Thursday, August 27, 2009

Instituting Excellence - Part 2

In the previous article I talked about how to ensure that you have the best possible people on your team, and discussed the three key steps in that process: selection, training and investment. In this article I will talk about the organizational processes needed to sustain organizational excellence over time.

Let’s begin by assuming that you have instituted the three keys steps outlined previously to ensure that you have the very best people in your organization: you have selected the very best, you have established a comprehensive training and education program for your people, and you have given them the best resources and technology available to both practice with and to operate with on a day-to-day basis. Let’s also assume that you, as the leader, are doing what you should be doing to provide the necessary guidance and motivation to your people both individually and collectively.

In part 1 I discussed training and education as central to achieving and maintaining excellence. Training and education must be considered in three separate categories: individual/short-term training and education, component and short and medium term training and education, and organizational/long-term education and training. The first two: individual and component training and education were addressed in the part 1, and reflect training and education provided to individuals and to smaller elements of an organization, whether it be an individual department of a company, a separate production or service facility, an individual command in the military or any other organization that functions on a day-to-day and week-to-week operational level.

Organizational excellence then, as opposed to the individual excellence that was discussed in part 1, builds on individual and component excellence and extends that excellence both across the entire organization, and extends it out in time, making it a true long-term (multiple year) effort. Training and education give way to large-scale exercises, where the entire organization is forced to integrate around long-term goals and function as a cohesive unit to achieve long-term - that is strategic goals.

What then remains must be done, in addition to what was discussed in part 1 to ensure that you build on the individual and component excellence begun in part 1 and both achieve and sustain organizational excellence in your overall, strategic endeavors?

There are three key steps are necessary to instituting excellence in your organization over time, and they are necessary irrespective of what you are doing. The three steps are: Planning, Leadership Selection, and Exercises


Planning, when carried out properly, is a means to identify the major goals of any organization and develop a plan to reach those goals, using the complete assets -- human, financial, intellectual, technological and physical – of the organization to achieve those goals. Properly constructed and executed, a (strategic) plan not only integrates all the actions of the organization, ensuring that each contributes to achieving the major goals, but it also makes it clear how the organization intends to achieve the goal or goals.

Unfortunately, planning has a bad reputation among many, and in some cases it is deserved. But it is deserved because people place the emphasis on the wrong elements of the plan. There are three major perspectives on planning and plans: those who view planning as a means to get ‘the cook-book’ to success; those who view plans as something to be feared because they will turn into ‘dogma’ and will handcuff the organization into a rigid course ahead; and those who view planning as a means to focus an organization on a long-range goal while still providing the flexibility to address short and medium term problems and take advantage of emerging opportunities.

The fact is that any plan can be turned into ‘dogma’ by a leadership that has invested heavily in the planning and finds itself, usually due either to excessive fear or hubris, unable or unwilling to change the plan. Alternatively, plans can become ‘security blankets’ for the timid, something to ‘hide behind,’ the plan being regarded as an instruction book that will be followed irrespective of whatever is happening, allowing the leadership to disengage.

A story from the German General Staff (the source of all modern strategic planning) from the mid 1800s is illustrative of how the staff process is supposed to work: a staff officer was receiving a tongue lashing from Prince Frederick Charles because of a tactical blunder in a major army field exercise. The officer, a major, offered the excuse that he had been obeying orders and that an order from a superior was equivalent to an order from the King. The Prince responded that ‘His Majesty made you a major because he believed you would know when NOT to obey orders.’

This is as true today as ever: staff planners should be chosen because they are the best available, and they need to understand not only when to follow the plan, but also when to deviate from the plan. The job of the senior leadership, as we shall discuss below, is to identify the staff planners.

When the planning process is used properly, planning, and the planning staff that produces the plan, is a mechanism for institutionalizing sustained identification of strategic goals and identifying a means to achieve those goals. If used properly, this is the cornerstone of sustained organizational strategic excellence.

In organizations throughout history that have been led by truly great figures, as long as that great figure leads the organization, the organization survived and thrived, based on the leaders exceptional leadership skills. The planning process, when executed properly, can substitute for the great leader, providing organizational focus through the planning process, integrating every aspect and individual of the organization – from the executive staff to the newest and most junior worker - into a single, cohesive organism. How does it do this? Simply put, the process demands top down focus on the goals; it ensures needed assets are identified to meet the goals; it identifies the specific tasks needed to achieve the goals, breaking the whole into manageable pieces; it identifies the needed support and infrastructure; it develops a communications and feedback mechanism to follow progress; and it identifies the needed people and skills to achieve each task.

Planning, when done properly, integrates the goals of the organization into its very fabric. It aligns all the pieces – and the people - and focuses them on the overarching goals. And to ensure that that remains true, good planning begins with selection of the very best people into the planning staff. These people are trained in the planning process and then given access to the best possible information concerning the organization and the various environments within which it operates (physical, technological, political, etc.). As planners these people are free to study and focus on the organization as a whole and where it is, where it is headed and how it might get there. They engage in rigorous planning, always conscious, as good planners must be, that they are dealing with incomplete information. And how does the system compensate for the incomplete knowledge? By taking the very best people in the organization and placing them on the planning team: individual excellence and experience fills the gaps that will develop in the plan.

Leadership Selection

Once the organizational leadership selected the members of the planning staff it is incumbent on that senior leadership to ensure that these people, who are now the best informed people in the organization and the ones with the most familiarity with the course into the future, are placed in positions of authority to both facilitate the execution of the plan and to identify which ones are ready more greater authority (promotion). This process of identifying the best people you have, assigning them to the planning staff, and then moving them to key leadership positions is not a rapid move. Rather, as conditions permit, they should remain on the planning staff a minimum of several years. During that period they will be used, in addition to their duties on the planning staff, to lead special projects that arise from time to time, and if your organization permits it, to lead key elements of the organization through exercises.

The planning staff’s function, in a nutshell, is to assist the leadership of the organization in the initial planning, in the directing, in the assessing and monitoring, and in the integration and coordination of the various elements or components of the organization, as well as providing feedback to the leadership to ensure the leadership’s direction is as accurate and effective as possible. Given this requirement, it is clear that these must be the best people in the organization.

Senior leadership should also use exercises to identify planners/future leaders who are capable of improvising the plan to achieve maximum short and medium term results while still ensuring progress on long-term goals.

During exercises the planners should be assigned to a higher position then one they would normally be considered for. This allows the senior leaders to begin to identify the maximum level of authority that that individual is capable of handling. These exercises, as well as the opportunities to lead various special projects, at the same time provide the planners with valuable feedback as to the efficacy of the plan and facilitate the development of branch plans and sequels, keeping the plan up-to-date and focused on the real organizational goals while remaining ‘in contact’ with the real world.


Exercises are used to test elements of the plan. Obviously, while there are some organizations that can easily use exercises to guide their organizations (large military organizations are obvious examples), there are many organizations, particularly those in the corporate world, where it is difficult to imagine using exercises to improve their performance and chart their future, both because of the degree of difficulty in creating a exercise that would accurately ‘model’ a particular industry, and because it would be both difficult and expensive to pull a number of people away from real operations and have them spend adequate time on the exercise to draw accurate conclusions. (While this will eventually change as computer modeling improves, it is still quite a few years away.)

The answer to such organizations is the desktop ‘game’ or seminar. Even in the most complex service organizations the use of organized seminars, and talking through the corporate plans when faced with a series of ‘what if’ questions, will give the leadership considerably more preparation and flexibility in a real crisis then if this type of activity is not pursued. For the planning team to spend two afternoons per month with the executive team working through a series of ‘what ifs’ and then bringing the executive comments back into the planning sessions, reviewing the plans, and further refining branches and sequels would go a long way to keeping the plan alive and focused and the organization, from the executive staff to the rank and file, on the ‘same page.’ This also gives the executive staff more time and opportunity to evaluate the members of the planning staff, a key element of the quest for excellence.

Exercises provide the leadership both the opportunity to evaluate key elements of the plan as well as creating an opportunity for the senior leadership to observe the planners and develop qualitative assessments of their key people – the planners. The senior leadership should be looking for those people who can provide superior performance at the operations level of the organization, can produce high-quality long-range plans, and can also provide superior strategic level leadership and decision-making.

It should also be clear by now that it is essential to not withhold your best from the planning staff. The planning staff is so important if you wish to institute excellence your very best people must be pulled from your operational units and placed into your planning staff at the appropriate times.

In Conclusion

It should go without saying that, just as there must be an investment in individual training and individual technology, that investment must be extended across the organization as a whole and integrated so that the technology in each component is supportive an interoperable with the technology in other components. This investment in technology and training is included in the investment discussed in part 1, but must be sized to ensure that there is the necessary interoperability and sufficient assets to include the large scale exercises discussed above. Thus six key elements are necessary to provide comprehensive and sustained organizational excellence:

1) Selecting the best available people
2) Providing these people the best possible education and training
3) Investing in these people and components to ensure they have the best possible mix of technologies and the most comprehensive component training and exercises, and that these technologies are interoperable
4) Developing comprehensive, integrated long-range (strategic) plans
5) Using of the planning process and the planning staff to cull the organization for the most creative and talented leadership
6) Using large-scale, across the board exercises to both test and refine the plan and to better identify the next generation of leadership within the organization

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.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Lessons from Captain Herreshoff

I had the opportunity to visit the Herreshoff Marine Museum in Bristol RI recently, and I highly recommend it to anyone who has any interest in boats, yachting, marine architecture or simply the latter half of the 19th and first half of the 20th century.

The museum provides a wonderful insight into a fascinating figure of American history, Nathanael Green Herreshoff, and can teach some valuable lessons on leadership. For those who don’t know, Herreshoff was one of the preeminent naval architects of his age, and with is brother’s business genius, ran one of the most successful yacht yards in history, turning out a long line of successful and innovative yachts, as well as the US Navy’s first torpedo boats.

What is of note is Herreshoff’s success is due to a few characteristics that are essential for any great leader.

Intelligent – Herreshoff was unquestionably a very intelligent man who studied his profession endlessly, eventually mastering every facet of the design and construction of yachts. This included the Herreshoff yard making their own bronze fixtures, designing their own engines and cutting and sewing their own sails, never mind the designing and building of the hull of the yacht.

Herreshoff experimented with a wide range of designs and concepts, including such items as the self stowing (folding propeller), the first patent on a catamaran, developing a technique to splice wire to rope, a number of techniques to build lighter and stronger wooden hulls, the first fin keels and the first bulb ballast on a fin keel. In all he designed more than 2000 yachts to include five that defended the America’s Cup. This list is by no means complete.

Focused – Herreshoff focused on his design and construction work. Herreshoff understood yachts and ship design. He did not understand all the ins and outs of business. Nor did he spend time trying to master it. Instead, he remained focused, throughout his 72-year career as a naval architect, on mastering every facet of ship and yacht design and construction. The results speak for themselves, from the long list of innovations to the long list of successful designs and the incredible number of designs that are still being used. But ‘Captain Nat’ was not a businessman nor did he try to be. Thankfully he had his brother John. There is a lesson here for many innovators and entrepreneurs: it isn’t necessary that you know how to run your business; it is necessary that you find someone you can trust who can manage your business. Together the Herreshoff Brothers were an incredibly successful team and each focused on and played to their own strength. If either had tried to succeed on their own neither would have been the success they became together.

Uncompromising on his vision – Finally, Herreshoff knew what was the right answer in his designs and was uncompromising in pursuing the answer. The results, represented in the long line of fast and very successful yacht (and torpedo boat and motor launch designs) are self-evident. Again and again he would develop a new approach to an old problem in order to save weight, provide greater strength with the same weight, develop an easier means to do something so that the overall result was faster or easier, etc. This led to a wide range of additional designs in various pieces of boating gear, such as various types of winches and fasteners that were lighter or smaller or easier to use. At the same time, it is fair to say that his brother’s business acumen, and his ability to successfully argue with his brother, guaranteed them both a great deal of financial success. His brother was, in his own way, as uncompromising as was ‘Captain Nat.’

In the end, this commitment to excellence and his drive for ever faster and more capable yachts advanced the entire naval design industry, and we have all benefited in various ways, small and large, from his efforts.

71 years after his death it is also fair to say that you can mention the name Herreshoff to virtually any naval architect anywhere in the world (and many sailors and yachtsmen) and you will get an instantaneous response, usually accompanied with a smile as they remember their favorite Herreshoff design. In doing so, they are both saluting a fascinating figure and recognizing the characteristics of one of the leading figures in the history of naval architecture, and a worthy example for anyone, afloat or ashore, who is interested in truly leading his or her industry.