What do holiday snaps have to do with the University of Kent?

By Cindy Vallance @cdvallance

I couldn’t help but think of the University of Kent during a recent trip to France. I stayed at a hotel one night that had an intriguing history.

The hotel was once a wing of a fortified castle constructed in the 11th century by Robert de Dreux, grandson of Louis VI, King of France. The castle was passed down through various royal family members and enjoyed by kings, from Louis XII to Charles IX, for 200 years through to the 16th century. Its history then became more volatile until the 18th century when the castle was inherited by Philip Egalite who in his efforts to seek approval from the Republicans ordered the partial demolishment of his own chateau and sold many fixtures and furnishings from the castle. The present chateau, once a wing of the Royal castle, rose again through restoration in 1863 and was ultimately converted to a hotel in 1956. Further refurbishment was continuing when I stayed there; rooms were being redecorated and a spa was being added to the site that will include underfloor heating (harkening as far back as Neolithic times). Restoration work was also underway on the existing ruins to preserve a lasting legacy for those who visit.

So why did this make me think of Kent? For me, the castle/chateau and its many transitions throughout history tell me a story of survival and of success. The chateau has reinvented itself multiple times while still retaining an appreciation and sense of its colourful and rich history.

When I came back to work, I couldn’t help but notice afresh the building and renovation work happening here at Kent and the hive of activity within the walls where staff and students are making decisions about what actually happens here.

As we continue to find our way through times of uncertainty for the higher education sector, what buildings, traditions, practices and offerings will we retain and what will we change to meet the needs of our future students? As we think about Kent’s 50th anniversary in 2015, we are given the opportunity to consider what our story has been and what our story will be 5, 10, or 50 years from now. What will Kent look like – a crumbling ruins or an exceptional destination that is proud of its heritage and that looks unwaveringly to its future? I personally firmly believe that our collective talents, knowledge, and commitment will serve us well in preserving Kent for generations to come.

Olympic success & continuous improvement: accumulation of small gains.

Having sneaked the Tour de France success of Bradley Wiggins into my last blog I cannot resist a reference to the London 2012 Olympics. Team GB’s successes have be encapsulated by the achievements of the track cycling team which virtually swept the board in the velodrome. Members of other national teams questioned how this level of achievement was possible.

Consistent excellence – but how?

I am no cyclist, but for what it is worth I can recall the machine-like efficiency of the East German (GDR) athletics teams of the late 70s and early 1980s, particularly the dominance of the women (there was a similar story in the Olympic swimming pools during that era). A decade or so of women’s athletics was dominated by the stereotypical ‘East German shot putter’. Sadly it was a factory driven on the fuel of anabolic steroids; after reunification of Germany the coaches, who had fed drugs to thousands of unwitting athletes, were discovered and convicted of intentional bodily harm of athletes, including minors. The coaches had attempted to impose control on the athletic system by introducing a new approach (systematic drug-based training  programmes), but ultimately they failed themselves and tragically failed the athletes in their charge, many of whom suffered lifelong side-effects from the drug programme.

Most certainly, GB cycling’s head coach Dave Brailsford has achieved success without resorting to the approach of the former GDR coaches. He has used a better way. Instead of imposing a command-and-control structure on his athletes, he has developed a ‘system’ and more importantly, he appears to be applying systems thinking in the way that he manages the team. Every part of the team; cyclists, coaches, physiotherapists, equipment, clothing, catering, hotels, planning, finance, even the families of the athletes are considered part of that system.

“It was attention to detail that gave us the advantage over the other teams. We considered everything, even the smallest improvements, to give us a competitive edge. It was the accumulation of these small details that made us unbeatable.” Dave Brailsford, Team GB

Big leaps are an accumulation of many small improvements

The smallest things can be significant influencers.  For example, each British cyclist has to bring his or her own pillow and mattress to a championship. A minor detail, but it is all about a much bigger factor – ‘sleep’, which governs athlete well-being, recovery and preparation. Being settled with the right pillow means more hours of comfortable sleep which impacts race performance. A pillow does not guarantee a good night’s sleep, but it improves the chances and the possibility of a fresh athlete on the day of the race.

So what does this mean for us in progressing our changes and improvements? It suggests to me that any organisation would benefit from a culture of learning and continuous improvement; work on what you CAN influence in the reasonable hope that it will overcome the factors over which you have no influence. As Juran (1989) said – focus on the vital few rather than the trivial many to achieve your purpose then, as Senge (1990) urges, always keep an open mind to unexpected outcomes and be ready to understand what else needs to be done to improve.

Juran J. (1989) Juran on Leadership For Quality,The Free Press, NY

Senge P. (1990) The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organisation, Doubleday, New York.