Peter Bigelow
A look through the archives reminds that yesterday’s excellence is today’s mediocrity.

A generation back a business management book took the world by storm and in the process redefined the concept of quality. In Search of Excellence was coauthored by Bob Waterman and Tom Peters, with the latter going on to redefine the concept of teaching seasoned business executives how to reboot themselves and retool their companies to excel.

Back in the day, quality was defined simplistically as making a product that worked well. The concepts of “user friendliness” or “value proposition” or “user experience” were not on the radar of most businesses – that is, until Excellence drove home how leading companies deliver not just a quality product, but also a quality pre-purchase, buying and post-sale experience that makes for happy customers – for life.

In the dawn of my career, those around me – and most others in the large, publicly traded company I worked for – soaked in and tried to deploy all the quality-centric concepts that Excellence conveyed. Interestingly, today, when I ask my post-college “professionally” employed kids about quality and excellence they shrug their shoulders. Pressed, they admit to never having heard of the book.

What a difference a generation makes! We Dinosaurs plodded through tech-less decades, relying on fax and phone as the best available technology tools to “wow” customers with “excellence” in service, support and yes, quality products. Today’s generation expects far more than we did. Yesterday’s excellence is today’s mediocrity. No surprise many companies cited then as examples of “excellence” no longer exist!

Business challenges today are remarkably similar to those faced a generation back. Today’s pursuit of excellence, like in Excellence, seems to boil down to three timeless common denominators: Talent, Treasure and Teamwork. And while technology and expectations change, regrettably what does not change in the quest for excellence is the time-consuming “search” for those all-important pillars.

All too often what differentiates an excellent product, service or company is its talent – the workers. Excellent companies seem to have the ability to find and retain people who make things happen, while marginal companies appear filled with what I call the walking retired: workers who have given up for whatever reason and instead, knowingly or not, slow down the entire entity. Large companies tend to have an easier time attracting the best talent but not always retaining it, as they too often have cultures that do not support individual initiative. Talent wants to overachieve and will be stifled in a constrained environment, and will therefore leave. Smaller companies often have the right culture but lack the resources or vision to appreciate true talent.

Risk enters the picture too. Companies with the best talent that perform at the highest (and happiest) levels are often those that hire outside the normal box, clearly outside their comfort zone. Hiring someone underqualified or otherwise nontraditional to the job description – but with a passion for excelling and getting things done – can pay off handsomely both in enthusiasm and in the unbiased way they approach the task at hand. Likewise, hiring “the same old same old” is a recipe for mediocrity.

Treasure, to some, is just earned. For those in capital- or inventory-intensive businesses, as are most in our industry, access to Treasure is essential to installing the cutting-edge equipment and processes needed to achieve excellence. Without Treasure, capital investment cannot be made. Obtaining the necessary capital has never been a given. Considerable time is spent identifying what is needed, for how much, and the available sources for funding those needs. In any business relationship nothing is misunderstood more by customers and suppliers than the difficulty to obtain Treasure, aka funding, and how costly it can be. Even more costly: lack of access to Treasure, which may also be another reason many of the companies lauded in Excellence are no longer among us.

Excellence demands investment. Customers and suppliers need to be reminded that if they expect investment to be made to support their long-term needs, it equally requires Treasure – in the forms of adequate prices and long-term commitment.

Talent and Treasure are not enough to ensure excellence. One more ingredient is key: Teamwork. Many companies work hard at finding and developing their Talent. Many more are able to leverage their assets to secure the necessary Treasure. But few with both Talent and Treasure truly achieve excellence without Teamwork.

Teamwork is that hard-to-define ingredient that transforms mediocre to wow! It is part enthusiasm – enthusiasm of each and every person on the team. It is part organization, having everyone working toward a clear, common goal. And it is part discipline; each person enthusiastically willing to do more than their part to ensure the team excels and the organization achieves excellence in all it does. Teamwork is easy for the rank-and-file to understand and buy into. Yet it is tough for managers and supervisors to embrace, as it requires sharing authority with others.

Everyone wants to be a part of a true team. Teamwork is what all organizations claim they have. Yet very few companies truly have a culture that marries their Talent and Treasure in a way that creates Teamwork. For those in a leadership position, creating a culture of teamwork begins deep inside you – letting go of the top-down micro-management and embracing sharing  the vision, goal and task at hand with those around you so the team can flourish.

Despite the change of times, some things remain the same. The search for excellence is incumbent on harnessing Teamwork, Talent and Treasure.

Peter Bigelow is president and CEO of IMI (imipcb.com); pbigelow@imipcb.com. His column appears monthly.

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