I have experienced ‘one of those days’, when a large proportion of my time which should have been spent on important things was instead spent on doing things arising from mistakes made by others, people not following their own policies or processes, people not listening, or sadly in a few cases I suspect because of a lack of motivation to do things properly and well. I’m sure you are not interested in my woes but it did get me thinking and I hope the result of that thinking might provide food for thought for some of my readers. On reflection I realised that the incidence of these sort of experiences had increased over the last few years and that I was not alone; colleagues and friends had frequently mentioned similar experiences. Indeed several had mentioned incidents when on drawing attention to silly mistakes made by others they had experienced a strong response on the lines of “how dare you say that” from those concerned. My mind went back to when I was a young manager. One of the first and important things that was impressed upon me and many of my generation was the importance of striving to ‘get things right first time every time’. Mistakes due to lack of knowledge or skill were excused but we were expected to learn from these and not repeat the same mistake. Mistakes which should not have been made were just not tolerated. It makes me wonder whether in our focusing on the rather more grander aspects of organisational excellence we may be forgetting some of these basics. After all, surely one basic expectation of stakeholders is that our organisations do indeed strive for and largely achieve getting things right first time every time and that a culture exists where mistakes that cannot be tolerated are not allowed, where people strive to always do better, to learn and to focus their energy on contributing to organisational excellence through their own personal excellence. Food for thought or just the grumpy ramblings of someone who has experienced a bad day? You’ll be the judge of that!
I’m typing this blog in the departure lounge of the international airport in the Caribbean island of Trinidad, where I’ve experienced a stimulating week working with a client seeking to plot a course to become an excellent organisation. As we discussed the challenges they face on the way I was reminded of many of my clients in other parts of the worlds – in Europe, the Fast East, the Gulf Region and elsewhere who are grappling with many similar issues. It reminded me that whatever the geographical location, the industry, the culture, and so many other things that express the differences that exist in organisations across the world, organisational excellence is truly global and achieving it necessitates traversing much the same route for all organisations.
On a day when the death of Steve Jobs of Apple Computers is announced it is perhaps useful to remind ourselves, through a quote of his, that market leaders – mainly but not exclusively in the consumer product sector – often create customer expectations rather than respond to them. His words: “You can’t just ask customers what they want and then try to give that to them. By the time you get it built, they’ll want something new.” As any Apple user will tell you, (and Apple must have one of the highest levels of brand loyalty in the world), the organisation are masters at creating and managing consumer expectations. Of course whether this is endemic in the organisation and therefore sustainable in the future, only time will tell. Maybe the death of Jobs has now brought the key question to the fore, is Apple truly an excellent organisation or not? Time will no doubt tell.
The word “sustainability” seems to feature a lot in current parlance, particularly by some writers of management books, business consultants and others who see another opportunity to make a fast buck or two out of a current fad. This is a pity because in my view delivering sustained and sustainable performance at a superior level is one of the key attributes of excellence in organisations. I’ve noticed of late the term “sustainable excellence” starting to creep into articles and posts and appearing in some books. It makes me shudder! How can we somehow infer that an organisation can be excellent one day and not the next?
I need to confess that I’m not a great fan of most management books as they mostly appear to be theoretical rather than practical, seldom based on real experience and often sail close to plagiarism. That said I have recently been dipping into an old favourite of mine “Built to Last” by Jim Collins (ISDN 9781844135844). One could argue that the term “built to last” is one of several more simpler and clearer ways of describing sustainability when it comes to organisations. The book is based not on management theories of academics or others but on actual research done into organisations that have survived and prospered over a long period of time. It is well worth a read by any leader serious about “sustainability” in terms of his or her organisation’s performance. One of the simple and memorable analogies used in the book is the that of “clock building” rather than “time telling”. Having a great idea or being a charismatic visionary leader is “time telling”, building an organisation that can prosper far beyond the presence of any single leader and through multiple product life cycles is “clock building”. With the recent retirement, or so it seems, of Steve Jobs from Apple, it will be interesting to see whether Apple’s success to date has been due to a superb “time teller” or to a “clock builder”. Time, of course, will tell! I’m privileged in my ‘day job’ to work as a consultant with many organisations and I’ve observed that those who clearly deliver sustained and sustainable superior performance all have one thing in common – they were founded by a “clock builder”. A mere coincidence? I think not.