How Singapore is meeting a national service challenge

Singapore is a unique and extraordinary island. The country has no natural resources other than its people and location. It takes less than an hour to drive from one coast to the other yet this tiny city-state is home to the world’s most awarded airline, top rated airport and is consistently ranked among the best places in the world to live and do business.

When I moved to Singapore in 1990, all was not well on the economic front. The industrial base of manufacturing operations was moving to China and many back office tasks were being sent to India and other lower-cost locations. Value-adding services featured prominently in the economic future of the country: medical, financial and legal, supply chain and logistics, conventions with thriving hospitality, restaurants, retail and entertainment, educational services, multi-media, research and development.

But the country’s educational system was tuned to support the manufacturing sector and had successfully molded the population to work efficiently and comply with regulations. This is ideal when variation is the enemy and “zero defects” is the call to action.

But in services, variation comes with the territory and should be welcomed. The whole idea of a service-oriented economy is to help people discover what’s possible and get more of what they value. Unusual requests should not be rejected out of hand, but embraced as opportunities to innovate and improve. Singapore had to transform an entire nation that knew how to follow instructions well, but was hesitant to follow a customer wherever their interests may lead.

Singapore Airlines was the notable exception. They had already succeeded in establishing a global reputation for profitability and award-winning service. My job was to work with airline personnel to create a national curriculum for innovation and service quality improvement, then scale the program by “training the trainers” to reach every possible government agency and industry sector.

My years of experience teaching adults focused on helping them achieve service improvement through engaging presentations and effective, useful education. Over the next twenty years, more than half a million Singaporeans in hundreds of companies and government agencies have participated in the courses we designed and built. Today, the entire country has learned – and is still learning – to improve and enhance the quality of their service.

Singapore now enjoys a pragmatically focused and continuously improving service economy. The government, population and commercial sectors all work closely together to become the best in the world, to create value for the world, and to serve the world with enthusiasm, innovation and vigor.