Sunday, June 21, 2009

Quality standardization - the McDonald's way!

I was at Gwalior in Northern Madhya Pradesh last week and was pleasantly surprised to see a shopping mall and a McDonald's outlet there. The city of Gwalior has surpassed Madhya Pradesh's capital city - Bhopal atleast in two aspects - one of being a better tourist destination thanks to the fabulous Gwalior fort and the other of having a better mall culture with big brands establishing an outlet there. (A third and irrelevant aspect where Gwalior surpasses Bhopal is in the prevalance of gun toting culture across the district and nearby areas.)

I have been an ardent McDonald's customer, never missing a chance to walk in to a McDonald's outlet if I pass by one. I have always been impressed by the level of standardization that works across all McDonald's outlets - standardization of not just the burgers but of the processes as well as of people. On seeing a McDonald's outlet in Gwalior, I decided to walk in and have a taste of my favorite Veggie Meal. It had been almost 6 months since I ate at a McDonald's outlet; the last was at the outlet in Navi Mumbai just before the Mumbai Pune Expressway commences. I was also curious to see if they have the same level of standardization and quality as a McDonald's outlet in Mumbai.

Over the last 3 months, I have been trying to identify and recruit good quality people for the various vocational technical education centres that we are setting up in Madhya Pradesh & Uttar Pradesh. However, our search has been very painful, to say the least. We just could not get the quality of people that we expected and hence had to compromise on a few counts in order to fill up our positions. We believed that we could possibly train them and make them as good as what we expect them to be. When I saw the McDonald's outlet, I was curious to see if they have the same quality of people that I have seen in their outlets in Mumbai and elsewhere. I was wondering if they have been able to standardize their processes and people here too to the same extent as their other outlets.

When I walked to the counter to place my order, an old lady was standing ahead of me in the queue and was having a conversation with the person at the order counter. She apparently seemed to have ordered for something which was not available in the outlet at the moment and she was upset about the same. The McDonald's service guy at the counter was very polite and was extremely apologetic about the same. His English was amazingly good (it has been a long long time since I heard anyone speak good English in Madhya Pradesh!) and his mannerisims mirrored that of any good service personnel in any other McDonald's outlet elsewhere. When the lady demanded to see the Shift supervisor, the service personnel called a petite lady to talk to her. The shift supervisor too was very polite, spoke good English and tried to reason with the lady. Somehow the matter was resolved and the lady walked over to take her seat. I was impressed by the extent of professionalism shown by the service personnel and the shift supervisor in meeting the customer's expectations and handling a customer complaint.

While I placed my order, I received the same level of promptness from the entire service team. I have always seen people in Madhya Pradesh to have a laid back and lazy attitude. However, I found the contrary in the entire service team at McDonald's. I noticed the surnames in the name badges of the service personnel and was re-assured that all of them were localites. I was thoroughly impressed by the service culture and mannerisms exhibited by the entire team. I am sure there must have been a lot of effort gone in training this entire team to change them from being a motley group of youngsters from a small city in Madhya Pradesh to a world class service focused team.

This experience gave me a few insights. Here was a team of highly motivated individuals trying to provide customer satisfaction to the best possible extent. I am sure they were all born and brought up in the same culture as the other people of Pradesh. However, what differentiates them was possibly the grooming that they got from McDonald's. If there was some way we could aim to groom youngsters in the state of Madhya Pradesh similar to a McDonald's way, I am sure the state would possibly have a much better work force.

More importantly, if a McDonald's can train and groom these youngsters to such high professional standards, I am sure any other organization working in the state of Madhya Pradesh too can do the same, provided they have the desire to make a difference. Unless organizations working in Madhya Pradesh take an active interest in enhancing the quality of the work force in Madhya Pradesh, they will never find good quality people in the state. With no effort to train and groom their workforce, organizations can only lament about the non-availability of good quality people in the state. For me, I have my task cutout. Invest in training my people and stop worrying about non-availability of good talent! Way to go!

Change syllabus every year to earn more!

Yesterday, I was travelling by train from Jhansi to Bhopal. There were two other co-passengers in my coupe and I happened to eavesdrop on their conversation. Normally, I would not prefer to do such eavesdropping but being seated opposite to each other and they having a very loud voice, I couldn't stop myself from listening to their conversation. One of the gentleman was the owner of a prominent newspaper in Uttar Pradesh and the other was a prominent surgeon based in Jhansi. Both of them were travelling to Jabalpur to attend a religious discourse.

The newspaper owner was talking about his family and the businesses that the family owns. One of the major businesses the family owns, apart from the newspaper, was a book publishing business. The family owns two printing presses - one in a place near Jhansi and the other in Raipur. The newspaper owner was mentioning that he was not fit to run the publishing business because he was a straight forward person and was incapable of running any business by feeding government officials under the table. Hence, the printing presses were run by his younger and elder brother respectively.

What caught my attention was the modus operandi of these presses. He mentioned that both the presses publish school text books for the government of UP & Chhatisgarh respectively. The value of the government order for each press runs into around 8 to 10 Crore Rupees every year. However, this deal can be secured only if the publisher is willing to give adequate kickbacks to the government officials responsible for clearing the order. Education, which is supposed to eradicate all evils, is actually the starting point of all evils in governance.

The orders are given out in the nth hour and the publishers have very little time, actually less than a month's time, to publish lakhs of books. In case the publisher fails to deliver on time, there is a huge penalty on the publisher. In order to deliver contracts on time, the publishers tend to compromise on the quality of the books thereby rendering the book unusable for more than a year.

What was more shocking was the way in which the entire education system was being taken for a ride to satisfy the interests of a few petty politicians and their loyal bureaucrats. In their greed to make more money for themselves, the politicians and bureaucrats change the syllabus every year forcing publication of new books. Thus, they make hefty kickbacks every year and grow richer than ever!

In all this bargain, the common man suffers the most! With the low income levels in Uttar Pradesh, not every family has the capacity to buy books every year. In earlier days, books used to be passed on from elder brothers to younger brothers since the syllabus used to change once in 5 years. Now, the poor man's family is forced to buy new books every year thereby stressing him even more. Many a times, kids are put out of school simply because they cannot afford education anymore, thanks to these money minded politicians and bureaucrats!

This conversation left me contemplating; does education pull people out of poverty or forces them deeper down the chasm?

Weak Foundations! Great Expectations!

About a month ago, the results of high school (10th standard) examinations were declared in the state of Madhya Pradesh. The results were nothing but shocking! Having lived in states like Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra where the high schools have nearly 70 to 80% students passing, the Madhya Pradesh state results came a big shock. The number of students who had cleared their high school exams was an abysmal 36%. Of the 7.5 lakh students who appeared for the high school exams, a mere one third have passed and another 1 lakh students have been permitted to appear for supplementary exams. The government of Madhya Pradesh convened a meeting of the district education officers on a fact finding mission to unearth the reasons for poor performance. Two of the prominent reasons were:
  • The government changed the syllabus but failed to train the teachers adequately on the new syllabus.
  • Books for new syllabus were not available in the market and hence students could not prepare adequately
The reason seemed to squarely blame the debacle on the syllabus. I too believed that the excuse was reasonable until I met a school administrator in Sagar, a town in central Madhya Pradesh last week. My discussion with this administrator was a revelation of sorts and I wish the Madhya Pradesh Education Department does some more fact finding before they come to blame the syllabus.

This school has been in existence for more than a decade in Sagar. The school has a Principal, who happens to the administrator's wife. The administrator is a high school pass and the Principal is a graduate. The school employs about 8 to 10 teachers who are mostly higher secondary pass and a few are graduates. My discussion with the administrator made me realise that such schools are one of the fundamental reasons for the poor results in high school exams since they lack quality in every aspect, be it operations, academics or accountability.

According to the administrator, the procedure to start a school is very easy. If you are willing to grease a few palms in the education department, you will have the licence to start a school. When asked if the education department prescribes any minimum standards or regulations in terms of the infrastructure or faculty, the administrator mentioned that there was no such thing as regulations or standards. Once you got the permission, every school was free to operate the school as per their wishes and charge fees as per their discretion. This school, for the record, has been functioning in a 1000 sqft. house of the administrator. Most importantly, the education department never inspects the functioning of the school. In the last decade, since its inception, nobody from the education department has ever come to inspect the functioning of this administrator's school.

If running the school has no rules and regulations, the academic component also takes a huge beating. None of the school teachers or the Principal have a Bachelor's in Education degree, which I have always thought was essential to be a school teacher. The administrator mentioned that there was no such requirement to run a school in Madhya Pradesh. The school management is free to decide on who teaches in the school. In fact, the administrator feels that a high school pass teacher is qualified enough to teach students upto 8th standard! A shocking revelation, to say the least!

The school administrator also mentioned that the school, in its decade old existence, has never failed any student. I was impressed, assuming that the teachers must be doing a very good job. However, the administrator clarified that the school never fails anybody since there is huge parental pressure to pass all the students. Since the exams are conducted by the school itself, nobody verifies the credentials of the exams or the students. Moreover, if the school fails any of its students, they may face problems with the education department during renewal of licence and hence to maintain a clean slate, they never fail any student.

Such schools, however, conduct classes only till the 8th standard since running classes for 10th standard poses a huge risk. Because they have compromised on the quality of education, they are definitely not sure if their students would pass high school exams and hence stay shy of commencing high school classes.

Having had this conversation with the school administrator, some stark realisation dawned upon me. If the quality of education has been so poor at the primary and secondary education level, there is no doubt that majority of these students would fail at the high school level. Since the foundations are weak, these students are bound to fail in a state-wide competitive exam such as the high school examination. Change in syllabus or inadequately trained faculty only complicate things much further.

Unless the state government actively takes interest in enhancing quality at the primary and secondary level and brings in strong accountability in primary and secondary schools, I do not see any improvement happening in the education scenario of the state.

Welcome to 'My experiments with education!'


Let me start my bloggin with a small introduction about myself!

My name is Ganesh. A teacher by passion and an educationist by profession, I have been successful on both counts during my corporate career spanning more than 8 years. Academically, I am a commerce graduate with an MBA in Finance and Marketing from XIM Bhubaneswar. I have been a successful educational projects manager with organizations such as Reliance Webstores, Everonn Systems and my almamater XIM Bhubaneswar where I have worked towards launching innovative technology enabled educational models. In my last assignment with CRISIL, I have been awarded and recognized globally for creating an innovative talent augmentation pipeline through a unique work and study programme. I am also an expert in managing both small and large educational institution operations and have successfully managed the operations of IMS Learning Centre in Chennai. A brief research stint with McKinsey Knowledge Centre and a sales stint with Johnson & Johnson have provided me with a strong research and marketing orientation in all my assignments till date. I am an avid reader and a guest faculty on marketing and finance to some of the business schools across the country.

In the last few months I have been working on setting up vocational technical education centres across Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh in Central India. This required me to travel the length and breadh of these two states and put me face to face with many interesting, intriguing, shocking revelations that I have ever faced in my life. These revelations are not just related to education but with life, morality, ethics, systems, culture, people and so on. After a couple of perspective changing instances, I now have the urge to share my thoughts on these revelations with the world at large. The result is this blog.

I decided to call my blog as 'My experiments with education' since I always consider myself a researcher trying out new experiments in education with the hope that one day I would scream out 'Eureka!' loudly on having changed something or having discovered something in education, that can have a lasting impact on not just education, but humanity as a whole!

The thoughts I have posted here are purely personal and are based on my experiences. I look forward to your feedback, comments, suggestions on all my experiments!

Welcome, once again, to 'My experiments with education'! I trust you will enjoy this journey as much as I enjoy!