Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The dirtiness

"Are you telling me that floors don't get dirty in New Zealand?"
It's a good question, of course. But I think I still emphatically say that Chinese floors accumulate dust faster than any other surface known to man, woman or cockroach. As a barefooter in the house, I can accurately measure dust accumulation from a morning of wandering around the day after we've mopped the floor. Today, a seemingly reasonable floor browned the soles of my feet in barely minutes. Where does it come from? The doors are shut overnight yet by morning there is dust again. Where does it all come from, I ask?
Of course, I'm not that much of a clean freak when it gets down to it, but there are other sorts of hygiene that are tragically lacking in China in ethical and business practices. With the benefit of not having my name mentioned here and no company brand to be tainted, I can dare open my mouth. In the blog age, we shan't mouth off about our employers for the risk of dismissal etc. if we do. And I can attest that no potential students would have the patience to get through my content. (Even capable high-level former students on mine in New Zealand told me they struggle with the sheer content of expressive writing.) And besides they'd need software to get past the Great Firewall to see this blog. And I'd still steer potential teachers to my company anyway because it is very good for professional development.
My company is a western company in China. We're told from the start that it works via western rules but the more you stay the longer you see that it is more of a fusion of approaches. Some might cynically say it selectively chooses which approach benefits the company, especially its finances but also its management. I could talk about that general topic, but I'm more interested in the dirt right now, and especially practices that would be illegal or unethical in other countries. It is depressing to keep it all in. I'll work my way from minor to major, and along the way describe what to avoid in management. I should also add a little note: The evils I'll talk about aren't specifically relating to Chinese business nor am I claiming they don't exist in the West. They shouldn't happen anywhere except where they are allowed to flourish.
Many jobs are dictated by a fancy acronym, KPI, or Key Performance Indicator. This is intended to be an objective numerical measure of your performance. Of course, it is hard to quantify performance and so a set of KPIs might be needed to evaluate it. In an ideal world, these would be unfudgeable and would be decided by those in an objective position. Regrettably, this is not the case here. My boss's boss's pay is determined strongly by one KPI. This is one related to the number of classes and how many students are in there. Unluckily for me, the scheduling of classes falls into the ambit of my job, to schedule classes at the right time so that they are mostly filled. Because the boss of my boss's boss wants to look good, they set the target very high; the pressure is high because its a big part of his pay but the ability to add (fictitious) classes is completely at the hands of us at the lowest levels. In terms of our academic team, it was a compromise we had to make and there was no recourse to complain. Several levels up the chain are all happy about this cheating because a high number reflects well on them. There is with all likelihood complicity quite high up the level. In China, there is a poor man's version of the prisoner's dilemma. There is no virtue to honesty nor any benefit whatsoever. So no team can meet the targets without cheating. So many targets cannot be left to doubt. Of course, you get into all sorts of irony. We get told to cancel classes because of a lack of demand... yet the classes are "full". One week I taught lots of classes without ever entering the classroom...
My boss is about to be fired. It is a salutory story, which I won't attempt to explain in its entirety here. But he is one that has tried to make an issue out of following procedure and standards. The latest idea the company had made him quite irate, and in a way that neither I nor my fellow senior teacher could understand at first. Now we know: They introduced an appraisal system that would be linked to pay. They described each level of performance with descriptors like: "The teacher prepares his class in an appropriate way = 1. The teacher prepares his class appropriately considering potential contingencies etc." The staff member being assessed will assess themselves and then will meet the centre director and academic manager to discuss their evaluation of him. Then the combined assessment will be sent to the the area academic manager for a sign off and a monetisation of their performance, their bonus for the next year. My colleague and I thought this was an improvement on what we had, great teachers will be rewarded. My boss, however, explained how it was an unacceptable system. First of all, the descriptor is flawed. "Appropriate" is insufficient for anyone to give an objective evaluation, and so it becomes opinion. If a staff member challenges the assessment, the manager can just say that they weren't appropriate enough. In practice, an appraisal system must have concrete criteria. He illustrated it well in a directors meeting where he gave our dress code to everyone and then the standards in the new appraisal system for dress and asked everyone to assess their colleagues as if they were perfoming the appraisal. Not surprisingly, on a scale of 3, some people's scored varied from 0 to 2, demonstrating that the existing criteria would be too subjective and staff in some centres would be advantaged by lenient grading leading to "nice" centres and "mean" centres. I gave myself a zero because the standard for a 1 was to follow all the requirements in the work manual, one of which was to wear a tie. I don't. Others ignored that aspect and went for a nice mark of 2.
There were other issues raised (it was going nationwide of course so the area manager in the room was never going to do anything), but the one objection he raised that makes this slip from incompetence in system design to dirtiness was a specific problem my boss never broached in that meeting but later over a meal in a restaurant with us. The performance appraisal is not just verified by the area manager and ticked off. Internationally, managers just need to tick off the objectively observable strengths and weaknesses, and the area manager should agree because there is no room for doubt. But because there can't be too much excellence in the school (which would cause budgets for bonuses to be exceeded) the area manager needs to be a gatekeeper to knock scores down. Who goes up and who goes down? Opinion, again. What does each appraisal score equate to in terms of a bonus? Completely at the discretion of the area manager. Our top performing teacher stepped on the area manager's toes a few months earlier and despite what would have been a complimentary appraisal of his performance, his performance bonus was barely above the lowest possible rise. A moderately performing colleague got more than him. The system is not only biased to favoritism, it is open to use to punish those who have gone against the upper management. It becomes a tool. But nevermind, talking about salaries is a fireable offence, so punished staff member will never know, will they? And thus we get to the crux of my outgoing bosses argument: there is no reason to improve these things because with the vagueness comes their utility. An objective system cannot be a tool, but they need it to be a tool. It sounds almost dictatorial and, shall we say, communist.
This brings us back to the western company in China situation, and perhaps exposing what is just human nature. In Christianity and even the secular values of western nations, there is a belief that humans need to be reformed with systems. With the developing nature of the Chinese economy there haven't been the struggles yet that created strong institutions and managing principles that have taken a long time to establish in western nations. Playing with numbers and using your opinion when only reason should suffice is very human, not specifically Chinese, and we can only look to those who established the system here for their lack of nous. And the later is probably one of my central theses from my experience so far. Don't expect teachers to be able to do the jobs of managers unless you train them. The worst of human nature will come out when a system is poorly designed.
My bosses imminent departure was never going to be good for me. He has been something of a mentor, and still we learn daily from him, but at least I've managed to step up a lot in the last month. I've had many achievements - I stopped the area manager in her tracks with a brilliant presentation (saving my boss from a sooner dismissal, he was planning an all-out assault) and also designing a more effective way of presenting notices. He may go next week, next month or if they are patient, August. I still have a lot I'd like to learn - he is a goldmine of experience. But all the same I should also try to go it alone without the back-up he provides by simply being in the room. He believes by going, in the long term, the school might become a cleaner place.
I'm not so sure.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Lethal Vegetarian

I've conspired in the death of another rat on the office floor. This one was more of a struggle and required the coordination of three people for five minutes to corner and then kill the poor blighter. He and another had fallen from the ceiling and after a brief scurry around the computer lab had bolted into our office from where he'd never return.  For three minutes of the pursuit a service manager (not our staff) stoutly stayed in the corner on what would presumably be a very important call. Her bravery was shattered when it dashed to her corner crawled up her leg and into her jacket. One staff member was in tears and she hadn't even been in the office when it came in. Another felt uncomfortable just being in the office again.
If my boss had been on duty, he might have led us all out. I didn't feel brave enough or qualified enough to do that without some ground laid with the centre manager. He reacted quickly coming to work and getting an exterminator for the next day.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

A spoonful of sugar

One aspect of Chinese culture I'd always steered well clear of is the medicine, and even their theory of looking at nutrition. It never appealed but with standard health services pretty bureaucratic and unhelpful (I'd love to have my GP here), I decided to take the chance and go to a community Chinese doctor.
His doctor's office was a waiting room and pharmacy of the herbal sort. Inside random patients would sit and wait their turn to sit with the doctor, who'd often converse with them while conducting examinations. His examinations were simple: take their pulse on both wrists and talk about your symptoms. Then he writes in glorious longhand your prescription and doses and sends it across the table to his apprentice. She then puts liberal amounts of sticks and leaves on some cardboard, and funnels them into standard red plastic bags for you to brew in your medicine pot in the comfort of your own home.
In a special pot you put each dose of the medicine into a pot and add four bowls of water, then boil it down till there is just one bowl of liquid left, usually some shade between brown and black. I've had two different prescriptions, the second outdoing the first for sheer disgust factor. It is the kind of thing you hope you can down before your retch reflex knows what it hit it and passed it by. I'm far from loving it, and far from seeing an effect but time will tell. For your information, the diagnosis was that my blood is toxic, which apparently isn't as bad as it sounds...

Saturday, April 09, 2011

Coffee vent!

Deep in the ocean, amongst the coral and coelacanths, is a subterranean volcano set to erupt. Beneath it brews fire and steam, bursting through a coffee bean substratum, building pressure beneath the ground. One day this sea will be infused tan; one day we'll all wake to something other than the oceanspray.
No! That's not a coffee vent, this is:
China may never be renown for coffee. It is sometimes disconcerting how bad it can be sometimes. My sister and I once scoured a whole city to find a single cup of barely drinkable beverage that goes by the same name. That was a second tier city, though. I live in a supercity (of the sort that Auckland will never be). There is coffee, but still Starbucks is regarded highly. Occasionally one may come across a good cup but it remains an exception. Just a week ago I moaned to a friend that there really aren't any decent cafes here.
But then I went to Xiamen. Xiamen is one of the most important cities in Fujian province, just up the coast from Guangdong province and just opposite Taiwan province, that mysterious province that lies beyond the mists of the People's Republic of China's authority. Xiamen itself is a pleasant place but its jewel is an islet by the name of Gulang Yu. Crossing in a ferry, you find the cutest cafes on almost every corner, and many of them are redolent with well ground beans. The coffee itself is decent. In one cafe I had one of the best macchiatos I'd ever had. (A real macchiato and not the sickly sweet caramel thing that calls itself it that at Starbucks, and a cafe close to work.) The cafes themselves have the boutique kind of quirkiness, which this critic found quite delightful. Many of them specialise in a regional sweets or tea (which the province is definitely famous for) which makes the experience even better.
So I drink my frothy words: There are cafes here, and they are good.
(But, of course I could easily speak so delighfully about the tea on my trip.)