Where We Are and Looking Ahead

Four years ago when I interviewed for the vice president position, I challenged the participants in my open forum to think about ISU Extension and Outreach five years in the future and imagine failure. Why? Because it’s a way for an organization to prevent its own death. The participants in my forum provided six consistent reasons ISU Extension and Outreach might fail. (See my blog post,  Pre-mortem for Organizations.)

As you know, I got the job and now I am beginning Year 5. So I’d like to take another look at those reasons for potential failure.

  • In 2011 my forum participants – these were ISU Extension and Outreach faculty and staff, mind you – said the first reason we would fail would be poor communication both internally and externally.
  • Second, they said our inability to change would do us in – our unwillingness to let go of familiar programs as well as irrelevant programs.
  • The third reason was isolation from constituents and critical partners, as well as field, campus, and upper administration.
  • Fourth, we were suffering from an unclear vision and mission – we weren’t in sync with the values of Iowa, constituents, and the university.
  • Number 5 was poor leadership – leaders who don’t motivate others, solve problems holistically, or build public support for the public good.
  • The final reason was insufficient resources, since the participants were concerned about continuing decreases in funding.

I think we have made gains in some of these areas, and in some we still struggle, but we are trying to figure out how to more fully address them. So what do you think? I challenge you to respond – and please be honest. Over the next three weeks, add your comments to my blog. Then I’ll summarize your comments, add my own, and get back to you with an update on where we are now. See you there.

— Cathann

P.S. You can follow me on Twitter @cathannkress.

Let’s Celebrate

Sometimes, it’s time to assess the situation and plan. Sometimes, it’s time to dig deeper and try harder. This past week, however, it was time to celebrate. I had the privilege of representing all of us in Extension and Outreach as we celebrated the achievements of some dedicated people at the University Awards Ceremony.  These awards recognize excellence, but more importantly, they also celebrate the role Extension faculty and staff play in engaging the resources of our institution with our citizens.

Angela Rieck-Hinz, as an Extension Program Specialist for Agriculture and Natural Resources, has coordinated statewide training programs for over 3,000 manure applicators. Her leadership style fosters teamwork and collaboration on environmental stewardship programming across all levels within Extension, and soil health and water quality stakeholders. (Angela now serves as an Extension and Outreach field agronomist.)

Daniel Loy, Professor of Animal Science and Director of the Iowa Beef Center, was recognized for pioneering the use of microcomputers in data management for cattle feeding operations. He was also instrumental in the transition by beef producers to cattle diets that include corn co-products.

Darin Madson, Assistant Professor of Veterinary Diagnostic and Production Animal Medicine, is internationally renowned for his diagnostic medicine skills and outreach efforts. The discoveries made in his research have had a major impact on developing new approaches for assurance of the health and well-being of Iowa’s $12.5 billion animal agriculture industry.

And Mary Beth Kaufman, Human Sciences Extension and Outreach Specialist in Family Finance, is on the cutting edge of emerging issues such as flood recovery, mental health, and poverty reduction.  A nominator called Ms. Kaufman a “gifted teacher,” and says her “presentations at educator and youth conferences represent Extension and Outreach at its best — grounded in research and focused on the learner.”

Just four people. Doing their jobs. I’m pretty proud of them and encourage you to join me in congratulating and thanking them. But here’s what makes me proudest – I know that in addition to these four, their 1,000 ISU Extension and Outreach colleagues across the state all have stories like Angie’s and Darin’s and Mary Beth’s, and Dan’s. All making a difference for Iowans. Every day. Congratulations. Thank you. See you there.

— Cathann

The Real Golden Age

If you’ve been around Extension and Outreach for any amount of time, you’ve likely heard someone refer to the past as if it were the “Golden Age of Extension.”   I know ever since I was a 4-H Educator in Benton and Tama counties, I’ve had this impression that once upon a time extension was characterized by peace, harmony, stability, and prosperity. During that time, we assume working in extension was easy and wonderful, with plenty of resources, and the unflagging appreciation of the public. But when was that, exactly? Was it a hundred years ago as extension began? When early extension pioneers made their rounds by horse and buggy with little value placed on a university which few citizens understood? Given the struggles those educators had just communicating, not to mention encouraging adoption of research-based techniques – I wonder. Maybe it was in the 1930s — the era of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression? Maybe not. How about the 1940s and 1950s — after all, isn’t that when Norman Rockwell painted that iconic painting of the County Agent? Oh, wait — with the recovery following World War II? Hmmmm.

I do believe there is a golden age of Extension — it is before us, right now. At no other time have we had the resources and technology at our disposal, the ease of communication and networking, or the recognition of the importance of access to the educational resources of our university.

Think about it: Our faculty and staff are about 1,000 strong, working with families and youth, farmers and agribusiness professionals, and businesses and communities all across the state. Each year nearly 1 million people directly benefit from our educational programs. We’re communicating with each other, our partners, and our clients face-to-face, as well as using computers, iPads, and smart phones. We can videoconference, teleconference, or still meet for coffee at the Ivy Bake Shoppe. Last year Iowans connected virtually with us through more than 1.5 million website visits and downloads of educational materials and courses. Can you imagine how our early educators would marvel at our technology and envy the resources we have in our program portfolio?

We must continue to build on this work, to widen the circle of our reach throughout the state, to live up to the legacy and the dreams of those extension educators who preceded us. Every dollar that Iowans invest in Extension and Outreach pays back dividends — when entrepreneurs start businesses, families make healthy choices, youth become leaders for the future, and communities become better places to live. We are lucky enough to be stewards of Iowa State University Extension and Outreach when a golden age is upon us. See you there.

— Cathann

The Secret Sauce

Kelsy Reynaga is a junior at Iowa State, recently selected to be a national Project YES! (Youth Extension Service) Intern, a program I helped start at the Department of Defense. While I’m proud of being there at its beginning, I’m even prouder that the talented educators I turned it over to have created an educational experience that greatly benefits the interns, the military families, and extension. Kelsy wrote me recently about starting this new internship and had a number of tough questions she wanted to ask, most without easy answers. Since Kelsy will likely expect some wisdom when we meet, I’ve spent a fair amount of time reflecting on her questions.

What drives me? As I begin my fourth year as vice president for Extension and Outreach at Iowa State University, I find our work of creating access to education to be incredibly meaningful. I feel an obligation to extension’s early educational pioneers to rise to their level and create educational opportunities and solutions for the future. I am regularly delighted by the dedication, creativity, and talent of the people I get to work with, and I want to leave things better than I found them.

Is this the path I envisioned for my future? Um. No. I’m not good enough at predicting the future, or understanding what opportunities might come up. Instead, I’ve learned to be ready and open and willing to leap.

So, is it possible to accomplish everything you want to do? Not alone. Not in a direct line. Not in the way you thought it would happen. Not as quickly as you might hope. Accomplishing things really depends on understanding the fundamental conditions that support accomplishment.  At the most basic level, there are only a few things one needs for accomplishment to thrive: Vision. Resources. An action plan. But the real secret sauce to getting things done is nurturing talented colleagues, making it easier for them to do their work, and recognizing and rewarding their efforts. In other words, our ability to strengthen Extension and Outreach lies in improving the conditions that shape our organizational culture.

As I thought about what to say to Kelsy, I realized I don’t really think so much about “accomplishing stuff” anymore — instead, I think about trying to create the conditions for good things to happen. See you there.

— Cathann

Building a Bike Shed

How many resources does an organization expend to make a decision? You’d think that an organization would spend more time and money on decisions about big, costly, complex issues and less time on simpler issues with smaller price tags. But it often doesn’t work that way.

In his book Parkinson’s Law, or the Pursuit of Progress, (which has been quoted and commented on by many bloggers and Wikipedia editors), C. Northcote Parkinson describes a committee that met to discuss the construction of a new atomic power plant. The agenda included three items: approving the plans for the plant, discussing a new bicycle shed for employees, and the refreshment expenses of the Welfare Committee. The committee spent two and a half minutes discussing the highly complex power plant, 45 minutes debating the bicycle shed, and over an hour furiously debating the refreshments. That matter eventually was left unresolved and deferred to a further meeting.

Parkinson explains that this is because an atomic plant is so vast, so expensive, and so complicated that people cannot grasp it, and rather than try, they fall back on the assumption that somebody else checked all the details before it got this far. A bike shed, on the other hand, is easily understood; almost anyone can build one of those over a weekend. So no matter how well prepared, no matter how reasonable you are with your proposal, some people will seize the chance to put their fingerprints on the project to demonstrate that they are paying attention.

Parkinson summed this up as his Law of Triviality: “the time spent on any item of the agenda will be in inverse proportion to the sum involved.” Essentially, Parkinson’s metaphor raises the issue of noticing when governance gets reduced to sharing “our two-cents worth” and that we need not argue every feature just because we know enough to do so. It also may be true that the amount of noise generated by a change is inversely proportional to the complexity of the change.

Simplest problems can take up most of our time. When we’re facing a decision, it might not hurt to first ask whether we’re dealing with a bike shed or an atomic reactor, so that we give the decision the attention it deserves. If it’s a simple issue, let’s not get bogged down by minutia. But if it’s a complex issue, let’s make sure we have all the information we need so we truly understand what we’re talking about and can make the best decision. See you there.

— Cathann

Many Parts, One System

My daughter recently asked me — what was the largest living organism?  She thought it might be the blue whale, but that title is claimed by a quaking aspen estimated to be possibly a million years old. Covering 106 acres just south of Utah’s Wasatch Mountains, the aspen named Pando looks like 47,000 different trees. However, he really is one tree with one common root and a whopping 47,000 connected parts. Pando is a system.

Aspens don’t just grow up; they also grow horizontally underground. An aspen root may travel 100 feet underground before sprouting up, and each new stem can send out its own army of underground roots to form still more new shoots. Pando’s connected network of roots carries water and nutrients throughout the system, wherever they are needed. That’s why a quaking aspen system can survive in marginal environments where other trees would die.  In adverse situations, rather than shut down, the quaking aspen sends out new roots.  For example, if a fire wipes out many stems in a stand, the root system sends out a huge increase in new, rapidly growing stems.

If we pay attention to Pando, we can learn a few things about sustainability.

  1. We can overcome marginal environments by taking advantage of our system.
  2. We must communicate effectively. We have a variety of resources we can tap into, but we have to share information and data.
  3. We have to know how to effectively deploy our resources.
  4. If 47,000 trees can act as one system, then every person and every office connected to ISU Extension and Outreach can be part of our larger system as well.

The roots of Extension and Outreach are in youth development and agriculture. However, we extend Iowa State University to all the citizens of Iowa — not just to farmers, but also to community leaders, business owners, manufacturers, teachers, parents, families, and youth. We take Iowa State to main street as well as family farms, to schools and community centers, to industry and entrepreneurs, online and in person. Because of our partnership and commitment throughout all of Iowa’s counties, the Iowa State University Extension and Outreach system will leave our state better than we found it. See you there.

— Cathann

The Barney Factor

Recently, I travelled with President Leath to Black Hawk County, to tour a CIRAS partner company. Power Engineering and Manufacturing (PEM) specializes in custom design and manufacturing of heavy-duty gearboxes. While touring their line, Dennis Schilling, Quality Assurance Manager, shared that one of their greatest challenges has been something they call the “Barney Factor.”

A former plant manager, nicknamed Barney, attempted to resolve issues quickly and efficiently. If a gear didn’t fit over a pinion, instead of taking time to determine the root cause and resolve the issue properly, Barney would have the machinists make the internal dimensions of the gear larger, so when it got to assembly, all the parts fit. He did this so often in fact, that he eventually required machinists to do this for ALL gears produced at PEM.  Barney did this so often, in fact, that the “Barney Factor” eventually became an accepted and management approved method of problem prevention.  There are two problems with this approach. First, by making gears larger, Barney reduced their strength, which led to a higher rate of failure in the field. In other words — and this is important — Barney solved his problem in the plant by, essentially, pushing the problem down the road to the customer. Second, by solving the immediate problem and not investigating the root cause, Barney wasn’t able to discover fundamental engineering errors. So the company never knew where the problem originated and would never improve the quality of the final product.

This particularly impacted the company when it came to “endplay,” which is the amount of clearance designed into a stack-up of parts in an assembly. According to Dennis, you usually want some endplay, because it allows parts to spin freely, which reduces wear. But with too much endplay parts can move around, crash into each other, and create damage and wear.  So, all assemblies are designed with a pre-determined, acceptable amount of endplay. When PEM operated with the Barney Factor, machinists were instructed to always take bores deeper than the drawings called for, and then simply shim additional endplay back to specifications. It sounds like a workable solution to the numerous endplay issues they experienced over the year, until you factor in the amount of resources Dennis estimates was spent measuring for shims, creating shims, and purchasing material for the great number of shims they needed for each gearbox. Furthermore, this manufacturing “solution” also hid fundamental engineering errors that led to them needing a solution in the first place.

This is not how they do it anymore. Now, PEM uses sophisticated quality control measures to evaluate each part and determine errors prior to and during assembly. Not only has this sped up the line, but it also takes fewer resources (no more shims) and results in a higher quality product with an increased service life, for the customer.  As I listened to Dennis tell his story, I wondered: Does Extension and Outreach operate with our own version of the Barney Factor? Rather than getting at the heart of a problem, do we sometimes push the problem down the road, or let immediate solutions generate more problems?  Do we create more work with fixes which require greater resources or are inefficient?

Dennis reports that when they first started to implement the quality control measures, there was tremendous resistance from machinists, assemblers, and others, because initially, things got worse. Dennis attributes that to pulling the problem back from the customer to the plant and that, frankly, people were resistant to change. A very common phrase heard throughout the plant was, “that’s the way we’ve always done it.”  He says he knew what they were doing was right, but it helped to have the support of others who understood that making things easy on us internally doesn’t always help us build a stronger, longer lasting product overall. In other words, PEM moved from a corrective action system that created more problems to really solving their problems. See you there.

— Cathann

Leaving It Better Than You Found It …

Last week, my daughter, Wren, and I moved out of the house we’d rented since last July into our new home. We are exhausted, but happy, and look forward to the rest of our family (and furniture!) joining us in July. Part of the exhaustion came from a day of cleaning the rental house. When Wren asked why we were making all the effort for a house we’d no longer be using, I quoted her the phrase my dad often quoted to me: “Try to leave things better than you found them.”

I heard this phrase again this week when I travelled to Spencer with President Steven Leath (and thanks to everyone in Spencer for the warm welcome). Over a service club luncheon, President Leath explained that his goal is to someday turn over this university to the next president better than he found it when he arrived in January. Central to that goal is his desire to not just be a student-focused institution, but to be a citizen-focused university. President Leath said he has a soft spot for Extension and Outreach — not just because he was an extension plant pathologist early in his career, but because of the role Extension and Outreach plays in a key metric he’s interested in for his presidency — being the university that best serves its state.

To meet this metric, our institution must not only educate our youth (and currently, more Iowans are educated at ISU than any other university), and focus our research on what is valuable to the state and region, but we also need to keep our priorities on target and be service-focused with communities and citizens throughout the state.

In Extension and Outreach, we’re gearing up to assist President Leath in meeting this important metric better than we ever have before. We intend to strengthen partnerships across campus to enhance connections with communities. We intend to leverage resources to invest more effectively in local programs. We intend to more rigorously monitor and demonstrate our impacts. Because just like President Leath’s intention for the university, those of us in Extension and Outreach intend to leave our state better than we found it. See you there.

— Cathann

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