The Lectern

Steve Kelman


By Steve Kelman

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Better government management is in reach

I've been busy the last few days grading final student papers from my fall semester management and leadership course. Students could chose from among four books to write about.

Interestingly, about 80 percent of the students chose "The Progress Principle" (Harvard Business School Press 2011) by Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer -- perhaps because it was the most recently published of the four, or perhaps because it was the shortest. For whatever reason they chose it, I have been impressed overall by the quality of many of the students' observations about the book, including applying it (as one of the questions requested) to their own work experiences before coming to the Kennedy School.

When the book came out last summer, I wrote a column about it because I really liked the book. Although there is a lot more to the book than the brutal summary I'm about to give, the basic message was simple and powerful: Day-to-day variations in employee performance are heavily driven by variations in their reactions to experiences at work, and the most powerful driver of how one experiences one's job in turn is whether an employee feels he or she has made some progress on a meaningful task that day. An important part of a manager's job is both to facilitate and recognize such everyday progress. (The book presents an arresting analogy with videogames, which keep people hooked by doling out constant, but small, doses of progress.)

Among the student papers I read, two observations particularly caught my eye. One was by a student discussing an experience working at a famous private-sector consulting firm. The student noted two things about how jobs were organized and managed in the firm.

First, before any new project began, each team member developed, together with the team leader, specific learning and personal development goals for the employee during the project. At the end of the project, the employee and manager discussed how well those goals were met (this was not part of a performance evaluation process). Second, at the end of each week during the project, the team always put aside time to discuss what progress had been made that week, what the setbacks were, and what approaches the team could follow to try to deal with the setbacks. Sounded like it was taken directly from Amabile and Kramer's advice to managers about how to do a good job.

The second observation that caught my eye was a paper discussing how the Transportation Security Administration might do a better job of making employees aware of progress they were making, in an environment where progress ultimately means that there is not a terrorist incident – an abstract measure really impossible to touch or feel. The student suggested that local management prepare and distribute to screeners each week a list of actual objects screeners had confiscated -- one could imagine showing the items at a weekly staff meeting, providing a tangible artifact of the success at the mission.

I bring up these two examples from the students partly because I found them interesting in their own right, but also because they illustrate a point about the challenges and opportunities of managing in government. Federal managers are quick to complain, often rightly, about the constraints they labor under in managing in a government environment. And, as I noted in my column about The Progress Principle, the many signoffs, coordinations, and rules surrounding action in a government environment often make it more difficult for an employee to feel they are making some progress doing something meaningful each day.

At the same time, the technique the management consulting firm discussed by the student used to encourage and track progress is available to pretty much every federal manager. There is nothing about the federal environment that precludes its use. Likewise, nothing stops TSA managers from applying the idea my student suggested -- or other, doubtless even better ones they might develop -- as a simple way to recognize screeners' daily progress at a meaningful task.

Yes, there are problems trying to manage well in government. But we should remember there are also opportunities, mainly involving the intrinsic interest of a lot of the work government does. And above all federal managers shouldn't feel sorry for themselves about the constraints, but take advantage of ways to manage well that are very much within their grasp.

PS. I am chuckling over an incompetent virus spreader. Got an email with attachment today about "USPS Failed Delivery Notification" that told me: "Unfortunately we failed to deliver the postal package you have sent in time because the recipient's address is erroneous. Please print out the shipment label attached and collect the package at our office." Unfortunately, they identified USPS as the "United Parcel Service of America, Inc.," rather than the U.S. Postal Service. :p

Posted on Jan 10, 2012 at 7:27 PM3 comments

Secret Chinese vitamins

Many of the New Year's resolutions people make involve self-promises to behave in a more healthy way. I thought of this while getting ready to throw out a Chinese-language U.S.-published weekly magazine that a Chinese friend had used to cushion a present being sent me in a mail package. I couldn't read the Chinese, of course, but a full-page ad on the back page caught my eye. It was an ad for various vitamins, and, amidst all the Chinese, there was one piece of text in English clearly visible on each bottle: "Made in U.S.A." (Several of the bottles displayed American flags on the containers.)

This caught my eye because I know that health-conscious Chinese tourists coming to the U.S. to visit often buy vitamins to take home with their Louis Vuitton handbags and Jaeger-LeCoultre watches. They don't trust Chinese-made vitamins -- manufactured in an environment where safety regulation, to put it gently, is a work in progress -- worrying that they are adulterated at best and dangerous at worst. So the Made in America cachet signifies safety, backed up by U.S. government Food and Drug Administration inspections. Hence the ad I saw.

However, last fall, during a visit to a specialist about a health issue, I asked the doctor whether I should take a certain vitamin to help. He looked at me and said that not only was there no evidence that this vitamin helped (a problem that is occurring increasingly in studies, unfortunately), but that he himself avoided all vitamins because most of the ones we buy in the U.S. are -- get ready for this! -- made in China and probably harmful. In theory, Chinese-made vitamins had to meet FDA manufacturing standards, but he was not confident that the FDA has the inspection resources to check on compliance with the regs.

I proceeded to check the bottles of the vitamins I had at home. To my surprise, I discovered that none of them listed a country of origin. This was surprising, since I assumed that the law required that all products sold in the U.S. indicate where they are made. It turns out, however, that this rule does not apply to over-the-counter medication, and that a large proportion of vitamins sold in the U.S. (and aspirin as well) are actually manufactured in China. I would love to know the history of this exception to the law, particularly inappropriate since there may be a health issue at stake. (I will confess -- at the risk of generating hate posts to this blog -- that I am by no means normally a rabid made-in-America only kind of guy.)

Does any blog reader know any more about this? It strikes me as particularly ironic that many Chinese tourists may be buying vitamins in the U.S. because they trust our regulatory system more, only to be unwittingly purchasing vitamins from their own country.

BTW, a happy 2012 to all blog readers!

Posted on Jan 03, 2012 at 7:27 PM10 comments

Is Israeli democracy in danger?

I have been in Israel for a few days to present the report of a committee I chaired for the Israeli Ministry of Higher Education on Israeli university public-policy degree programs. It's an interesting time to be in Israel -- there has been increasing worry expressed (not the least in the US and other foreign media) about recent incidents involving ultra-orthodox religious groups in Israel that, many fear, threaten Israel's status as a nation that values equality and respect for others.

Among the incidents that have aroused concern have been an effort by ultra-orthodox Jews who run certain bus routes that go through ultra-orthodox neighborhoods to segregate men and women on the buses, an incident where ultra-orthodox soldiers walked out when women soldiers participated in singing in an army music concert, and so-called "price tag" (as in "there will be a price to be paid for") attacks on Israeli soldiers in retaliation for the government dismantling an unauthorized West Bank settlement.

In a column in the right-of-center English-language daily The Jerusalem Post, Jeff Barak, the paper's former editor, recounted with real unease having received a brochure from his health insurance plan about steps to take to detect breast cancer, a form of cancer more common among Jews. Due to pressure from the ultra-orthodox, the brochure distributed by this health plan omitted the word "breast" from its discussion, referring to the illness as "the special woman's cancer" and omitting any images of the process for a self-examination to avoid showing any pictures of breasts. "This creeping haredization ["haredi" is the name for the ultra-orthodox] of everyday life is dangerous, in this particular case literally," Barak wrote. "The sane, secular majority has to make a stand, just as it has done over the issue of women soldiers singing in IDF [Israel Defense Forces] ceremonies, to ensure that we don't descend into the fundamentalistd depths like Iran."
There have been fears expressed about the future of Israeli democracy, but the degree of public opposition to many of these events is a sign that democracy in Israel is still vibrant. In secular-dominated Tel Aviv (center of Israel's high tech industry, and a city with an active gay community), I saw outside the newly constructed City Theater -- a striking white edifice that builds on the white-color, old Bauhaus architecture of the city's early years in the 1920's -- a group of Hasidic Jews lightiing an enormous, 20-foot candleabra for Hanukkah, actually using a sort of weird-looking electrical hoist to get the candle-lighter to the top of the candles.

As the Hasidic Jews, with baby carriages in tow, were singing Hanukkah songs, a stylishly dressed 40-something woman came up to the front of the crowd and yelled, "Will there be a place for woman at the table?" I asked an Israeli friend if he was worried by these developments. He said yes of course he was worried, but he added that Americans should be more worried about the situation in our politics and economy.

Posted on Dec 22, 2011 at 7:27 PM6 comments

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