One of the first management books I ever read was Tom Peters' A Passion for Excellence. I must have received it in the late 1980s from a family friend. Though I am not sure why a teenager would care about US business practices, I read it anyway.
What stuck with me was an anecdote about a US producer of floor cleaning equipment that started exporting to Japan. As soon as it did, complaints from its Japanese customers flooded in. Apparently, the machines leaked hydraulic oil.
The company's chief executive wanted to know what was wrong and was surprised to discover all their products leaked. It was only the new Japanese customers who demanded quality. Meanwhile, the Americans were content to wipe the floor after the faulty machines had just cleaned it.
The Americans forgot what excellence looks like. They no longer expected it. They were not demanding it. And they only stumbled across it when their new customers pointed it out.
Does that remind you of something?
New Zealand's relationship with excellence is complicated. Excellence does occur here. We have some highly innovative companies, internationally successful sportspeople, musicians and writers.
But it would be an exaggeration to say this country generally strives for excellence.
It is as if ambition has been sucked out of the Kiwi way of life. And it begins at school.
The Education Act now contains a long list of objectives for the education system. It includes a requirement "to focus on helping each child and young person to attain educational achievement to the best of his or her potential." That places the onus on the student and makes the school a mere assistant.
The remainder of the education objectives deal with social aspects of schooling like resilience, determination, confidence, creative and critical thinking. Participation in community life, inclusion, diversity and cultural knowledge also feature alongside teaching, which used to be the school's core job.
What is missing from this list is an explicit statement about the school's responsibility to deliver excellent education. It is almost ignored. And even when excellence is grudgingly remembered, it contains the built-in excuse that it is really up to the student.
Last month's election campaign was a great example of this deep ennui. No major party gave voters any vision of what the country could look like, let alone how to get there.
Instead, they rolled out the usual gimmicks and side shows: a new public holiday here, a tax cut there, with some extra spending on infrastructure thrown in for good measure. That was as far as our politicians' ambitions extended.
The Labour Party manifesto even had a curious section on equality, which should have raised eyebrows. Under the heading "Labour's Values," the manifesto said: "Our vision of a just society is founded on equality and fairness." Who would disagree?
But it quickly shifted to: "We believe in more than just equal opportunities — we believe in equity and equality of outcomes." If your eyebrows are not rising yet, you are not paying attention.
Let me translate that line into English: When equality means equal outcomes, it removes individual effort and requires chopping everyone down to the same level.
It would be unfair to take Labour's statement literally – it was just a piece of election campaigning, not the new Communist Manifesto. But why wasn't such shoddy logic picked up in the drafting? Because the philosophy of our Government is no longer one of ambition but of redistribution.
On a personal note, I have also come across New Zealand's strange relationship with excellence while serving as a judge on the Local Government Excellence Awards. And yes, despite everything bad we hear about local government, my five years on the panel witnessed some fantastic examples of excellence.
However, each year we also receive numerous applications of councils just doing their jobs. These are projects where, say, local infrastructure was planned, residents consulted, and costs did not overrun. Nothing wrong with that. But it isn't excellence. It's business as usual without too many cock ups.
Which brings me back to Peters' anecdote. When a society forgets what excellence is, it worships mediocrity. And the only way to notice the misstep is to look at other countries and compare.
Over the past three years, when we could still easily travel, our organisation took business delegations on fact-finding missions to Switzerland and Denmark. We wanted inspiration from policy and practice.
The most impressive lessons of excellence put Kiwi apathy to shame. For example, the Swiss Gotthard Base Tunnel, at 57km the world's longest and deepest traffic tunnel, built on time and budget. Or the technology quarter hugging the ETH university in Zurich in which thousands of jobs are created by hundreds of companies. Or the Amager Bakke waste-to-energy plant, which delivers heat and electricity to Copenhagen households and doubles as an all-year artificial ski slope.
In each case, the question our delegation pondered was if similar projects were possible back in New Zealand. And in each case, the answer was usually "no."
Kiwis have mothballed their ambition. We have forgotten about growing the pie so we can share it. We have given up on excellence in favour of wellbeing, kindness and not rocking the boat.
I am convinced this country can do better. But to achieve excellence, we must demand it. From our councils, our national politicians, our schools, our businesses – and, crucially, from ourselves.
- Dr Oliver Hartwich is the executive director of The New Zealand Initiative.