Related: In the Media, Living, Social Issues

In Search of Excellence


(cartoon credit)

“We hope you have enjoyed the best that Palm Beach International Airport has to offer!”

That chipper computer voice blared across the TSA mosh pit at 5:50 am this morning as I stood crushed together with hundreds of other sardines…er, people…being yelled at by officious guards to ’empty your pockets and take off your shoes and belt buckles’ as if we were going to prison, waiting anxiously to be sure we didn’t do anything to be sent into that virtual strip search machine, already exhausted by the long trek through the massive PBI terminal, wondering how it is that so many otherwise-sane-and-civilized people could be so easily reduced to quivering slugs who are barked at, poked and prodded along — and we all pay hundreds of dollars for this former wonder called air travel.

No wonder Americans are so mad.

I still hadn’t had a cup of coffee yet when the latex-gloved agent at the bag inspection counter proceeded to open and deconstruct my carefully packed bag which, unfortunately, contained my camera and long lens, which the machine took for some kind of weapon, I suppose.  I tried to explain my camera only to get a glare and a bark, a mild threat of that full body scan thing.  I slunk back into my slug shell as the man touched all of my stuff.  I hate having my stuff touched by strangers.  Ugh.

No wonder Americans are mad.

I had to pay $23 extra to get a seat on this plane — the airline calls it “choice” seating but I call it sheer extortion.  When I tried to check in online, I learned I had no seat assignment, and the only seats available were “choice” seats for extra money — window or aisle seats now cost more, even though they remain as uncomfortable as ever.  But I needed to get home, and did not want to wind up in a center seat in the back of the plane, which is where I suspect the people went who decided that paying several hundred dollars for a ticket was enough is enough.  The airlines count on the desperation of travelers needing to get somewhere fast and in some kind of reasonable condition.

No wonder Americans are mad.

I won’t mention the way in which “budget” has real meaning for a certain rent-a-car company, but let’s just say that brakes and tires should not have been optional on the tin can I drove around Florida.  No wonder the auto industry is in trouble.  I tried to explain the problem to the agent at the rental car return this morning, but it was 5 am and he obviously didn’t have his coffee yet, either, so another customer probably will get that clunker today.

No wonder Americans are mad.

And why should I complain about the stale cigarette smell, worn out towels and lack of a safe shower mat at the modestly priced hotel I chose, after all, what can we expect for $99 a night?   Some things are always reliable, however, like the desultory service at family restaurant chains and the wretched excuse for coffee at most gas stations along the way.

But $3.50 a gallon for gasoline?

No wonder Americans are mad.

We are paying more and more for increasingly shoddy, rude, ineffective goods and services.  The lack of excellence across many industries becomes clearest to me when I travel, exposing the deep flaws in a broad range of businesses.   Air travel is simply degrading and unpleasant these days — we have let security trump just about all other considerations for advanced, dignified human travel.  No matter the price paid, the experience is universally dreadful.

Certainly, paying more for better hotels, better car rentals, better restaurants can produce a better travel experience — but for the vast majority of people who must travel, the extra costs are simply not worth it.  Why is it so hard to find excellence for a reasonable sum of money?

Why should excellence in goods and services be a commodity that only the wealthy (or corporate execs with platinum cards) can afford?

No wonder people are so mad.

And so, we come to the heart of the issue that people say makes them maddest of all:  health care reform.  I have a new theory:  it’s not really about health care reform, itself.  Health Care — complicated, expensive, often degrading and often ineffective — has become a surrogate for the lack of excellence, effectiveness, affordability and equal distribution of quality throughout American life.  We’re actually sick and tired of quite a lot of things that don’t work too well in modern life, but we can’t get mad at every single thing.

So, let’s pick on the biggest thing that we don’t understand, makes us feel helpless, costs a lot and often leaves us unsatisfied.  Oh, yes, that also sounds like ‘the government’ whatever that means to various people who are mad.

We’re not really mad about making better health care more accessible to more people — who can really argue with that?  What stokes the flames of outrage, however, is the sense that nothing is really going to get better, that, in fact, we’ll have a bigger, more bloated, less efficient and less effective health care system in the end.  We are painfully aware that the government gave us, first, airline deregulation, and then, the TSA.  We are afraid, very afraid.

Excellence is not the government’s concern.  The inchoate anger that so many citizens express these days is directed at big institutions because they cannot quite get to the center of the real issue:  how can we start demanding more effective, better quality goods and services at each moment of our daily transactions?  How can each one of us individually make a commitment to improving quality?  Whether we’re talking about what happens in schools, operating rooms, the Red Roof Inn or the iHop kitchen, shouldn’t we be able to demand and expect a level of quality, even excellence, at each touchpoint?

As an educator, I am increasingly thinking about the issue of excellence as one of the most serious challenges we face.  It’s not enough for students to acquire knowledge if they cannot use it to advance civilization.  We have to teach the future managers, executives, professionals and civic leaders how to stop the backsliding on quality, how to achieve excellence in every line of business, no matter how humble the service or product.

We are a society in search of excellence.  We are deeply unhappy with the unraveling all around us.  We may focus our irritation and advocacy on big industries or government.  But excellence can only occur when each individual cares enough to meet high standards every single day.

Teaching students how to care about quality, how to reach for excellence each day, is not just an ephemeral good thought.  It’s central to restoring economic equilibrium, a climate for more useful innovation, and the peaceful advancement of our society.

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Patricia A. McGuire, President, Trinity, 125 Michigan Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20017
Phone: 202.884.9050   Email: