Thursday, August 20, 2009

Instituting Excellence

This is part one of a two-part discussion on organizational excellence

Why are some organizations so good? Why do some organizations – teams – continue to excel? There are many examples, some jump immediately to mind – the Blue Angles (the US Navy’s Flight Demonstration Team) and their Air Force counterparts, the Thunderbirds; the US military’s Special Forces units such as the SEALs and Delta; certain sports teams that, even if they don’t win their respective championships every year are continually in the playoffs or are always ‘a threat’ (the Yankees, the Lakers, Manchester United). So, why are they so good?

It is not accurate to say they have the very best people, if by best people you mean that someone went out and lined up the brightest and most physically fit people in the nation and then ran them through an endless series of tests and took the top 1/100dth of 1%. In fact, in a very real sense, none of the top organizations recruit in quite that fashion.

In fact, in even the best sports teams, they don’t have the very best. Rather, they attract whom they can, then take the very best that are available.

So, selection is the first step: pick the very best people who are both a) available, and b) really want to be there.

This first element is obvious, you can only select from what is available. Even the New York Yankees can’t hire every great pitcher and hitter. They have to work with what is available, and work through the ‘draft’ process. And the Yankees are illustrative: despite a vast amount of money, they clearly don’t have a monopoly on all the great baseball players. But, the second element is key: you need people who want the people who really – REALLY – want to be there.

A friend of mine who was at one time an instructor at one of the schools that train some of the most elite special forces personnel in the US military told me that there was a board on one wall at the school that contained the names (and their record) of the personnel who had performed the best on each of the physical tests at the school: most push-ups, most pull-ups, fastest run, fastest swim, etc. They would show it to the new students and let them ponder it a while, then tell them that not one person on that board had made it through the school. Simple physical prowess wasn’t (and isn’t) enough. The only people who made it through were those who really wanted to make it through.

So, what does that mean to you? It means that you have to create and maintain an environment that people really want to be part of. What does that entail? In the simplest sense, it means Challenge and Reward and, in the end, self-actualization. Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs, though it appears to have fallen out of fashion, is essentially right. You can pay someone a great deal of money but still not get great performance out of him. In fact, as demonstrated by most professional athletes, the money is more a means to keep ‘score’ on how much the team respects them then anything else. Think about how many great professional athletes play for deferred salaries because of their love of the game. And in the same light, how many times have teams traded away a player who was clearly great and clearly had great years left in his career because he clearly didn’t fit, and clearly didn’t want to be on that particular team?

More to the point, fighter pilots are not the highest paid people on the planet – far from it. No one joins the Army, Navy, Air Force or Marines for the pay. And they certainly don’t stay in because of the pay – and to become ‘excellent’ in the military is not something that happens on your first enlistment; all the really excellent soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines have 10, 12 or more years of service behind them. These people stay in for intangible reasons, reasons that extend well beyond any issues of pay. As has been demonstrated time and again, the very best can easily earn more money in the private sector, but choose to remain in the service. They do so ‘simply’ because their real motivations, and their real rewards are well above the economic. Much like top athletes pay is of significance, but it is not the reason for doing what they do. Rather, it is a necessary but lesser element of their full motivation.

So, you have to create a spirit, an ethos inside your organization that people dearly want to join. To do that, you must first have clear gals and a consuming vision of your future, one that people can adopt and see themselves as part of. And that vision must connect to their personnel motivations so that the organizational goals and their personal goals coincide. And second, you must communicate that vision, and communicate it with passion. I have written elsewhere that charisma is ‘passion communicated.’ You must develop a clear and compelling goal and vision. You must develop a passion for your organization. And then you must communicate all of this; you must develop your charisma.

The second step is training.

Training: what do I mean by training? Training encompasses a wide range of issues: at its simplest, training is the process to teach a particular skill. At its broadest, your ‘training program’ should include the sustained education of your people. (There is a simple and obvious counterpoint to this: organizations that don’t spend time training and educating their people don’t care about excellence.)

In fact, if you are pursuing excellence, ‘training’ must include teaching skills, to include routine refresher training to ensure that even your most skilled people are exposed to new techniques and processes, sustained education where you move beyond the teaching of skills and expand knowledge bases and allow your people time to think through a wide range of issues, letting them develop new techniques, and explore new possibilities.

In many organizations training is the first variable that is cut when money becomes tight. The argument is always along the lines of: ‘our people are the best, we can sustain for quite a while with less training, and when things turn around we’ll increase training again.’ When you hear this you are on the slippery slope and headed down – away from excellence.

Real excellence means you never scrimp on training and education. Never. In fact, it is fair to say that training and education is the one place you can’t cut. If you really need to cut, reduce the size of the organization before you reduce the size and scope and breadth of your training and education program; 100 completely trained people are better than 150 partially trained people, no matter what the accountants say.

So, how much is enough training? This is always a good question. The simple answer is that there is no easy answer. But a look at any organization that truly embraces excellence shows that the amount of time spent in training, education and ‘rehearsal’ is usually quite large. It is a fair rule of thumb that training is analogous to communication within your organization: you probably aren’t doing enough.

A good example is flight training in the US military. Initial flight training for a Navy (or Army, Marine or Air Force) pilot lasts more than a year, after which the pilot reports to a ‘replacement squadron’ where he will receive training in the particular type of aircraft he is going to fly (let us assume it is an FA-18, but the process applies to every type of aircraft in the US military). Once he has finished training at this squadron, and roughly two years after he was commissioned, he will report to his first operational squadron. Once in that squadron he will continue training, both individual training and training as a unit, that lasts more than a year, before he is allowed to lead a section (two) of aircraft on a mission. After three years in that operational squadron the pilot will be transferred to a training squadron as an instructor. Following two years as an instructor the pilot will either go back to an operational squadron or he may spend two years on a staff of one type or another. If he spends two years on a staff he will then return to the fleet in his next tour, but only after he spends three to four months in refresher training in the ‘replacement squadron.’ In fact, every time that pilot returns to ‘flight status’ after a year or two on a staff, he will spend several months in flight ‘refresher ‘ training.

I have a friend who is has just received his third star, and has literally thousands of hours flying fighters. He has been in the service for 30 years. He is en route to his three star command after two years in Washington. He will receive refresher training despite the fact that he is one of the most talented and experienced fighter pilots in the US military. He will also receive months of prepatory briefs and lectures on everything from the various organizations that make up his new command to concerns of higher headquarters, issues and concerns from the parallel organizations of the other services, etc. In short, the military believes, in most cases, that the required amount of training to achieve excellence is very high indeed. It’s not a case of how much training can we afford; it’s a case of how much training represents the minimum to ensure excellence.

Ask yourself this question: how many Fortune 500 executives, with 30 years or more experience in their industry, have received 3 or 4 months of training and education prior to moving to a new slot as president of a major division? How many might have benefited from the opportunity to study the organization and the industry and the economy and the surrounding technology for several months, and then spent a month or so thinking about what they have learned and how it might best be applied? How much would the entire organization benefit if each new president or vice president spent some time learning about the industry and technology and then thinking about how to apply what they’ve learned before they jump into ‘the driver’s seat?’

The same questions can and should be asked at every echelon within the organization.

If you are still not convinced, ask yourself this: who is the greatest golfer in the world? Answer, Tiger Woods. Who is the greatest tennis player? Roger Federer. And what do they do when they aren’t playing golf or tennis? They practice. They review their game, they work to maintain and improve their conditioning. They study. They are the very best. And they work harder at it than anyone else. Great surgeons are no different: they don’t, despite what the movies or TV shows may show, go home and have a double martini. Rather, they spend evenings reading journals on new procedures or new ways to execute old procedures. Long before the AMA instituted mandatory refresher training they were regularly attending seminars and conferences in order to improve their techniques and their results. And despite what Hollywood likes to show, the greatest surgeons aren’t 35 or even 45 years old, they’re all in their 50s or older because they have taken years to study and refine their craft, blending science and art into true excellence.

The third and last step is investing in your people. Buy them the right tools, give them the best resources you can to accomplish the tasks at hand.

This is really an extension of training, ensuring that the training is the very best available, focusing on training, education and practice with the very best equipment and facilities available. This will include ensuring that your people have access to changes and developments in new technologies and techniques and that the trainers are always being retrained.

One of the reasons the US was so successful in air warfare in World War II (and continues to be so) was that the US made a point of pulling the very best pilots out of combat and returning them stateside and making them instructors. These top pilots then instructed new pilots in the most effective tactics, techniques and procedures to ensure they were the best-trained pilots AS A WHOLE as they entered combat. The result was that while there were individuals in the German and Japanese air and naval air forces who were very talented, the average US pilot by 1943 was a considerably better pilot than the average German or Japanese pilot and that difference continued to grow through the end of the war. In short, US leadership committed to long-term excellence by investing the best pilots in training, rather than focusing on short-term gains.

The US then put these highly trained pilots in the best aircraft we could make. Throughout the war the US invested substantial amounts of money in developing and improving a continuous stream of new aircraft, each one an improvement on the last. Lessons learned in design, in manufacturing and in maintenance were incorporated into each new model to improve the final output. Mistakes were made and the industry learned from those as well. By 1944 US aircraft were, on the whole, the best in the world.

The implications for any organization are simple and clear: your best people not only need continual training – like everyone else, your very best also need to spend time training others, providing them the benefit of their experiences. Those that worry that taking your best (fill in the blank: salesman, engineer, secretary, pilot, etc.) out of the operational unit and putting them in training as an instructor means you lose that production are thinking short term. Excellence is only obtained by long-term thinking and long-term investment. No excellence is obtained with a short-term effort.

Resources also include technology, and technology is a tool. Walk into a master craftsman’s tool shed and look around. You will usually find a wonderful mélange of new and old technologies: the latest saws and plains, laser levels, etc., mixed with wood chisels, mallets and handsaws. What you won’t find is any tools that are of low quality. A master will use all his skill and experience in selecting his tools. Few if any get terribly wrapped up in either technology for technology’s sake or in avoiding technology because ‘the old ways are better.’ Their focus is on the end product. If a new saw with electronic sensors ensures a more accurate cut, then they will use. If not, they won’t. Think of Norm Abram of New Yankee Workshop. The same is true whether you are talking about a master welder, a great surgeon, or a top salesman: they recognize new technologies as tools that help them do their jobs, not as threats to their position.


Obviously, most companies or organizations can’t afford the level of expenditures of the Navy or Air Force in training pilots. But what they can do is clearly and publicly commit to selecting the best and then training and resourcing their people. They must Commit to Excellence. Stop worrying about quarterly returns and recognize that the greatest capital investment you can make is in your people and their talents. To those who respond that investing in people will only result in people jumping ship and taking their talents to a competitor there are two answers: first, some people will leave after receiving your training, but that can’t be helped. But, second, the reason that your organization is turning out excellent people who will be hired by your competitors is that your organization is more than a training program: it is the complete ‘package:’ an organization that can recruit among the very best, because your organization has vision and passion and embraces excellence. If there is no commitment to excellence no matter how much money is invested in your training program it will only turn out an average ‘product.’ But, if you commit to excellence, if you provide real leadership, if you have a clear goal and a clear vision, then you don’t need to worry about those who leave, or about your competitors, because great leadership and a commitment to excellence will mean success.


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