Saturday, July 9, 2011

WHERE QUANTITY BECOMES AN EXCUSE FOR QUALITY

It was a hot afternoon. There was the usual power cut for two hours. The generator assured power only for the major plug points into one of which I had connected my lap top.  I was frantic to complete the analysis of data that had come in from our grassroots partners. As I looked through the data I found that most of the fields had been left unfilled. In fields which had been filled the data appeared to be vague or incomplete.  I finally gave up trying to sift through the information and called one of the project managers of the NGOs we were partnering  with asking him why the data was of such poor quality.         “ Madam… there was so much of information to collect and fill in - almost 5000 profiles…”  he offered by way of an explanation. Was the time line then unrealistic I wondered? No- because it was information that was over due by a month and if they had not been able to complete collection and entry of data even one month beyond timeline that they had agreed upon then there was something that was wrong with the attitude..

Reflecting upon this I wonder if this attitude of compromising on quality of anything because of the quantity handled is a nation wide malady?

Let us take for example the quality of education in the state of Tamil Nadu. If you look at the enrollment data you can see that the figures are very high but a survey done on the quality of education ASER 2010 showed that attainments in terms of basic literacy and numeracy skills among students was really low.  Then what about the high marks being scored in the public examinations we might wonder? But the question is what do the students who score those high marks actually know about the subjects in which they have scored those subjects? If the system itself is geared to camouflage attainment of quality then it is really a self defeating attitude!

Take the case of air travel. Today most major airports are as bad as railway stations. Unfortunately, one cannot jump into a plane as easily as one can on a train. There are a lot of procedures like check in, security check , boarding etc to be followed. Most of this requires assistance of airline staff.  I have seen a steady deterioration of service even in private airlines over the last decade that I have been travelling by air. Is it again a case of inability handle quantity?

As a country that has a huge population I think quantity is something that one cannot do away with. Whether it is education, health, travel or anything one has to be prepared to handle large numbers. Human resource in a country like ours is never a constraint. Even non profits which cannot assure good salaries have a “ huge battalion”  in terms of field staff. Governments are all supposedly over staffed and the number of doctors must be equally high as also teachers. So why are we unable to handle numbers?

Are we overworked or overburdened when it comes to handling numbers? This is not always so. I think somewhere there is the feeling that larger the quantity the less likely a person would be to notice quality. I remember a scene from a Jaspal Bhatti serial called flop show in the early 1990s where one of the characters who owns a sweet shop asks his assistant to mix the rotten potatoes with the good ones while making the filling for the samosas - “ we make hundreds of samosas in  a day and so who will notice if some samosas are bad and people fall sick after eating them?” But methodologically speaking if an entire population of samosas is bad then any representative sample would also show up sufficiently large numbers of bad samosas.  So, we try to hide that by manipulating the methods of what defines a good or a bad samosa. Exactly what is happening with teachers giving 100% marks to all students and we have large number of students who get 100% marks!

Is excellence in delivering anything such a challenge? I don’t think quantity is the issue. We would do this even if we had to deal with half the numbers .  If the census of India can complete a mammoth task like the  counting of every Indian within one year then obviously it is possible to deal with numbers. If we can develop electronic systems to count votes cast in an election and declare a winner within a matter of days then definitely quantity is not a problem if we really come to it.

Somewhere I think it is the importance we attach to what we do. Census is obviously important as also election results. But quality in terms of health care delivery may not seem to be as important to doctors and other health care personnel. Similarly providing quality education may not figure much in the list of priorities for many teachers.

And so why am I blaming a poorly paid project manager in a small NGO in some obscure village of a district in Tamil nadu for the poor quality of data? I guess I should learn some clever way to camouflage it or push it up – and there ends my headache!!


11 comments:

Cloud Nine said...

Good observation. Yes, quality deteriorates when the quantity shoots up. Your views on airlines' service is 100% true, even private airlines are now as clumsy as our National Carrier. Same logic applies to every field...

KParthasarathi said...

I would put the deterioration in quality is the result of our being satisfied with something than nothing.We allow ourselves to compromise on bad service,bad workmanship,bad outcomes without a return or rejection scheme as in West.If we stand up to our right to get the quality for the price we pay and fight for it, we can improve.The RTI,Public litigation, consumer forum and civil rights recourses should be used to ensure quality.I was surprised at your frustration and helpness evident in the conclusion at the last para.

Rhapsody B. said...

Namaste.....

hmmmmmm....your title explains the crisis in today's world. The assumption of a degree is mistaken for brilliance. Setting a standard for quality is often seen as being hard ass but the truth is we are not doing anyone any favor if we allow mediocrity be the standard of excellence.

good piece....
take care ....
Rhapsody

Ibhade said...

So agree with you Rhapsody B, ma'am.

May atimes, i see people busy doing nothing... i am working they say, but show me the work you have done....NOTHING TANGIBLE!

Tomz said...

Very thoughtful post.

IRFANUDDIN said...

well...apart from looking at the quqntitative approach its more because of our "CHALTAA HAI" attitude perhaps....

irfan

Meera Sundararajan said...

Thanks for all your comments, Cloud nine, KP, Ibhade, Tomz and Rhapsody. @ KP I am pessimistic because I feel tiered now fighting this attitude. Rhapsody you should see the quality of college graduates in India to beleive the depths to which quality can drop. Yes. Ibhade we have people like that too. Nivedita I have often thought that Indian Airlines is like a posh version of the Indian railways :-)

Rhapsody B. said...

Namaste....
Thank you for the visit. To answer your question no I haven't shared my experience with the city counsel. I don't think they would take it seriously.....

Have a grand week and keep your quality production at a quality standard always regardless of what others do

SUB said...

In most of government organizations promotion is not dependent on the amount and quality of work done... experience and PR is more important...people have no motivation to produce quality work...It is very common in government organization for staff to revolt against a boss who tries to dictate terms and force people to work...that is one of the problem of democracy...though some individual human beings are hard working, humanity as a group always behave in a rationally selfish way...how to solve the problem?

great post

Cheers!
SUB

Meera Sundararajan said...

Thanks Sub for your comment. I agree that we need to make promotion in any sector performance driven and not a matter of course. @ Irfan, yes this is the Chalta Hai attitude that annoys me.

dr.antony said...

Maintaining quality at any level is difficult when the numbers are high.Unfortunately in India,everything is a matter of numbers...big numbers.

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