Friday, October 15, 2004

Improving the improvement movement — Part 2 

As mentioned in an earlier post, the ExCEL committee — which promotes continuous learning and continuous improvement in the civil service — has revamped its convention and award ceremony to reduce the time, effort and cost involved in the presention and evaluation of projects.

The convention was held on Wednesday. At the convention, both ExCEL committee chairman and Second Permanent Secretary for Foreign Affairs Bilahari Kausikan and head of civil service Lim Siong Guan made exhortations to change the system. As reported in Today:

Mr Kausikan opened this year’s session by saying that though things had changed in a year, the need to constantly re-look accepted practices was crucial to growth. He added that to overhaul “the politics, the bureaucracy and unthinking procedures”, it would be necessary to get rid of “rituals” and the “numbers mentality” that engineers in the civil service are so fond of.

Civil service chief, Mr Lim Siong, echoed the call. Specifically, Mr Lim blasted managers and supervisors who say “Just give me the numbers, I don’t care how you do it,” and thereby “reduce the system to a numbers game”. Criticising such leaders, he added: “The perception that there is a ‘numbers game’ is a manifestation of poverty in leadership and communication. We have made ourselves slaves to our rules.” Mr Lim asked civil servants to get used to constant change in order to be nimble, adding that the “unquestioning” need not apply.
I agree that the management and transformation of organisations is more than just a matter of “numbers”. On the other hand, there is a management adage: What gets measured, gets done. Maybe the problem with the ExCEL movement is not so much that people are looking at numbers but that they are not looking at the right numbers.

People’s behaviour within an organisation is usually influenced by the system under which the organisation operates. This system, in turn, is — or at least should be — the product of top management thinking and direction. Therefore, when senior management within the civil service complain about the behaviour of their civil servants — accusing them of poor leadership and communication — they risk opening to question the effectiveness of their own leadership.

Having said that, I think the increasing openness of the civil service and its growing recognition of its shortcomings — manifested in self-criticism, both internal and public — is a good thing and should be encouraged.


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