The search for excellence


There was a cockroach ambling around the toast I was supposed to eat for breakfast at a Guest House I was staying at. I called the management. Their only comment was ‘oh, these kitchen people are so careless’. But what really surprised me was that there was no effort, on the part of the Guest House, to either apologise for or explain what happened, or even try to reassure me that this cockroach did not represent a systemic issue with cleanliness in their kitchen.

The Guest House market is quite competitive in Islamabad. Should this competitive pressure not have made the market more careful about quality? Leaving that aside, should we, as individuals or members of organisations, not be seeking improvements continuously and trying to learn and/or excel? I find this aspect of our daily life and ‘culture’ to be quite perturbing.

At a very well known brand’s retail outlet in F-7 recently to buy a couple of t-shirts, I asked for my size, they said they were out of that particular size. I asked them why, they responded that they sold a lot in that size. I asked them if they sold more shirts in that size should they not order even more t-shirts in that size. The sales person and the manager got a little baffled by that. They said their warehouse had the same problem and ran out of that particular size quite regularly. I said but this is strange, you could do better through very basic inventory management and feedback. The manager seemed quite keen to be rid of me.

Went to one of the best bookshops in the F-7 area looking for a particular title. The salesperson went looking for it. After 10-15 minutes of browsing around I went looking for him. Spotted him helping another customer and asked him if he found the book I was looking for. He said it was not in the store. I asked him if he was going to come by and let me know. He did not respond. When I was paying for other books at the counter I mentioned to the manager that I had found the attitude of the salesperson to be quite counterproductive. Someone should know books better and it should not take 15 minutes to find whether a book is in the shop or not, and then the salesperson should have told me that the book was not in the store, and if the systems at the shop were geared for attracting customers the salesperson could have said that they could get the book for me, if it was in print, in the next week or two. But none of these happened.

Reaction of the manager was instructive. He was more interested in calling the sales person over and abusing him verbally than in making any changes in the system. I told him that verbal abuse was of no help to me, to the salesperson or the organisation and it was system change that was needed. I think I lost the manager on this. He looked almost happy that he had had the opportunity to throw his weight around and did not like it when that was taken away.

Whether it be the electrician who comes home, the plumber or the mason, and whether it be a bank one walks into, a restaurant, or a mobile company, it seems to be the same issue all over: systems have a lot of slack and there is no effort to learn from doing, look for constant improvement and/or search for excellence. And this is true of services government provides and the private sector, and even for sectors and industries that are, on the surface, very competitive: retail shops for t-shirts, bookshops and even guest houses in Islamabad.

In Punjabi there is a very apt phrase that typifies the attitude: ‘dang tapao’ which could roughly be explained as ‘making do’ or ‘getting by’, trying to live from meal to meal and worrying about just getting past the next meal and not worrying about the medium or long run and/or the consequences of our actions for the medium or long run. Maybe the attitude is coming from our upbringing, but clearly even globalisation and competition is not being able to put pressure for change.

Is this a change in our culture/practices and a new thing or not? But if it is widespread, it will have serious consequences. We live in a fairly globalised economy with limited barriers to import and export. If China or other countries have better learning systems, we will get hit hard in terms of competing products. Pakistani manufacturers will suffer. There are clearly many other reasons why our manufacturing is suffering but if a culture of making do gets entrenched we will not even be able to get out of the mess we are in.

Though service industry is still insulated from international competition, and is likely to remain fairly insulated, somebody has already mentioned to me that a limited number of households have hired maids from the Philippines in Lahore and Islamabad and a friend mentioned that he was surprised to find that his plumber had gone into partnership with a Chinese engineer who was working as a plumber in his neighbourhood. Would you prefer to have a Chinese plumber or electrician? Many would not mind, but of course we are far away from such a situation. But this should be little comfort for us: it is the preference that counts and reflects our thinking about the quality of labour here.

A lot of our unskilled or semi-skilled labour is not very educated. Lack of education, at times, can limit ability to take on things that require high levels of literacy, numeracy or manipulation. But that does not seem to be the main issue. Even workers who are high school or university graduates seem to lack a basic level of understanding, and more importantly, a basic level of curiosity and desire to do well. What explains such inertness?

It seems that even the organisations employing these workers are not capable of or interested in designing learning systems and inculcate a culture of learning and excellence.

Both situations, the inertness of the individual and that of the organisation, are shaping the quality of existing service but will shape our ability to compete in the next period, apart from having other impacts on our social life. The fact it persists in even very competitive environments is even more puzzling. But if it is widespread enough and embedded enough, it has to be challenged and uprooted.

The writer is an Associate Professor of Economics at LUMS (currently on leave) and a Senior Advisor at Open Society Foundation (OSF). He can be reached at [email protected]


  1. i so agree with this thought .. there is a reason tht people are paying four times as much to get philipino maids ..
    we are loosing it badly!
    once the insulation of service sector is removed .. we are up for a big blow

  2. the kind of attitude that you have described is disturbing. perhaps because its resonates with so many of us. i was just having this discussion with my friend the other day – in toronto where there are literally hundreds of pakistani and indian (along with a zillion others) restaurants, many owners of these small pakistani restuarants fail to deliver. finding a strand of hair in the food, mixing up orders or better yet forgetting about your order altogether is quite common. what baffles me is why are the owners of these restaurants so unaware of their competition! as a consumer, why wouldnt i go to an indian restaurant serving the same tandori chicken, kababs and biryani? or why wouldnt i go to a chinese, thai or mediterranean place? the same holds true for small grocery shops. a lot of big super market chains have now started carrying ethnic foods (such as our masalas, pickles and what not) which has forced many of these small shops to close down. my question is why is the incentive to improve missing? why cant we improve even when threatened?

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