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Crooked line that compromises our future

Nov 12, 2006 Success, Sunday Nation

If you are in Nairobi and happen to be in the State House area, you may notice a freshly painted bright yellow line in the middle of State House Road. You may also notice another thing: the line is crooked.

Why am I telling you this on a Sunday morning? No, I haven’t run out of interesting topics. That crooked line actually worries me a great deal. If we can’t paint a straight line in full view of the President of the land, then how on earth are we going to pull off the complicated tasks that make up economic development?

Painting lines on the road is not something done whimsically by dolts. I presume there is a correct method of measurement and alignment. We have been able to paint straight lines on other major roads in the past, so what went wrong here? The people doing the work obviously did it poorly; more worryingly, those supervising them and checking their work were also asleep on the job. And those meant to note the quality and give the final nod are presumably otherwise occupied.

Chill out, you say – it’s just one road. No it isn’t. That road tells us something about the state of our management practices, and the message is not a good one. Over time, a stealthy but steady lowering of standards has been observed in many areas of public life. We once had street lighting all over Nairobi: today it can be found only where the private sector pays for it. We had a certain performance standard in civil service; today we accept slovenly service and studied indifference by those who are paid to serve us.

There are many reasons for this. A primary one is the way in which we have selected personnel in the public sector for decades: on the basis of ethnicity and kinship. We disdained qualifications and scoffed at schooling, and packed public posts with tribesmen and kinsmen, not with effective workers seeking to build careers. The result: people occupying very important positions, high and low, who are simply unable to do the job.

A second factor lies in management processes. We were once given an effective, paper-based way of doing things: accepting payments; requisitioning services; maintaining records; managing projects. That way of doing things died away worldwide a quarter of a century ago; but in much of our public (and indeed private) sector, we still file everything in quadruplicate, ask customers to go to four different offices to make a simple transaction, and make calculations by hand. All of that can be automated, speeded up and simplified; but we like it the old way.

We should learn from the best of the corporate world. Companies that embrace proven modern management techniques – project planning, goal setting, performance tracking, team building – perform better than those that do not. A cross-border study conducted by the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics in 2005 found a strong link between proven best practices and superior performance. This result applied across countries: how people operate is more important than where they operate.

Walk into any of the Kenyan companies that keep announcing sterling results in recent years. Their performance is not an accident, nor is it just because the economy is growing. These organisations have embraced the best of the world’s management systems and processes. Indeed, they look nothing like they did just five or ten years ago.

We learn from each other. Companies such as Toyota and Dell (lean manufacturing), and Apple and Coke (savvy marketing) have a great deal to teach the world. The Germans are better at managing shop-floors; the Americans at managing talent. Fortunately, such knowledge does permeate rapidly (via books, training courses, business schools, consultants) and can be understood and applied by most organisations. Yet many resist, thinking that the old ways were the best ways. Actually, management has gone through major advances as a discipline in recent decades. If we ignore this, we are dead in the water.

It is a great challenge to change embedded ways of working and rigid ways of thinking. But we have no choice but to take it up. The LSE study tells us that good management is not about hours clocked, but about methods, skills and style. The best organisations invest heavily in training, create flexible working environments and give workers more autonomy to make decisions. That is unheard of in many Kenyan organisations, private and public: most of our lower-level workers don’t receive a day of extra training; clock in for 8 hours every day; and don’t come anywhere near a decision throughout their working lives. In other words, we are still stuck in the “pack them in, pay them very little, work them like donkeys” way of doing things.

Back to that crooked line. Not far away from State House is Mbagathi Way, which is supposed to be our first-ever, state-of-the-art concrete dual carriageway. The work was commenced to much fanfare as the future of Kenyan road-building. Road users were asked to put up with a little temporary inconvenience while the road was being built. That was HOW long ago? I’ve lost count of how many months or years it’s been that we have watched the snail-like progress of the new road. If it takes us a couple of years to build a 2 km road, how long will the Mombasa-Malaba highway take?

These are not trivial questions. We are busy envisioning a shining future these days, thanks to the launching of the ‘Vision 2030’ project. That initiative will be covered in depth in this column in weeks to come; but today I would just like to lay down a marker. We have no hope of becoming a ‘tiger’ economy, none whatsoever, if we do not systematically upgrade the quality of management practice in the country. Visions are delivered by people, and people have to know what they’re doing. If our tolerance of poor standards and corrupt practice continues, that vision will resemble the kind of thing that smokers of banned substances are known to see.

Those tiger economies we wish to emulate are (often) the originators and (always) the most enthusiastic adopters, of leading-edge management practice. You will not find crooked road lines and shoddy roads in Singapore. Nor will you find anything but the highest world standards of training and knowledge dissemination. The tiger economies know the value of doing things right: they have done it for decades, with their governments at the forefront.

Vision 2030 must embrace policy aimed at influencing management practice in all sectors of the economy. It must ensure that best practice spreads throughout the country. It must take the current, very noble, efforts to introduce a performance culture in government to new levels. It must place the right emphasis on the right educational standards. It must introduce bracing competition wherever it can. Then we shall have a fighting chance.

And now, if you have some spare time this Sunday, take your children to see the crooked line around State House that is compromising their futures.

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