Business Page – August 13, 2000

THE IMPERATIVE OF EFFICIENCY

Introduction

Increasingly quality is becoming a delicate mix of technological and human capabilities. In the production line it is the highly computerised and sophisticated equipment that drives production but quality is still largely and inevitably a matter for the keen eye of the quality controllers again using technology as part of his tools. In the newspaper business it is equally a matter of people - reporters and editors followed by printing and again quality controllers. In the food and tourism related sector it is almost all people as it is in offices and among the sales force. To compete successfully is to recognise this mix.

Even as we recognise this however, many if not most of our talent keeps draining away - in search of a better opportunity and in protest against the continuing low standards and service in Guyana. The task of quality improvement is truly a race without end - the trained ones soon leave and the poor manager has to start all over again. Many managers resort to poaching rather than training, only to find that the catch is untrained and looking for more money.

The competitive business environment is forcibly hammering home the lesson that survival of an entity is dependent on increased efficiency and productivity. People determine the level of productivity and it is of great concern that if there is not a drastic change in attitude we will be unable to compete.

Quality Decline

Against the trend of what is needed, there has been an appalling decline in standards and in just about every area of life in Guyana mediocrity has become increasingly acceptable. As badly as our physical infrastructure has decayed, the disintegration of the value system which demands excellence is more catastrophic. It seems almost in vogue to settle for less quality, less thoughtfulness, less courtesy and less service. Too often is a sound work ethic ridiculed as if it is something to be ashamed of. While many have got used to and even become part of this "culture", it is frightening to think many of our younger generation have lived with it all their lives and know nothing else. They see few good examples among community and church leaders and a business culture with little regard for ethical values.

While all the best theories and reasons can be advanced there can be no excuse, we have all contributed to the decline by our unwillingness to deal with it forcefully. Many managers have often made concessions on quality of products and service that have seemingly endorsed the inefficiency that is now rampant in our midst. Indeed many managers prefer to make excuses for their company’s shoddy work and attempting to defend the indefensible rather than acknowledging the mistakes and giving satisfaction to the customer. A business can only sustain or improve productivity if it has policies and practices in place that foster quality and are intolerant of poor standards.

Punctuality or rather lack of it in the private and public sectors is one of the principal manifestations of the malaise which affects productivity gains. Managers must insist that people report for work on time and work the hours for which they are paid. The most annoying occurrence is to call or visit some business place to find that the posted hours of work are meaningless. Management should not allow employees to take what is in fact an unauthorised pay increase and should pay only for the actual hours worked.

But then again the manager who behaves as though rules do not apply to him and who is never on time for an appointment would be hard put to demand better from subordinates. Sometimes an equally upsetting experience is the time wasted on an appointment that is constantly interrupted by telephone calls. It may stem from a sense of self-importance but taking or making calls during a meeting is time-wasting, rude and disrespectful. It shows total disregard for the other person's time and should not be tolerated.

Another bothersome issue on the subject of the telephone is the lack of attention paid to its proper usage. Few companies seem to appreciate how the telephone can enhance and improve their efficiency, productivity and image. Three simple rules should be observed:

  • Phones should be answered pleasantly and courteously;
  • Calls should be promptly directed to the appropriate parties; and
  • Messages should be accurately communicated and calls returned as soon as possible.

No telephones should be left unattended because no one likes to call a business place during office hours and not reach someone. Efficient companies ensure that all phones are answered promptly even during staff meetings. It should also be standard practice that calls are returned promptly since clients or customers expect that courtesy.

Offices are using increasingly advanced systems for answering their telephones but these too must be subject to human management.

Correspondence

Correspondence should also be dealt with expeditiously and there is nothing wrong with insisting that mail be responded to promptly. Last Thursday I sent off an e-mail to one of the US Ernst and Young offices at 9.36am. A response came back at 9.43am - seven minutes later! On the outside letters should be answered in 24 hours unless the issues involved are extremely complex and require research. Cases of this nature should still be responded to immediately with an indication of when all the required information will be forwarded. Pending trays belong to Jurassic Park - let us not re-create them.

It is not easy to be an outstanding company but excellence can be achieved if the owners and managers have the integrity and values necessary for success. Once a commitment is made, it is imperative that it is honoured in both letter and spirit. Sales pitches often promise the very best - the highest quality merchandise, the most skillful craftsmanship, reliable after sales service. The public must demand what is promised. The gap between the promise and reality must be narrowed if a company is to survive. In the long run, loyalty, respect, success and profitability will be the reward for those who strive for excellence and deliver value, those with integrity.

Many of these areas do not require any major outlay in funds by businesses, and in fact will improve profits because of greater productivity. It should be transmitted to all employees that every policy put in place is meant to demonstrate respect for the customer, the public and fellow employees. Disrespect for any of these groups is the most destructive and expensive mistake companies can make. Beliefs and values of the ownership and management determine the level of success a business will achieve and maintain. Creating an environment in which people are courteous, sensitive and have respect for others is a proven method of improving productivity.

Conclusion

A company's personality is usually a reflection of its owners or management and setting standards of excellence is not elitist. Employees who constantly refuse to conform to such standards do irreparable damage to the productive capability of those around them and ultimately to the business as a whole. Certain individuals continually try to impose their poor standards on an organisation and weak management will only contribute to this. Just as an individual is judged by the company he or she keeps, so is a company measured by the employees it retains. Remember that you do not have to be part of the overall decline in standards and values. Everyone can make a difference! It is time stop making excuses for shoddiness and mediocrity. The economy is full of promise and opportunity but local businesses are faced with growing competition from foreign companies. This challenge will not be successfully warded off by the faint of heart. Let us as a nation make a commitment to excellence, our survival depends on it.

Standards of course are not a matter for the private sector alone. Telephone calls to Ministers, ministries and government departments are seldom returned. The Public Service Ministry should set up a Unit to help train all public servants including Ministers about efficiency and telephone manners. The Government after all is the largest organisation in the country. It is also supposed to be the facilitator for the private sector. It must set the example.