The Pursuit of Excellence is a Choice

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Too few managers and management teams talk about what it means to promote a culture of business performance excellence in and across their organizations. Even fewer work on it.

Perhaps the lofty sound of anything with “excellence” in it creates an eye-roll or seems like some far-away mirage best left for pursuit inside classrooms. It’s great fodder for business books as well. Perhaps it’s the reality that by admitting that you are striving to pursue business performance excellence, you are admitting that you or your team or your firm is one or more degrees separated from anything resembling excellence.

It’s hard to show up at the management team meeting and say, “We suck, and we have to do something about it.” Or, “We’re good, but we’re not great and we should do something about it.” It’s a difficult conversation to start, but one that offers remarkable potential for tangible outcomes once a firm’s senior managers have opened up to the topic and accepted the challenge to pursue excellence.

The Common Symptoms of a Systematic Failure to Pursue Excellence:

Many organizations struggle with a number of very common issues. They lack cogent direction. Strategies are incomplete or missing in action or in some state of flux. Employees are unengaged and unaware of how their efforts and functional or vocational goals plug into the bigger picture. Priorities are fuzzy and ever-shifting. Customers aren’t particularly loyal or happy. There’s cross-border conflict between functions where there should be cooperation and collaboration. Metrics are fuzzy and mostly rear-view mirror looking. And finally, there’s an incredible amount of waste and inefficiency due to poor and undocumented processes.

If these sound familiar, you’re in an environment where management has failed to step up and align on the pursuit of business performance excellence. It’s a choice waiting to be made.

It’s the System, Stupid!

The late, great quality expert, W. Edwards Deming spent much of his career chastising managers for the systemic failures they perpetuated through their sloppy practices. He offered: “85% of organizational problems are system related and only 15% are related to people.” While I’m not certain of the derivation of those precise metrics, I’ll wager my 30 years of management and leadership experience that his theme is spot on.

Deming was quick to highlight the sins of management and the failures of the management system employed by many firms, including: lack of constancy of purpose, mobility of management, poor evaluation practices, the failure to eliminate fear from the workplace and others. Their presence along with the maladies highlighted above are all indicators that a management group has not decided that business performance excellence is a worthy pursuit.

What It Looks Like When It Works:

Whether a firm uses a formal framework such as Baldrige and its Criteria for Performance Excellence or one of the other Quality/Business Management Systems, or, it pursues high performance with common sense and unity of purpose in a home grown manner, the outcomes when the system is working right are recognizable and desirable:

  • Employees see how their work connects to the firm’s larger goals.
  • Everyone understands strategy and everyone has a role in executing it. Many are involved in creating it.
  • Employees are involved in the activities of improving the business and are serving customers with passion. They feel like true stakeholders in the enterprise.
  • Problems are met with a fierce resolve for not just a fix, but systemic improvements built around clear processes and measures.
  • The environment promotes healthy debate and regular dialog on tackling the tough issues.
  • Financial results and key indicators improve. Done right, they thump the performance metrics of close competitors.
  • Customers vote with budgets and loyalty for the firm’s products and services.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

I’ve had the good fortune either as a consultant or an employee to work around and in firms large and small where the pursuit of business performance excellence provided the motive power for greatness. Whether it was the small, owner-led firm where her enthusiasm and passion for doing remarkable things for her firm’s clients infused the culture with the drive to excel, or it was the mega-firm where management pursued quality and customer satisfaction with relentless energy and precision, excellence is alive and well and much more than a myth. Neither firm started from a foundation of excellence, they started with a commitment to become great. The pursuit was the journey of a career for the people involved. It starts with a simple, deliberate decision.

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