions without spending all day on tweaking and reworking the product.

Quantitatively oriented and mutually agreed upon individual job objectives, to form the basis of an objective appraisal or examination, are critical to extract maximum productivity. Well-constructed and clearly written incentives are universally accepted as initiators of improved performance. Then if you add financial incentives to the management/executive team leaders, one can expect a widely accepted and highly focused process of objectives and attainments. Would you expect to find such focus and incentives in a productivity curve culture within our own education settings?

So, in our important attempt to bend the cost curve, we might extract some very useful lessons learned from the time honored learning curve, from the enormous potential of the current enrollment curve, and from the Parkinsonian observations of the human productivity curve. The opportunity is there. We need to exploit it now.

TASC stands for Toward A Stronger Community. Contact: