Centre of Excellence or Management Folly?


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The centre of excellence

How many times have you heard the claim “We are building a centre of excellence”? Or, even more triumphant, “We are a centre of excellence!” It is great management speak. It shows strategic drive and direction. Every thrusting young manager wants a centre of excellence, why wouldn’t they?

There are a couple of problems with the idea:

The first point is easy to agree with, but what about the second? Am I wrong? Let me give you an example.

Saving the dinner money

For a while I worked for a business that went on an improvement drive.  People were exhorted to be the best, to become excellent, to be lean and mean, work harder and faster (I guess you get the gist). 

The head of facilities got the message. He suggested that he could closed the office canteens.  His logic was compelling; all the offices were in town centres surrounded by sandwich shops and cafes.  It would be easy for staff to go out and get a bite to eat at lunch time. The organisation could save the salaries of the canteen staff and the cost of subsidising the food. The canteens were economically wasteful.

There was a board meeting. The executives agreed with the proposal and shut the canteens. All the dinner ladies were laid off, the food subsidies stopped and the budget was slashed.  The facilities manager became the leanest and meanest of them all.

All costs and no values

People still got hungry, and they behaved as you’d expect:

  • They walked to the local cafes
  • They found nice places to eat their lunch
  • They stopped bringing sandwiches back to their desks
  • They socialised less with their colleagues

Looking at salary costs alone the initiative was a flop.  Being a dinner lady isn’t the world’s most lucrative career. Their minimum wages were easily outweighed by the lost time of all those highly paid professional staff downing tools to go to lunch.

But the costs were higher than that.  People didn’t meet their colleagues in the dinner queue or chat over their lunches.  Think of all those lost connections, ideas, improvements and innovations.

Sending people scurrying off in a myriad different directions every lunch time was an expensive mistake.

The tip of the iceberg

It wasn’t just the head of facilities who was on an excellence drive.

  • H.R. were busy becoming excellent
  • Operations were busy becoming excellent
  • I.T. were busy becoming excellent
  • Sales and Marketing were busy becoming excellent

They were all striving to build there centres of excellence and all of them were layering in costs and inefficiencies for everybody else.

Imagine what the financial results looked like.

Organisations are systems

They have hundreds of interdependent parts that work together to produce an outcome.  It is irrelevant how excellent each part is. What counts is how well the parts work together.

Optimising your own little bit will only make life harder for everybody else.

Another way to run your canteen

Google is known for the quality and availability of food in their canteens.  They lay on free food — as much as you can eat — for breakfast, lunch and dinner. There is, however, a twist. The canteens contain rows of refectory style benches, not booths or discrete tables for two. You never know who you are going to sit down next to, or where the conversation may lead.

If you changed your centre of excellence into a centre of collaboration what could you achieve?

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Image via Dave Wilson Cumbria

Republished with author's permission from original post.

James Lawther
James Lawther is a middle-aged middle manager. To reach this highly elevated position he has worked for many organisations, from supermarkets to tax collectors and has had multiple roles from running a night shift to doing operational research. He gets upset by operations that don't work and mildly apoplectic about poor customer service.


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