Assessing the excellence of an organisation

Nowadays the volume of assessment activity aimed at determining the level of excellence of organisations is increasing all the time.  Excellence awards are multiplying across the world, an increasing number of organisations carry out self-assessmnets and there is a large industry of professionals offering assessment services.  So what should assessors find out about an organisation when they seek to determine how excellent it is?

Surely we must start with what we mean by “excellence” as it applies to organisations.  My preferred definition, adopted by several of the main organisations promoting “excellence”, such as the EFQM in Europe, is: “Organisation Excellence is delivering sustained superior performance that meets and where possible exceeds the expectations of stakeholders” – see post dated 31/08/2011 headed “So What is Organisational Excellence?” for more detail.  If we accept this definition, then what assessors need to find out becomes fairly obvious. A simple list of key questions to address, presented here in a what is, hopefully, logical order would include:

  • Has the organisation identified its key stakeholders?
  • Does it understand what the current expectations of these stakeholders are, and what these are likely to be in the future?
  • Does it balance the diverse and potentially conflicting expectations of its stakeholders to arrive at clear stakeholder focused goals and objectives?
  • Does it have plans and approaches (initiatives, policies, processes, activities) in place that are specifically developed to achieve these goals and objectives?
  • Does it implement these plans and approaches?
  • Does it measure performance achievement?
  • What do the results show?
  • Does it review the results, learn and improve where needed?

Of course assessing involves more – in detail – than this but I would suggest than unless assessors keep these 8 questions in their ‘minds eye’ and obtain real and useful answers to them, they will not only fail in the task but run the risk of ‘getting lost in the detail’.  If you are an assessor, do you address these questions, and in the order shown?

Listening and Learning

Most of us who are parents will know what it is like to want to help our children when we see them struggling with something or doing something wrong or in the wrong way. We probably all know what it is like to experience the child who will not listen and then suffers when they make a mistake.  Mostly we learn to accept, although difficult at times to do so, that making mistakes and, hopefully, learning from them, is all part of the ‘growing up’ phase of our children’s lives.

But what about organisations?  They also struggle, make mistakes, do things the wrong way and so on.  (This is hardly surprising as an organisation is of course essentially the people who form part of it).  But should we accept for them what we accept for our children, that learning from mistakes is an essential part of ‘growing up’? Well yes, I would suggest, provide of course that they do actually learn.  But should this be all?  A recent experience with an organisation that I have observed quite closely for a number of years made me think a bit more about this.  Ten years plus ago the organisation was staffed and led by a team of largely experienced professionals and managers. In the main, ‘mistakes’ were infrequent and the organisation could be considered to be ‘well run’.  But in the intervening period changes in personnel have resulted in a team that is young and inexperienced.  The team brings enthusiasm and freshness of ideas but little practical business experience.  ‘Mistakes’ now occur with alarming frequency and the reputation and success of the organisation is suffering as a result. But is it truly learning from its mistakes? Not as fast as most of us would wish.  Are the number of mistakes reducing? No. So what is the reason?  What I observe is similar to that most parents observe. Not only is there a lack of willingness at times to recognise and learn from mistakes so that they don’t occur again, but there is an unwillingness to listen to more experienced people who have ‘seen it all before’.  Just as a child with a parent, they want to do it their way!  They know best! Sadly the example I give is by no means unusual and where this sort of behaviour becomes endemic within an organisation, the result is the emergence of what someone once described to me as “a culture of organisational arrogance”.

So what’s the answer? Should we, as we often do as parents, just accept that this is all part of ‘growing up’? The problem with this is that often lessons are not learnt and the organisation subsequently declines and goes ‘out of business’.  So whilst leaders within organisations need to stimulate and encourage a culture of learning from what went wrong and what went well after an event – they also need to encourage a culture of proactively listening, respecting and learning from what is heard – both from within and from without the organisation. Even very successful organisations need to do this as well, least they lose out by thinking they know best. The case of IBM in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s is a classic example of this. Thankfully new leadership in IBM recognised the root cause and addressed it quickly and effectively with the result that rather than ‘going under’ IBM today is a successful multi-national employing nearly half a million people world-wide.

What about your organisation?  Do you truly “listen and learn“, internally and externally?  Do you encourage the culture where listening to and learning from others is clever, rather than being a sign of weakness and incompetence? If you do then you are on the road to becoming “organisationally excellent” rather than “organisationally arrogant”!