Don Knapp
Building a Quality Culture



By Don Knapp


Gradually, some communities—downtowns, cities, regions, and nations as well as corporations and other organizations—are learning that they function as complex and dynamic social systems with interacting parts and learning to manage with that perspective. But, while some downtowns have grasped the systems concept, most community leaders and citizens have not. Consequently, most have not begun to maximize their performance.

Systems Thinkers: A number of urban thinkers have laid the theoretical foundation for downtown as a complex social system. Among them: Jane Jacobs (The Death and Life of Great American Cities), Jay Forrester (Urban Dynamics), Roland Warren (The Community in America), and Alex Marshall (How Cities Work).

A self taught city planner who wrote her urban classic more than four decades ago, Jacobs was better known as a proponent of diversity, density, and eyes-on-the-street than of the subtle, interacting parts of a city in her views on systems.

A professor and computer pioneer at M.I.T., Forrester used computer models to simulate the dynamics of urban and industrial systems and taught us that system interactions produce surprising consequences and call for counterintuitive thinking.

My favorite definition of a social system is by Bertram Gross, a former professor at Syracuse and Harvard Universities and Secretary of the U. S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare. In The State of the Nation, he said it "consists of (1) people and (2) non-human resources, (3) grouped together into subsystems that (4) interrelate among themselves and (5) with the external environment, and are subject to (6) certain values and (7) a central guidance system that may help provide for future performance."

System interactions often have multiple impacts, the impacts aren't always immediate, and some impacts are unknowable; therefore, a social system is not completely manageable.

The person who probably taught more Americans about social systems than anyone was Edwards Deming (Out of the Crisis). He was the consultant who first taught Japanese manufacturers to reduce costly defects by building quality and customer satisfaction into the production process from the start. How? By treating production as a system, using customer research, and freeing employees from rigid quotas, appraisals and competition to collaborate on cross-functional teams. Japan now awards the Deming Prize for quality. He believed the customer is the most important part of the production process. Deming's views were not accepted by U. S. manufacturers until about 1980 when he would begin training thousands of management employees annually through 1993 when he died at 93. A General Motors plant manager in Indiana said recently: "In the old days, when there was a production problem, we would chew someone out. Today, we analyze the process."

In a 1992 International Downtown Association monograph The Downtown of the 21st Century, Richard Bradley, then the IDA President, assessed the opportunities and constraints in downtowns and said, "in most cases, downtown, as an overall system, is unmanaged." He concluded that downtowns required a new emphasis on quality and proactive, public-private management efforts. IDA's "entrepreneurial holding company" model for public-private partnerships was a product of the Association's analysis. In 1999, I asked Rich, now Executive Director of the Downtown DC Business Improvement District, for his thoughts about downtown as a social system. He said:

"While few people think about downtown as a system, much less talk about it as such, the way in which some organizations are growing their downtown proves that it is. In fact, it may be more appropriate to describe the downtown as a comprehensive system that encompasses an interconnected set of system elements, i.e. retail, housing, access, etc."

Transportation: One of the most important downtown subsystems, for example, is transportation. Many downtowns, particularly in larger cities, are working to get commuters to use alternate modes to the single occupancy vehicle. The goals are tangible: less congestion, air pollution and parking demand and more traffic calming and quality of life. In Portland and Boulder, for example, more than 40 per cent of downtown commuters use alternate modes. Marilyn Haas, former Executive Director of Downtown Boulder Inc., told me in 1998 that that City uses a formula of 1.8 parking spaces for every 1,000 square feet of downtown store space. This compares with five or more spaces per 1,000 used by malls and big box stores.

The most common alternate modes are bicycles, arterial road express lanes for vehicles carrying two or more people, buses and light rail. Feasibility planning for these modes involves a myriad of interconnected details including funding, location, facilities, schedules, operations and consumer preferences and stakeholder groups at all levels of government as well as the private sector. This requires a cross-functional team planning.

Partnerships: The establishment of public-private partnerships in downtowns reflects the fact that no single organization manages all of the responsibilities in a complex downtown social system. There are at least two partnership formats. The most common is an umbrella organization that was the outgrowth of the "entrepreneurial holding company" model developed by the IDA and described in its 1995 monograph. It coordinates the work of several subsidiaries and has private and public participants.

IDA's model, Rich Bradley told me, "is consistent with other models evolving in business, industry or government that recognize their environments also constitute complex organizations and interrelated systems." He said, "some of the best models for this concept include efforts underway in Denver, Houston and New York (particularly as it is being carried out by the Alliance for Lower Manhattan). To a greater or less extent Baltimore, Philadelphia and Portland are proceeding on similar tracks."

Robert Mawson, Program Manager of the Association for Portland Progress in Oregon told me in 1999:

"Downtowns are a vital part of a regional system that is complex and substantially interrelated. The challenge is to understand the individual parts, how the parts relate to whole and to the downtown. The challenge too is to understand the whole, how it uniquely functions and how individual geographic components (e.g. downtowns) function within."

"These understandings need to be both regional and downtown-focused. While much of the assessment may be clinical, relying on statistics, ultimately the assessment must rely on our perceptions. As we are effective in our assessment, we are then able to 'get ahead of the curve' and develop our work plans based on the situation as it will be when we act to effect change rather than providing future solutions to yesterday's paradigm."

In 1997, I was on the committee that approved the formation of the Downtown Billings Partnership in Montana to coordinate the work of the Downtown Billings Association (an advocacy and events management group), Downtown Development Corporation, Parking Advisory Board and Property Owners Advisory Board.

An alternative format is an informal, unincorporated partnership such as the Downtown Boulder Alliance. It has two representatives from each of 17 different public and private stakeholder groups and meets several times a year to improve communication, establish common goals, make proposals and monitor progress.

Partnership organizations should forge mission statements for the entire downtown and support effective cross-functional teaming.

Mission Statement: In 2000, I visited the downtown of a medium size county seat and spoke with the redevelopment director and downtown director about the decision to raze a half block of historic commercial buildings, some in disrepair, in the core to create a passive, grassed "plaza" in 1999 next to the courthouse. The redevelopment director told me "I've eliminated blight. Now I want to strengthen retail." Retail and housing have not been strong for decades in this downtown, dominated by high-rise office buildings. Compactness is one of the fundamentals of successful downtowns, I said. It encourages the discretionary shopper to explore. I asked the redevelopment director if there was a mission statement for the downtown as a whole, not just for the city or downtown organization. Looking puzzled, he said, "We want a 24 hour downtown." The downtown director said, "There is no mission statement for the whole downtown."

Downtowns need a mission statement with a broad mission for the whole downtown system and a set of specific goals for achieving it so the downtown stakeholders and citizens are on the same page. One of the leaders of the plaza planning committee was a judge who hoped the plaza would better show off the courthouse. The plaza does that but at a price. If this downtown had a well-publicized mission statement with a compactness goal, the plaza project might have had another outcome.

Teamwork: CNN recently reported that a survey of employers found that what they most sought in new hires was a capacity for teamwork. The key to a successful cross-functional team is the ability of members to leave their personal biases at the door, consider the issues on their own merits and collaborate. The first item on the agenda of the Downtown Boulder Alliance when it was formed in the late 1990's was a set of proposed design guidelines for the historic retail core. One member, an Alliance planner told me, said: "I was personally against the guidelines. But, they were good for the downtown and I voted for them." And, they became law.

Cross-functional collaboration is an acquired skill for some people. Ask planner Lucy Thompson, who served on the cross-functional task force that worked with "holistic" consultant Ken Greenberg of Toronto to produce "St. Paul on the Mississippi Development Framework." That project was initially for the downtown and riverfront but was adopted for City-wide use. The project was supported by Norm Coleman, Mayor of St. Paul and U. S. Senator-elect. In 2001, Lucy told me:

"The Framework was a giant leap for the City of St. Paul and its partner organizations in terms of getting people to think holistically, across disciplines and outside of their heretofore comfortable boxes (e.g. traffic engineers thought only like engineers, landscape architects thought only like designers, project managers thought only like economic bottom-liners)."

"The process of preparing the Framework itself did much for teaching us how to work together and respect other professional disciplines…We all have a better application for the interconnectedness of things and, I believe, make better decisions because of that. Of course, it is easier to grasp at the downtown, neighborhood or city level, but such holistic systems thinking is just as important (perhaps more so because of the scale of the impact of not doing so) at the regional level."

I was fascinated with Urban Dynamics when it was published in 1969 but did not imagine how important its concepts would become for downtowns. When community leaders and citizens grasp the concept of complex social systems with interacting parts and develop effective cross-functional teams, they will take giant steps toward maximizing the performance and reducing mistakes in their downtown.

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