Category Archives: Learning & Teaching

Things will always go wrong…better to look at what is predictable

Ed Deming used to say that ‘things will always go wrong’. This is true in the complex work and business environments that are encountered day-to-day.

We can be victims to this, much as we would be for unforeseen natural disasters: hurricanes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions. Alternatively we can prepare for a likely disaster and have plans in place to mitigate its effects: bunkers, safe havens, evacuation plans.

Better is for us to be able to predict these occurrences. This is true for natural disasters, but for most of us are not obviously threatened by such calamity (which is why we probably fuss more with the trivia of the world of work!). So lets talk work – the importance of prediction is true in how we handle day-to-day ‘disasters’.

Things go wrong for two reasons – (1) underlying problems in the way things are set up we means we have cycles of good days and bad days, and (2) problems caused by an assignable factor. Deming called the first ‘common causes’ and the second ‘special causes’. the importance of this differentiation is n what we do in response to those issues. Things will always go wrong.

If performance is below the level we need on a predictable basis then we have an underlying set of ‘common causes’ which are built into the system of work – its design, the training of people, the job design, raw materials, plans. This takes a lot of effort to test new methods, monitor progress and change and embed new approaches. No quick fix.

If a one off problem occurs think – do we know the cause? Is it a one-off? Can we mitigate for that cause? What would we do if it occurs again? Fr this situation never go through redesign of the system – that will only make things worse and put what was under control, to now spin out of control. However if you find the cause then stop and think – does knowing this fact give us a clue to future fundamental improvements?

Deming W.E. (1982) Out of the Crisis, MIT CAES, Cambridge MA.

Deming W.E. (1993) The New Economics, MIT CAES, Cambridge MA.

The importance of Student Representation: overcoming student ‘apathy’

Involving students in the running of the Academic Departments has never been more important, and is in the interest of both staff and students in the new fee ‘régime’.


Other than one of the many parts of the University of Kent’s Code of Practice, student representation is an essential component in the running of the University. As a student representative, time and time again, I hear excuses by staff members trying to justify why they did not ask students what they thought about this or that issue because students: “do not turn up at meetings“, or because they “don’t read or respond to the emails we send them about meetings“, or that they “do not want to get involved” altogether.

But is the presence of students really properly utilised in meetings that themselves are usually staff-focused and chaired by staff? Do students feel that they are on equal grounds in meetings relative to the members of staff present, and are they encouraged to actively participate in meetings? Are the items on the agenda for the meeting explained to student representatives, and do they have any idea of what really is being discussed behind the acronym-packed University jargon? Very rarely.

Regardless where one stands in the debate about whether to consider students as “Customer” or as a “Member of the Academic Community”, it is indisputable that students’ expectations will rise with the recent tripling in tuition fees. The fact is that on whichever side of the argument one stands, involving students is equally important. If students are considered as customers seeking to get the most ‘value-for-money’ out of their degree, then they deserve to have a say in how are taught and for measures to be taken should they not be satisfied. If however one considers students as part of the scholarly community, then like academics, they also have the right to influence how their department is run.

The rights of students aside, it is in the interest of staff members and departments to involve students. First, the student’s perception of how a particular module is being taught is the most useful and accurate way to see whether or not the teaching methods are effective or not. Why wait until the results of the NSS surveys to find out? Second, I am sure many staff members will agree with me that students can bring a much fresher and down to earth viewpoint in meetings, as many of the decisions taken about Learning & Teaching directly affect them. With so many Kent students coming from many different backgrounds, they are the ones who can quite often provide a different insight complementing the perspectives of staff members. Third, meetings where students are present should be more student focused, so that they feel involved and that their contributions are needed. It is not surprising that attendance at meetings of student representatives very often drops after the first few meetings: if students do not understand half of the agenda items and therefore end up not contributing, they do not feel their presence is important -and rightly so! However it is the role of the Chair of the meeting to make sure that all feel involved, and even to prompt the most timid members present to speak.

The vicious circle of student apathy needs to be overcome by Schools. Making meetings more student-focused, actively encouraging involvement, and recognising the dedication and work of student representatives, are the only ways to reverse the vicious circle into a virtuous one. Moving forward, both academic and administrative members of staff should not only be encouraging, but also rewarding student involvement in the running of academic departments. By “encouraging” I do not mean just sending out emails, but also lecturers publicising it at the beginning of lectures and seminars; by “rewarding” I do not mean politely thanking students at the end of the meeting, but giving them official recognition of their involvement and praising their work in recommendation letters for example.


When one looks at the number of societies and sports clubs that are run by students, the thousands of volunteering hours which students are rewarded for each year, and the quantity and range of extra-curricular activities which Kent students get involved with, it is saddening that so many Schools do not do their best to make use of this huge ‘volunteering capital’ which students are willing to invest in worthy causes.

Give students a real chance to get involved and make a difference, make them an essential part of decision-making within departments and you will be surprised by how well they will rise up to the challenge; overcome apathy and place value on participation in civic duties, thus preparing them to be the engaged citizens of tomorrow.


Léo Wilkinson

Social Sciences Faculty Representative

Kent Union

Beyond the obvious: from symptoms to causes

Organisations are complex places and change can become a complex business. We cannot simply expect to make a change here and see an outcome there; outcomes are rarely as simple as ‘cause and effect’. There are many reasons for this, one of which is the fact that different people will see things (and respond) in different ways.

Focusing on the obvious can sometimes be unhelpful


My last blog presented the basic ideas concerning the ‘theory of knowledge’.

One key point was that although many people can see or know the obvious, often the important knowledge is what is largely unknown (to some degree). We need to look further than just what fictional hotelier Basil Fawlty would call ‘the bleedin’ obvious’.


This means that we must ask the right questions. Deming gives a great example of how to improve performance, describing a children’s charity which raises money for medical care and food support, using appeals run through mailing lists (Deming 1993). He points that final performance (how much money is donated to the charity) is largely unaffected by the efficiency of the steps of printing, mailing, payment, receipt, acknowledgement; improvement effort in these areas will be largely irrelevant. The important step which impacts on the willingness of donors to give money is the quality of the message which has been written to them (and which is formulated right at the start of the process); zero defects in the rest of process is of much less importance. This is where a lot of today’s approaches, like ‘lean’, ‘benchmarking’ and ‘process-re-engineering’ fall down – they encourage people to apply tools to a situation – dealing with the obvious; efficiency, flow and defects, without thinking about purpose and what affects the system as a whole. The result is that, after the initial rush of enthusiasm, people do not see great benefits in the change.

This is a warning to those looking at change – are we fiddling around the edges or are we dealing with fundamental change that will make a real difference?

This is not to say that statements of the obvious are unimportant – we can be blind to things that are abundantly clear to our users. People’s observations and opinions of the obvious are not trivial, the key is to examine what sits behind those phenomena and understand them properly.

In a higher education institution, the notion of involving students, although understood and welcomed can nevertheless be accompanied by a little hesitation or even reservation. This suggests to me a degree of discomfort on the part of staff (Will students understand the constraints that we have to work under? Will they have unrealistic expectations? Can students really understand what they themselves need?). Let’s face it, life would be simpler if we didn’t involve students – but that wouldn’t make things better either. We need to challenge our discomfort, face up to the weaknesses, illogicalities and frustrations that continually haunt our work and face up to the need to think differently and make new efforts.

Why? Because any discomfort we have in involving our users in the change process (whether they are students, partners, clients or customers) probably reveals our unrecognised, unknown or deliberately concealed concerns with how the system is currently under-performing for those very people. It challenges the way we work now and how we should work in the future. Basil Fawlty’s chaotic hotel would be fundamentally improved if he and his wife Sybil really worked out how they could together offer great hospitality to their guests – whereas instead they usually (hilariously and painfully) fiddle around the fringes of service, battling against each other.

So let’s not focus on the obvious and superficial. Deming, himself a well-renowned teacher (he won the US National Medal of Technology 1987 and the National Academy of Science, Distinguished Career in Science award 1987), makes an interesting observation on university teaching  “I have seen a teacher hold a hundred and fifty students spellbound, teaching what is wrong. His students rated him as a great teacher.  In contrast, two of my own greatest teachers in universities would be rated poor teachers on every count. Then why did people come from all over the world to study with them, including me? For the simple reason that these men had something to teach. They inspired their students to carry on further research” (Deming 1982).

In other words, in some cases the obvious (“a good approach”) masked the fundamentals (“poor content”), whereas the real value lies in delivering what people are really looking for. A university could ask students to rate it on trivial and obvious matters and think it is doing great, when in reality it is letting its students down – do we always ask the right questions?

Now that would be a challenge for change…


Read more here:

Deming W.E. (1982) Out of the Crisis, MIT CAES, Cambridge MA.

Deming W.E. (1993) The New Economics, MIT CAES, Cambridge MA.