Sam Keller's TEC Blog

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Achieving Organizational Excellence

Pat McDonnell is a colleague and friend. Most of his career was spent at Coopers & Lybrand where he was Vice Chairman of Business Assurance Services. He began his career as an officer in the U.S. Marine Corps.

In his book "Everyone Wants to go to Heaven - But Nobody Wants to Die" he describes in detail his Six Steps to Organizational Excellence, which he refers to in his recent newsletter quoted below. I have seen these six steps implemented - they really work!

Pat’s Perspective: Continuous Improvement – The Ultimate Objective

Continuous improvement is another of those fads foisted on organizations by naïve, but well intentioned managers looking for painless success. It ranks up there with Six Sigma, Learning Organizations, Quality Councils and others that come and go.

How about you? How many continuous improvement programs have you endured over the years? That is always among the first questions I ask the MBA students in my class. I have learned to not be surprised at the number of hands, or the answer to the next question – how’d it go? The resulting groans have become familiar over the years.

Having said that, I have long concluded that the state of continuous improvement is the ultimate objective of our Six Step Process for achieving organizational excellence. It is ultimate for two reasons – first, it is virtually impossible to achieve and, second, once achieved, it can never end. Only two organizations of which I have been a member have ever even come close – the Marine Corps and the Audit Practice at Coopers & Lybrand circa 1997.

At its most basic, continuous improvement is the perpetual motion machine of organizational excellence. It occurs only after the organization has completed a long journey to the point where striving for excellence is embedded in the very fabric of the organization. It occurs when every individual in the organization comes to work every day committed to finding new ways to improve.

Continuous improvement is completely inconsistent with the tolerance for mediocrity that infects most organization to some degree. It is only after the process has purged this tolerance – along with tolerance of procrastination, institutional lack of integrity and the “C” players responsible for it, that continuous improvement may begin to take root.

The difficulty of achieving it creates great anxiety – and failure – when those proposing it realize that is the culmination of the long process of continuous upgrade that characterizes the first five of our Six Step Process. Our Process begins with understanding the fundamentals of change, including our innate human resistance. Next, we move to establishing the community of trust required to make the leap to excellence. The key is emplacing principled leaders who exhibit the intelligence and integrity to warrant our trust. It is only after effecting the required cultural change required that we can begin to think about creating a plan to maximize organizational excellence. It is here, by the way, that the Six Sigma and similar programs may be integrated with a comprehensive plan to create excellence. Once that plan is in place, only with the leadership and culture of responsibility that has been created, can we expect to actually execute it. It is here that most change programs – those that assume that the first three steps are in place, but rarely are – hit the wall.

That wall stands between the organization and continuous improvement. To punch through that wall requires a level of moral courage that few organizations can successfully sustain. The challenge begins with understanding that continuous improvement is all about upgrade – in leadership, people, the revenue machine, and the processes that support them. Those individuals, ideas and processes that were adequate in the past, must either grow and expand or fail in the face of ever increasing demands for improvement. This is the challenge inherent in achieving a state of continuous improvement and the major impediment to achieving it.

As Charles de Gaulle is reputed to have said about the indispensability of any individual to an organization “… the cemeteries are full of indispensable people.” He was correct – and before you launch your continuous improvement program, remember -- he was talking about you and me.

That is your challenge as the leader of organizational change. Face the challenges of continuous improvement – the need for continuous upgrading of resources – and the risks and responsibilities inherent therein.

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