Our quality of life depends on how well the work of our society is managed.

Walk in the airport and, once inside the doors, your time, your comforts, the waiting lines, your shoe inspections, and finally your flying are all determined by management and managers. You are a prisoner of whatever all those managers decided about the system and how managers operate the system.

But it’s not just airports. It’s restaurants, big box stores, doctors’ offices, automobile repair shops, grocery stores and fitness centers. Every place you go you can sense in minutes the competence and standards of the managers who run it.

You enter. The place is clean or dirty. Employee attitudes are friendly or cross, disinterested or helpful. The service is quick or slow, accurate or sloppy. The employees seem to cooperate and help each other, or they are barely civil or are snippy and somehow resentful. They look happy, energetic, or are frowning and tired.

What you experience is what managers have created. Managers planned the place, the furnishings, the equipment, the processes for getting the work done. Managers hired the people, trained them, promoted some, probably fired some others. They made the work force what it is. Managers set up personnel policies and rules. Managers establish goals and standards: they decide what is acceptable and what service customers should receive.

Excellent ideas and superb technology and even good new laws amount to nothing if they are not carried out well. Our productivity as a nation largely determines our standard of living. Productivity is substantially a function of how work is managed.

For example, Toyota is in quality trouble despite attractive models and years of apparently good quality. And in the sphere of government, federal programs for stimulating the economy look great on paper, but, many argue, are not being effective because of the procedures by which they are being carried out. The quality and performance of managers make all the difference.

Right here at home as customers or passengers or patients or clients or employees or simply as governed citizens, we benefit or suffer from how good or mediocre the managers are under whose tenures we have to get along. We can only speculate on how good management is in the departments of big government or business, but it is clearly obvious in the experiences of our daily lives. Competence or mediocrity is revealed as we experience the performance level of the work managed.

Since the quality of managers has such a powerful influence on the quality of our lives, we might ask : Why does management competence vary so greatly? How do institutions acquire or develop high quality managers?

These are not easy questions, though the textbooks say managing is really simple:

1. Define mission, objectives and goals.

2. Plan the work processes and equipment and the organization of people and policies that should accomplish your objectives.

3. Supervise the work and what is being accomplished.

4. Evaluate results: costs, quality and timeliness.

5. Take corrective steps in organization and policies that actual results show are needed.

Sounds fairly straightforward, doesn’t it? But the question remains: Why are there so many wretchedly managed operations in businesses, service, education and governments?

The answer, I believe, grows clear when one thinks about the myriad skills, qualities, attitudes and knowledge that a truly excellent manager must have:

For starters a manager should be capable in most of the following areas of managing: forecasting markets and demand, designing organizations, and procedures, selecting people, training workers, supervising, operating personnel management systems, financial management, budgeting, cost control, scheduling, meeting time commitments, coordinating a variety of activities, working in a team, cooperating with the boss.

But there’s even more: you’ve got to know your business whether it’s in a unit of health care, a hardware store or security at the airport. And heaven help your organization if you are poor at selecting people. It’s customers who suffer when employees are unfit. And if you don’t control productivity and costs, you will go broke.

So there is hardly any activity that is more demanding of the full capacity of the whole person. It demands not only a fantastic multitude of skills but also an unselfish attitude and sensitive and caring values. If managers don’t really care, they come across as phony or just self-interested. First-rate managers are scarce jewels.

Here at home are we destined to be helpless about how well our institutions are managed? Do we need to accept being servants of the system because it’s too big to fight?

In fact we do not have to be victims. As citizens and customers and patients our actions can be the best levers for achieving better management.

But breaking out depends first on recognizing mediocrity. Only then can we realize the costs and losses of poor management. And then we can replace our silent docility with the voicing of our opinions and withholding our patronage or our votes. Indeed the ultimate corrective is to vote, at the polls if it’s bad government, or otherwise, with our feet.

We get what we accept.


Wickham Skinner, an emeritus professor at Harvard Business School, has served as president of the Natural Resources Council of Maine and the Farnsworth Art Museum, as well as a Bath Iron Works director, and trustee of the University of Maine system. He lives in Tenants Harbor and continues to write books and articles about manufacturing and productivity.