Why is it that mediocrity is a pervasive rather than an isolated trait in a company? Riding the 3 back to Brooklyn a couple weeks ago, I was struck by a flashy-looking ad campaign for Delta Airlines that took up half my car. The tag lines ranged from meaningless ("The only way up is up") to impenetrable ("Sleep is not a perk") to baffling ("Our newest international destination: California") to downright alarming ("An ounce of humanity can outweigh five hundred tons of metal," over a close-up of a jet engine during take-off—don't they realize that when you read "five hundred tons of metal" the first thing you think of is five hundred tons of metal falling out of the sky? Don't they realize that people contemplating trips through the heavens in giant combustion machines don't want to think about humanity being measured in ounces?!)
That Delta, a company with a lousy reputation and a history of poor service and financial instability, should plaster the New York City subways with such an ill-conceived ad campaign must be more than just coincidence; yet the direct relationship between poor publicity decisions in 2010 and lousy air-travel service for the past thirty years is hard to figure. It implies that the problem is somewhere deep in the structure of the company. It is not one or two bad executives; it is not one or two bad decisions—it is a culture of mediocrity, which a bankruptcy and subsequent reorganization have failed to eradicate.
JetBlue has also been running ads in the subways lately. The tag lines ("You eat the snacks. We'll eat the cost." "Watch TV while you work. We won't tell.") are clever, warm, and reassuring. They talk about the things you want to think about when contemplating air-travel: not 500-ton flying machines zooming up into the sky—but snacks, television, leg-room. Instead of the foreboding black-and-white photography of the Delta ads, JetBlue's friendly ad-copy is accompanied by colorful, stylized cartoons. Thus an airline whose service is excellent, whose employees are warm and helpful, and which consistently turns a profit also produces effective advertisements. At JetBlue, quality is endemic.
Really, I just wanted to write about those Delta ads, cause they crack me up—but there is an education tie-in here. If failure and success tend to be pervasive qualities of companies, then they are probably pervasive qualities of schools and school systems as well. I happened to read in the Times a couple days ago about the superintendent of the Baltimore school system, who has drawn criticism for shutting down 26 of the city's worst schools. Closing schools, the critics contend, just shifts the problem to other schools and fails to address the underlying issue—poverty. Of course, poverty and underfunding are a big part of the problem in America's worst inner-city schools, and no responsible observer would blame the schools for everything that goes wrong inside their walls, but the problem may also be organizational mediocrity.
If you talk to people who have worked in these schools—or read the numerous books that former inner-city teachers have written—you get the sense that mismanagement and inefficiency are deeply entrenched in some these schools and perhaps in entire school systems. At what point does it become more efficient to replace something than to repair it? In the long run, those organizations too large, too old, and too inflexible to be reformed will be replaced. Maybe the No-Excuses charter networks are already doing that.