Happy Trails

I worked for a cement contactor one summer and he had been given a job at one of the elementary schools to pour new paths leading from the drop-off area to the front door of the school building.

When he negotiated the contract I recall wondering why he committed the job completion date as "the first Monday following the first week of school." He also simultaneously scheduled a full crew for that weekend in between.

The week before classes were to reconvene, he had our entire staff out there removing all the old sidewalk and grass areas. He then plowed under all the existing surfaces and made a clean fresh grade of topsoil between the driveway and the doors.

On the day before class started he delivered tons of sand to topdress the area and we raked that sand to an even grade. At 5 a.m. the first day of school we arrived and made sure the surface was impression-free, and at 7 a.m. when the kids and staff began to arrive, we sat on the tailgate of the truck and started to observe.

By the time class began at 8 a.m., pathways leading to the door were clearly tracked into the sand. We photographed the area, raked it clean again and made the same observations as the kids left school and went to the busses and cars.

That evening we drew up the plans based on the trails that had been established and the next day, the paths were staked out accordingly. Friday, after the kids left school, the forms were set. That Saturday all the sidewalks were poured.

To this day, those sidewalks remain intact with nary a corner cut or a shortcut worn into the grass. Although the contractor could have estimated the proper placement of the paths, he chose to follow exactly what was indicated and those walkways are a testimony to the value of observant, open-minded management.

Bridges of Communication

Building bridges, walkways and trails has parallel meaning. Certainly the design, placement and construction is critical, but garnering the user input to make those "connectors" functional is essential to creating paths that remain useful and serve the public they are intended to please.

How important is connecting that user input and building a bridge of communication to the actual construction? Let's talk about it...

"A sobering inside look at pre-Sept.11 intelligence operations by the Justice Department's inspector general chronicles -– in some instances in hour to hour detail -– how the FBI missed at least five opportunities to uncover vital information that might have led agents to the hijackers," reported Associated Press writer, Pete Yost, on the June 10, 2005 Yahoo Website news page.

He went on to report that, "Attorney General Alberto Gonzales acknowledged Friday that there were laws before the September 11, 2001 attacks that 'discouraged the sharing of information' among enforcement and intelligence agencies."

Sound familiar? I hope not. But I think it is a safe bet to believe that often, those with information are too scared to speak out or are reluctant for another reason. Perhaps they think their observation does not have the worth that the observations of someone with more prominence or authority would have.

Perhaps they are not used to having an opinion that matters, depending on the kind of family they came from and the environment in which they have grown up. Perhaps their respect for authority is so great that they just assume somewhere out there someone knows better and the proper opinions will rise to the top.

Perhaps they just don't know whom to tell so they say nothing.

If no vehicle or conduit exists to translate those opinions into useful fodder for design, placement and construction, how can it ever be put to use?

It is therefore incumbent upon parks and recreation authorities to find those opinions and seek out well-informed people, whether they have chosen to come forward or not. This "listening" management theory is not new but became vogue in the 1980s and almost forgotten by the year 2000.

During America's reformation of post-war Japan, United States industrialists taught the Japanese many information-hewn theories. Demming taught the importance of quality and empowerment. Girand demonstrated how to maintain value in low cost manufacturing. Drucker taught management principles and the value of marketing.

As decades passed and these theories were put into an increasingly strong Japanese economy, theorists all over the world began emulating these practices and calling them "like the Japanese models." Here they had always been American models of success but the isolated Japanese "experiment" allowed these theories to flourish due to the rigidity of that culture.

These examples of success were increasingly reflected in factory work, particularly automobiles. Hoards of American execs were filing in and out of Japan to see how their Honda plants ran. They were fascinated that staff met in the morning for calisthenics and that the "management by walking around" theories elicited opinions from line workers to machine oilers. The theory was simple. No one knows more about this machine than the guy that runs it. If I don't ask his opinion, how can I possibly improve it, maintain it, increase its productivity?

As bridges, walkways, and paths are considered by your entity understand that the number of valid vs. invalid assumptions you create makes your final product weak or strong.

Wherever you can back your assumptions up with fact or verification through an established pattern you are only strengthening your deliverables to the public.

Public Trails

Remember there was once a camera company that patented a process for the consumer to take an "instant picture" that would develop right before their eyes.

The company made the assumption that everybody would always want an instant photo over one that had to be developed.

For a while, this theory held up. Then another company made 35mm cameras affordable and they produced a picture with higher quality than the instant photo.

The instant photo company was almost forced out of business and never really closed the gap in that area again. Assumptions were given more weight than research. The people using the cameras were never asked what was important to them; quality or speed.

User surveys can be mailed. Patrons can also be asked to fill them out at stations posted throughout the parks. On-foot user surveys can be accomplished during busy seasons with a one or two question "walk up" survey. Traffic patterns can be studied.

Maintenance workers who know the areas and lay of the land should be interviewed. Park planners can provide cost/benefit analysis regarding the value of connecting one area to another through a bridge, walkway or trail.

In short, the wise parks and recreation department will spend a substantial portion of their time (not necessarily budget) researching their decisions as well as implementing them. It is time and money well spent and bridges the gap between merely providing what is needed and happily delivering what is wanted and appreciated.

Ronald D. Ciancutti is the purchasing manager for Cleveland Metroparks. Ron can be reached at rdc@clevelandmetroparks.com.