Why Excellence has Lost its Meaning. And How to Fix It.

4 Ways to Build a Culture of Quality in Everything You Do

Photo by Kyle Glenn on Unsplash

“Be a yardstick of quality. Some people aren’t used to an environment where excellence is expected,” Steve Jobs advised on the importance of maintaining high standards. And yet, these words — excellence and quality — have become so relentlessly overused and misapplied that they’ve largely become meaningless. With every company that promises a commitment to quality while selling marginal products, the notion of excellence becomes diluted. With every organization that claims to prioritize excellence, yet rewards employees for contrasting behaviors, we further distance these words from their meanings and the ideals that they represent.

If you look on the Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) Company website, it’ll say that quality and safety are top priorities. They promise that every one of their employees is guided by their Company pledge:

I always put safety first.

I look for and act to resolve unsafe situations.

I help and encourage others to act safely.

Which all sounds good. And for a company of over 20,000 employees that services millions of electrical and natural gas customers, it’s a critical pursuit.

Except for the fact that PG&E was recently accused of neglecting it’s aging power line and tower infrastructure — the result of which caused a deadly fire that destroyed the town of Paradise and killed 85 people.

Further reviews showed that this wasn’t a one-time aberration. In a 2017 internal presentation, the company identified that while the mean life expectancy of their transmission towards is 65 years, the average age of their towers in the field is 68 years, with the oldest having been up for more than a century. Overall, the company seemed content to address those repairs that it considered to be highest risk, while adopting a business model of responding to failures.

But…the safety pledge. How could this happen when the website is so clear? How could something like this happen when the company clearly values safety and quality so much?

I suppose that putting some buzzwords and promises on a website doesn’t make it a reality.

It’s relatively easy to put some claims on a website. And it doesn’t take much to throw some motivational posters on the wall or have senior management give some rousing speeches. Yet none of this leads to a culture of excellence. As Ed Catmull wrote,

The question then becomes, for others to attribute these words to us, what would we want them to see? If our company truly embraced a commitment to excellence, how would that show itself?

And based on my experience, the answer comes down to four main methods.

There’s No Gap between Leadership Words and Behaviors

In 1982, seven people died from poisoned Tylenol in the Chicago area. Very quickly in the investigation, it became apparent that the cyanide-laced bottles were not a result of sabotage in production or supply chain, instead caused by someone tampering with the bottles following delivery to the individual stores.

It’s difficult to imagine not having tamper-proof bottles for medicine, but apparently in 1982 it was fairly easy to simply open up a bottle, add some cyanide tablets, and put it back on the shelf.

Johnson & Johnson faced a crisis. They owned 35% of the market and Tylenol was their most profitable product. The tampered products were not a result of company malpractice — relieving the organization of liability. Should they recall all products to ensure the safety of their customers? Was their first duty to use some of those funds to console the affected families? Or should they protect their shareholders and focus on a public relations campaign?

Fortunately, Johnson & Johnson has a Credo: a code originally written in 1943 by chairman Robert Wood Johnson that is literally carved in stone at the company’s headquarters. It begins with the promise that first priority will always be to customers:

Johnson & Johnson quickly performed a nationwide recall of Tylenol, estimated to cost $100 million. And while at the time of the scare, the company’s market share collapsed to 8%, it rebounded within a year — a feat credited to the company’s prompt response and demonstrated commitment to quality.

It’s easy to embrace quality and excellence when everything is going well. But it’s in times of adversity that our true motives become apparent.

Johnson & Johnson’s management had a choice — $100 million or the safety of their customers. They chose to be true to their credo — and demonstrate that the company will stand behind their priorities even in the face of tremendous adversity.

In order to instill a vision and values throughout an organization, leaders must communicate it consistently and effectively. But that’s not enough. Leaders also need to live the vision. They need to consistently demonstrate the values every day — regardless of the situation. When leaders fail to do this — when there’s a gap between what they say and what they do — people quickly become disillusioned over the true priorities of the organization. In the wise words of Norman Vincent Peale,

Good leaders realize that with every action they take, they are setting an example for others. With each decision, they’re either reinforcing a vision of excellence or detracting from it. To develop a culture of quality and excellence, there cannot be a gap between what leaders say and what they do. As the old saying goes,

Every Employee Feels Responsible for Excellence

In the Netherlands, home care nursing practices were algorithmically standardized and prescribed down to the minute. It was a very efficient method of scheduling nurses based on availability and expected need. And the nurses hated it.

So one of them, Jos de Blok, proposed a new method. He suggested that since it’s nearly impossible to predict the exact treatment that each patient will need, they should try just letting the nurses decide.

As a result, Jos found that patients got better in half the time and costs fell by 30%. As Jos described these results to Margaret Heffernan, he said, “Well, I had no idea it could be so easy to find such a huge improvement, because this isn’t the kind of thing you can know or predict sitting at a desk or staring at a computer screen.” And indeed, this method of pushing decision-making down to the individual nurses has now expanded across the Netherlands and around the world.

In Linchpin, Seth Godin cites the words of General Charles Krulak, who theorized that in an age of constant accessibility, the corporal and soldiers in the field would have more leverage than ever before. In Krulak’s words,

The future of our organizations will be in the hands of the people in the field, not the generals back home.

Quality and excellence can only be achieved by the people who actually perform the work. And in order to do this, management needs to give them the freedom to make the right decisions.

In too many companies, we try to proceduralize performance. Management develops step-by-step procedures to ensure that people do their job right, every time.

But preventing errors and demanding compliance are very different than pursuing excellence. For one, there’s something inherently wrong with the business model of hiring bright people, training them extensively, and then telling them that the most important thing is to follow a procedure.

But more importantly, the more that management tries to think for our employees, the less we teach people to think for themselves. And what organization can achieve excellence when only 5% of their people are committed to thinking independently and looking for new opportunities to add value?

One of the defining traits of a company that’s committed to excellence is that employees are free to apply judgment and do what’s right — especially in situations that fall outside the rules.

People need guidelines and training to help them act responsibly. And they need clarity on the company’s vision to act in its best interest. But once these areas are covered, we typically get the best results when decisions are made by those closest to the work.

For people to drive excellence in an organization, they need to own the result. They need to take pride in the fruits of their labor. And it’s much easier to own the result when people can influence the outcome. As Captain L. David Marquet wrote in Turn the Ship Around!,

Standards of Excellence are Applied Consciously and Consistently

When Bill Walsh took over the San Francisco 49ers in 1979, they were a dismal 2–14, and the worst team in the NFL. Three years later, they won the Super Bowl.

Despite a miraculous transformation, there was no miracle epiphany. There was no one major change that led to this turnaround. It was the compilation of thousands of seemingly minor changes.

Walsh implemented Standards of Performance. He instilled discipline and excellence into every moment. Plays were graded down to the inch. Players could not sit down on the practice field. Sportsmanship, cleanliness, and teamwork were primary focuses. As Ryan Holiday describes in Ego is the Enemy,

Most of us consider excellence as some future goal. Something that we aspire to achieve some day. But excellence isn’t an outcome. It’s a process.

Imagine your standards as a physical bar. You set it at a certain height and that’s the level of expectation for both your performance and that of others.

But the bar is rarely fixed. Each action brings the potential to either raise it or lower it. Each choice can either raise or lower those standards for the next time.

Sometimes lowering our standards is necessary. Occasionally we need to lower the bar to meet a conflicting trade-off. But while it may be unavoidable, it should never be unintentional.

Because unless it’s recognized as an intentional departure, it’s unlikely that it’ll ever be corrected in the future.

Most companies that fall into quality issues don’t get there in one large jump. It happens in many small decisions that begin to compound. It happens when each time the bar drops, it normalizes at that new level.

When behaviors happen that lower your standards, are they corrected or allowed to continue for next time?

If people make commitments, even for seemingly trivial requests, do they follow through? Before an employee requests someone’s help, did they at least try to figure it out on their own? Can you see quality and professionalism in everything that people develop, even internal emails?

Is punctuality or tardiness the norm for meetings? Are meetings structured and useful or pointless wastes of peoples’ time? When people disagree on a topic, is there a healthy debate or unprofessional squabbling?

While meeting punctuality and email professionalism may seem like minor issues, they’re frequently indicative of much greater problems within an organization. If the bar has been lowered for these items, what else has it been lowered for?

We’re either holding up our standards or starting to fall below them. As the great historian Will Durant wrote in his 1926 tome, The Story of Philosophy (and frequently misquoted to Aristotle),

Measurements Incentivize the Right Behavior

What gets measured gets managed,” wrote Peter Drucker in his 1954 book, The Practice of Management. And while he’s right, as he so often is, many companies have ignored Drucker’s concept and turned this into the false corollary of “What can’t be measured isn’t worth managing.”

Which is a problem. Because many of the things that are easy to measure aren’t indicative of a culture of excellence.

It’s easy to measure clicks and attention. It’s much more difficult to measure work that has a meaningful impact.

It’s easy to measure the size of someone’s social network. It’s more difficult to measure the depth of a relationship.

Chargeable hours, throughput quantity, quarterly ROI, and minimum specification requirements are all easy things to measure.

But none of them drive a culture that’s built on excellence.

Worse, prioritizing these areas can incentivize people to sacrifice quality in pursuit of superficial metrics.

If you’re focused on minimizing impact to this week’s schedule, you’re less likely to test a long-term process improvement.

If you’re going to be rewarded for how many problems you solve, you’re not incentivized to keep your projects running smoothly in the first place.

And if you’re solely measured on meeting your individual performance goals, there’s little reason to help out your neighbor or invest time in coaching and developing others.

The best indicator of how people will perform is what they’re incentivized to do. And unless incentives align the interests of individuals to the interests of the group as a whole, they’re working against the company’s performance.

What behaviors truly matter to your organization? Are your measurements incentivizing people towards those behaviors or away from them?

When we only focus on what’s easy to measure, we drive focus away from the areas that are not. Which is just about everything that matters most.

Build a Culture of Excellence

When we consider why people act the way that they do, we tend to look at their personality. We look at their individual values and principles and concoct a story that explains their behaviors.

Yet this often ignores the impact of situational pressures. While people will be driven by their own intrinsic values, they’re also heavily driven by their surrounding environment — for better or worse.

I firmly believe that the large majority of people show up at work each day looking to do great work and make a positive impact. It’s then up to management to make sure that they have an environment to be successful.

Many companies have recently come out with empowerment initiatives — programs designed to encourage people to take ownership and perform high quality work. Yet I can’t help but wonder if the only reason that these companies need to empower people is because they’ve previously disempowered them.

Put another way, how would you feel if someone told you that they were going to empower you?

The good news is that if I’m right, and most people want to deliver excellent work, the act of encouraging it is less about motivating people and more about avoiding behaviors that will demotivate them.

Make sure leadership consistently demonstrates the company vision. Drive ownership and decision-making to the working level. Apply standards of excellence consistently and consciously. And make sure that measurements and incentives reinforce the right behaviors.

None of that is complicated. But it does require intent. It requires hard choices.

And most importantly, it requires that we stop thinking of excellence as a consequence and start seeing it as a prerequisite. It requires that we make quality a mindset that influences every alternative that we consider before any decision or any action. Until it becomes a defining characteristic of everything that we do.

Thanks, as always, for reading. This is by no means an all-encompassing list, so if you have other suggestions, please feel free to chime in and start a conversation. Cheers!

I might be a top writer. It depends on the week.

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