Skill, Will and Systems

Last year at the State of the College address, I called on our staff to treat students better. Most of our people treat students very well. Yet I had witnessed or had reports from students about situations and behaviors that did not reflect well on us.

I broke the situation down into Skill and Will. If we had a skills deficiency, I committed to fix it. If a person did not have the Will to treat students respectfully, I respectfully asked them to move on.

In support of my Skill commitment, I invested in training and staff development to help our people understand how to deal with conflict. I instituted under the leadership of our HR Director, Brandon Pendleton, a Service Excellence initiative. I implemented new phone protocols to make sure more people would get through to a live person.

In regards to the Will part, I have supported management in disciplinary actions against staff who have mistreated students. A few people have chosen to move on. I have attempted to lead by example. I have supported rewards (the Registration Lunch) to thank staff for their hard work. I actively recruit people who I believe have the Will to serve our students exceptionally well.

All of this is not enough. Twenty percent of our students tell us that registration did not meet or was far below their expectations. While this is an improvement from the 33% reporting dissatisfaction from before my arrival, this number has been stuck around twenty percent for a year. In contrast, our sister colleges see rates from 4.8% to 12.7%. HWC is exceptional in many ways. I wish we were not so exceptional in this way.

After reviewing the comments from students, talking to staff, and talking to DO staff who receive many of the calls from our disgruntled students, I have concluded that Skill and Will are not enough. Houston, we have a Systems problem.

I told a story recently at a meeting about my experience with US Airways when I was a high-flying consultant. Although it is heresy for a consultant to check luggage, I got into the habit when traveling to Erie, PA for a client. The flight from Chicago to Erie connected through Pittsburgh, and the long walk from gate to gate in Pittsburgh overwhelmed the inconvenience of waiting at baggage claim in Erie.

Except I rarely had to wait in baggage claim. US Airways lost my luggage. A lot. The strange thing was, they were great at losing my luggage. As I stepped off the plane in Erie, my phone would ring. “Mr. Laackman, this is Yolanda from US Airways. I regret to tell you we have lost your luggage.” “Oh,” I replied, “This is unfortunate.” “Mr. Laackman, can you tell me what hotel you are staying at?” “The Courtyard Marriott.” “Thank you, Mr. Laackman, your luggage will be waiting for you when you arrive at the Courtyard.”

US Airways had perfected the lost baggage process. They knew before my flight landed that the bag was lost, and they managed to deliver the bag to my hotel before I arrived there. While I appreciated the service, I was hit by the absurdity of building an efficient system to compensate for bad processes.

I don’t want HWC to be the US Airways of CCC. I have concluded that some of our Systems are broken, and no amount of focus on Skill and Will is going to fix these broken processes.

I have asked Kent Lusk, our Executive Director, to lead an effort with several departments to look at our processes to see what we can fix. The seven teams will look at admissions and advising, student orientation, testing, financial aid, UPass and ID cards, SAP, and class offerings. In addition, we are meeting monthly with colleagues from other colleges and DO to discuss what system-wide improvements we may implement to reduce confusion for students and build better processes. We will look at enhanced technology as well.

Our goal is to make a number of improvements by Spring registration, which starts in November. One idea recently floated by VP Martyn is to better segment our students as they walk in the door so that we are not treating them all the same way. We also need better signs and better information on our web sites. We need more good ideas. We need to fix those processes that drive students to distraction.

This experience has been painful and humbling for me. In my interactions with students, I work under the Golden Rule. I treat them as I would want to be treated. I took it as axiomatic that everyone would share that value. It was painful to realize some do not. It was humbling to realize that a part of our challenges are caused by processes my administration has overseen. I want us to do better. I am committed to doing what I can to make us better. I am calling upon the great people at HWC to help us fix this.

Published by Don Laackman

Leader with higher education, non-profit and private-sector consulting experience.

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