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What we must learn from exam fiasco

You all know what happened. The students who were sitting the KCSE Mathematics paper earlier this week were subjected to something unforgivable. Two tables were in the wrong places in the paper; a third was missing altogether.

Most of us have sat through public examinations at some stage in our lives; most of us remember the stress and tension that accompanies those events. It is surely bad enough that a child has to sit and prove herself to the world in the space of just two or three hours, knowing that a second chance may never come and that failure could lead to a blighted life; but to have to deal with all that, and cope with blundering nincompoops who fail to check the paper? Can the Kenya National Examinations Council spell u-n-f-o-r-g-i-v-a-b-l-e?

It is time our country learned two very important lessons from this fiasco. The first is about accuracy, checking and quality control. Those are disciplines I fear we are leaving behind us, yet they underpin all economic advancement. It is easy to think that all the really important work of life is in thinking, conceptualising, planning, strategising. As a strategy specialist, I beg to differ. The rewards of life come as much from effective execution as they do from insightful contemplation. We need doers as much we need thinkers. And crucially, we need doers who are focused, persistent, demanding – and obsessive about details.

How boring! To have to worry about every little thing, every comma and full stop, every formula, every font size and every fine aspect of every finished product? Does that really add value? Emphatically, yes. Those infamous tables in the wrong places say it all. Quality does not lie in concepts; it lies in the thing that the final consumer, handles, feels and uses. The devil, as they say, is in the details. If what you have placed in the hands of the ultimate judge is not up to scratch, all your finely laid plans come to nought. You fall at the final hurdle, and nobody cares what careful preparation and what relentless training it took to bring you there. You fall, and your hard work is ruined.

I learned this very early in my career, when I was fortunate enough to be seconded to the UK’s Monopolies & Mergers Commission (now called the Competition Commission). There, I discovered the value of the nitpicker. I arrived as part of the team of “thinkers” on an investigation into anti-competitive practices. I therefore thought I was in the ‘A’ team of intellectuals. How wrong I was.

I soon discovered that all the Commission’s Inquiries centred around one individual: the Inquiry Manager. This formidable lady had the job of making everyone check their facts, and of making sure that the final published report was error-free. This she did with remarkable aplomb. She would personally check every letter, every word, every sentence, and every punctuation mark. She would check grammar, syntax and style. She would shut her door and pore for days over the final printer’s draft, her famous red pen in hand. And believe me, not a single error escaped her. I challenge anyone to find a single slip-up in any of the Commission’s reports published in the early 1990s, when this lady ruled the roost.

People like her are worth their weight in gold. Yet we have to move away from individuals and towards processes. The Japanese learnt this before everyone else; their guru, however, was an obscure American statistician called W. Edwards Deming. In 1947, he gave a lecture to Japanese industrialists who were rebuilding the nation after the devastation of World War II. Unlike the business leaders in his native land, the Japanese paid attention. Over the next three decades, they put Deming’s words into impressive practice, and taught the world the value of being obsessed with zero faults.

Deming’s message? In his own words: “Inspection does not build quality, the quality is already made before you inspect it. It’s far better to make it right in the first place. You don’t get ahead by making product and then separating the good from the bad, because it’s wasteful.” His “first-time quality” mantra is now accepted business practice in all the world’s leading companies, who embed quality checking into all their processes – not just the final one.

The Kenya National Examinations Council must learn this lesson, and learn it well. An organisation that holds the futures of millions in its palm must take quality very, very seriously. It must ensure that questions are correct when they are formulated – and are checked. That figures are correct when devised – and are checked. That print layouts are correct before printing – and are checked. That printers’ proofs are correct before mass printing – and are checked. And finally, that every letter and every figure on every page is correct and in the right place, before releasing the paper – and are checked. And checked again.

A second lesson is about damage control and reputation management. Here’s what you don’t do when something like the Maths paper disaster happens. You don’t initially blame it on the printers. You don’t convene a press conference playing down the issue. You don’t pretend that it isn’t a big deal, and that no candidate will suffer. You don’t claim to have foolproof methods of compensating students (there’s no such thing). You don’t claim to have superb quality control systems (when the blunder proves conclusively that you don’t).

Those who followed the train of events over the week will know that KNEC did exactly those things.

Here’s what you should do. You accept that whatever happens next, your negligence has caused panic and confusion during one of the country’s most important examinations. You accept that this examination may decide who will have a job in future, and who will be destitute. With that acceptance, you apologise with sincerity and contrition to all candidates and their parents. You do not just express regret – you say sorry. You make sure that someone who matters takes responsibility and resigns with dignity, without waiting to be pushed. Then you say what you will do to alleviate the damage you have done. Finally, you use this unfortunate event to overhaul your processes from scratch, and ensure that you take your institution to a new level.

We are promised severe action will be taken, and it is necessary. But the severity should not take the form of unearthing a couple of frightened scapegoats. We must learn how to say sorry, and learn to step down when we have presided over unforgivable errors. We must learn to take responsibility for the errors and omissions of our juniors, and not caste blame far and wide. We must learn to use setbacks and reversals as an opportunity to rebuild our capabilities and our processes.

If this debacle creates the circumstances in which we rethink our quality processes, it may be worth it. For that to happen, however, those who will pronounce judgement on this event from up on high need to pay deeper attention.

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