Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Back to Basics: The Key to Improving Performance

After many years of working with organizations in different industries on a variety of issues, I have discovered that the most common reason for performance falling short of expectations is a lack of attention to the basics.  I have seen numerous initiatives fail because of misalignment between, or inconstancy within, a company's purpose, values, objectives, and reward systems.

Consider the following objectives:
  • Improve EBITDA by 20% over the next two years;
  • Achieve compounded double-digit revenue growth each year for the next five years;
  • Introduce 5 new products to the market next year.
In each of the above examples, the organizations failed to achieve the stated objectives.  This was not because of a lack of talent or desire to meet the goals.  In each case, managers responsible for the objectives felt extreme pressure to succeed but were handcuffed by the problems related to trust, teamwork, reward systems, and overall company focus.

An organization cannot perform at a level beyond its capabilities for a sustained period of time - and its capabilities are determined by the basics.  Setting objectives that are beyond capabilities will do little more than create frustration or apathy among those assigned the responsibility to meet them.  You can challenge, pressure, or cheer as much as you want but unless you deal with the fundamental roadblocks to success, you will end up sorely disappointed.

In sports, it's common for individuals and teams to address a slump by getting back to the basics.  In tennis for example, correcting poor performance requires thinking about footwork, watching the ball, and focusing on each point.  Attempts to ascend to a new level of performance will be fruitless without mastering these basic aspects of the game.

Getting Back to the Basics

Addressing the fundamental issues in an organization can take several different paths depending on the company's situation, but generally involves the five areas listed below.
  • Reaffirm & Recommit to the Purpose:  Assure that the organization's purpose - including mission and vision - is absolutely clear.  Obtain commitment to the purpose at all levels and develop objectives that support its achievement;
  • Clarify & Commit to the Values:  Define the company's DNA and assure that the hiring process includes some type of assessment to assure candidates possess the desired values.  It is important to understand that, regardless of how successful an individual appears to be performing - if he or she does not follow the same values as the rest of the organization, damage will occur;
  • Align Focus on the Customer:  In relation to the purpose, assure that everything the organization does is focused on the customer.  As Gene Perkins, retired Group Vice President-Flow Products at Emerson Electric Company once said to his management team, "if we're not thinking about the customer first in everything we do, we might as well fold up our tents and go home;"
  • Increase Understanding of the System:  Especially at the management level, people must understand the company's overall system (i.e., how the company serves the customer) and work to continually improve how materials and information flow through the system.  Managers must be company-focused rather than functionally-focused;"
  • Align Measures & Rewards with Direction:  Once the direction and focus has been established, make absolutely sure that there is close alignment between them and the reward systems in the organization.  Be continually on the lookout for rewards that may encourage undesirable behavior.
It is very easy for an organization to stray from the above areas.  There is often so much going on and everyone is so busy that it is easy to be distracted with internal issues that do not tend to be as glamorous as improving EBITDA by 20% or achieving double-digit revenue growth.  Without a strong foundation on which to build the business, however, achieving and sustaining any type of significant improvement will not happen.


Tim McMahon said...

Nice piece Gregg. It is important to focus on the process to get the results and the results. You can't manage the outcome but you can the means to get there.

I am going to highlight this on my Lean roundup this month.

A Lean Journey Blog

Greg said...

I liked this article. Especially the quote from Gene Perkins. I don't think we can reiterate enough about the basics.

In my experience it seems like less experienced professionals just don't know the basics; while the veterans 'assume' that the basics will be taken care of, everyone agrees on them, and that discussing them just slows down progress.

dmk1 said...

I agree, especially with staying focused on the customer. I see this escaping people's attention so often, to the point where when someone mentions the customer's point of view, there is confusion and frustration. Having enough people in an organization who can see things from the customer's point of view is so valuable.