This article takes a critical look at the idea of formalising Business Excellence, a counter-example from industry, and concludes that rather than waiting for yet another framework, many managers are already in a position to take positive action.
One size fits all, silver bullet, best practice, panacea… the list goes on. Over time we have seen many over-embellished fads go the way of snake oil, yet again and again businesses continue to be attracted by promises of the easy fix. There is little reason to think that the “universal solution” is any more than a recipe for mediocrity. Perhaps if the starting point is utter chaos, then mediocrity looks like a better place to be, but rarely would mediocrity be an appropriate business goal.
Business Excellence has no recipe
While businesses can learn from a diagnostic, I do not believe in any prescriptive framework or model for Business Excellence. Sure, certain patterns of behaviours and practices might indicate that a business is on the right long-term track, but there is seldom any evidence that the efficacy of those practices is universal. How could there be? What two businesses are the same? And yet efforts to “copy” what others do continue, seemingly unabated.
An important step on the journey to Business Excellence is a mental one. Rather than looking for the “best way”, instead one learns to look for “better ways”. A prescriptive framework or model tends to imply the first mode of thinking, and likely shallow thinking. Any “best” method is implicitly static, which is the antithesis to continuous improvement.
Where does excellence come from if not from a prescriptive framework? Can this kind of thinking emerge spontaneously? I recently observed what appeared to be a business leader “looking for better ways”, and with their permission, I share this counter-example. Apart from some general advice to direct more attention to employee development, all of this was outside the scope of our engagement with the business.
EC Group is a growing provider of electrical and controls services in New South Wales. One of the owners, Chris Kacperski, needed to find work for employees during a quiet period. This was not in itself a unique situation, and the unevenness of demand has seen brief secondment arrangements with other electrical firms, but not this time. Instead, Chris arranged for an employee to spend one month calibrating air-conditioning systems. The rationale was that while the work was starkly different, it was related — The calibration of an air-conditioning system necessarily takes place after all the wiring work that it depends on.
Was this somehow unique? We have seen inter-organisational visits along supply chains in automotive contexts, with the workers of suppliers identifying better ways to package components for final assembly[ref?]. The difference here, and something that I had not seen before, is that the employee secondment was independent of contractual lines, instead following workflow lines (see below). The air-conditioning and electrical subcontractors are independent entities on a building site, and their only connection is that the work of one depends on the work done by the other.
These were two independent firms, but what also comes to mind is the workflows that span across multiple internal departments of larger organisations. I have seen departments struggling with ineffective workflows in isolation, and it needs to be said that these are not always just a matter of knowledge availability (e.g. bad performance management practices are another frequent cause or exacerbating factor). In any case, it is no surprise that inter-departmental secondments are recognised as a method of spreading knowledge around an organisation. But did they work in this particular situation?
Was this really a case of Business Excellence?
Recalling my rather wordy Business Excellence definition, the relevant phrase is: “… integrating rather than compromising between the interdependent interests of customers, employees and the business”
This was examined in a brief interview with Chris.
Marcin: Tell me about the business rationale of sending your employee over to work in air conditioning.
Chris: We always spoke about doing it. And there was a quiet period, an opportunity, and it kind of just happened. The obvious reason is the knowledge that these [A/C] guys have of how the system works, they’re the last ones there. If it doesn’t get past them, then it’s going to come back to us to fix it up. These [A/C] guys can teach our guys how the system works, so when they go back to doing their job, for example, they’ll know where to install a pressure transducer for it to work properly. Whereas a normal sparkie will be like “yeah, whack it in here somewhere”, now you’d expect him to go “well if I put it in this area of the duct, it will work better”, knowing how these [A/C] guys read it. And he’ll learn the importance of, you know, when these [A/C] guys go to turn on a pump, and it’s going the wrong way, they go “**** it’s going the wrong way” and can’t do their job, now he knows how important it is for him to get it right, test it and make sure it’s going the right way, so these guys don’t come back and say “mate, it’s going the wrong way”.
Marcin: So the business importance is that work doesn’t come back to you?
Chris: That’s one thing. But then also, if he was doing the programming, understanding how the system works better through these [A/C] guys will help the programming side of things. There’s a whole range of things.
Marcin: And this benefits the air-conditioning guys as well?
Chris: Yes, if we’re doing the job.
Marcin: How about your customers, what is the benefit for them?
Chris: If we [electrical & air-conditioning] can work better together, then its fewer headaches for them. Actually, I told one of our customers that we did it, and he asked “will you do that with our apprentices?”
Marcin: So the customers want to get involved as well?
Chris: Yes. It hasn’t eventuated yet, but they’ve obviously got technicians that service the stuff we install.
This left the question of whether this was in the interests of the employee. While I wanted to hear from him first hand, I decided that this might not be appropriate. Instead, I probed Chris on the topic:
Marcin: What was in it for your employee?
Chris: Knowledge. They’re learning. And he changed his daily routine, so instead of his daily electrical thing, for a month he did something different. It could lead him to other careers, and gives him an idea of what else is out there. Maybe it gives him more job satisfaction, I don’t know.
Marcin: Wasn’t it a bit much to send them into a completely different job?
Chris: I did prep him, I had a discussion with him, and told him “I know its not part of your field, but I think you will find it interesting”. He said “yeah, no worries”. He was happy with it. I called him half-way through it as well to see how he was going, and he seemed happy. I got feedback from [the A/C company] and everything was fine.
Marcin: What was your impression of how he felt when he came back?
Chris: Hard to say, I don’t work with him one on one. He seemed happy, but how much emotion does he show, I don’t know.
Marcin: What did you learn through the whole exercise?
Chris: That he’s an intelligent guy. I got feedback that he picked things up really quickly.
Marcin: But why didn’t you see that before?
Chris: It’s much more technical [work], constantly numbers, pressures… Here when someone starts, they’re just getting things from the van, drilling holes…
Marcin: Has it affected how you work with this employee?
Chris: Yeah, probably a bit. We made the decision to put him into a car – one of the factors was getting that feedback.
So far it sounds positive, but I was curious to see where this was going in the long-run.
Marcin: So is this something you want to do more of?
Chris: Yeah we want to do more, definitely, but they [A/C] haven’t been busy lately, so we’re waiting for an opportunity… Others here were asking if they could do it. A tradesman asked, and he said that it would be amazing for even a week.
And there you have it. It sounds to me like a win-win-win outcome and there’s interest in sustaining this practice in the future. But has EC reached the end of their employee development journey? No, at least not yet. This was a single case, and initially driven by business circumstances rather than by the employee themselves. There is some way to go yet but it certainly looks like a step in the right direction.
Returning to the aim of the article, two questions arise:
Do we need a business excellence framework to tell us that secondments can sometimes be a good thing?
I sincerely hope not. EC’s example illustrates that Business Excellence needs no predefined recipe, and can blossom in the absence of specialist intervention. This was something that neither came from a framework, nor from any specific advice. To me, this supports the view that excellence can emerge as well as, if not better than, it can be imposed. From the discussion with Chris it is also clear that an element of leadership is necessary.
Should we treat the practice of secondments as an indicator of business excellence?
Maybe, it depends. If the outcomes are positive for all concerned parties, then we might consider secondments and similar arrangements as an indicator of employee development (with indirect benefits for the organisation). But I hope it is obvious that merely “doing more secondments” does not mean that a company is doing better (also, actually counting them might lead to negative consequences). On the contrary, while a lack of secondments begs the obvious “why not?”, it is in itself not evidence of a problem. Do the employees have other means of development? After all, just as every company is different, so is every profession and every individual, therefore prescribing a blanket “do lots of secondments” would be pure nonsense; context is everything.
We need to keep looking for those better ways of doing things, and as Paula Marshal (CEO, Bama Companies) puts it, we need to “Make it Simple, Make it Easy”. Managers need not wait for a big (read: expensive) framework before taking action on matters of interorganisational or interdepartmental collaboration. Would greater knowledge of interdependent areas benefit your team? Like Chris, you can look around and get in touch with other teams and organisations that your work is related to. If you have a formalised approach to employee development in place, such as the Harada Method, then you already should know who might be interested in a secondment, otherwise it’s time for a chat with your people. Obviously longer arrangements would need to be discussed as a formal secondment, but these are now well recognised.
Finally, even if a practice looks good, avoid mindless copying. There is no recipe for excellence, but as I hope to have illustrated, nor is one necessary.
I would love to hear your examples, and please let me know what you thought about this article by leaving a comment below.
1. ^ Consider what happened with Frederick W. Taylor’s “scientific management”, which has since become the poster-child of autocratic management methods. Why did it catch on? I would argue that, for the times, and by its own criteria of success, it appeared to work. The tangible facets of Taylor’s approach can be seen as an early example of “waste-reduction”, which is now understood to be a domain of change with many quick benefits, or so-called “low-hanging fruit”. But the salient benefits from a change can be misleading. A change with some obvious benefits will tend to “look” like an improvement, regardless of what the broader set of consequences is. Personally, I prefer a broader definition of improvement that considers the indirect and long-term impact. Yes, this requires some extra effort, but the alternative is an uninformed gamble.
2. ^ A relevant analogy here is personal health. A doctor can ascertain whether someone is healthy, and diagnose specific issues affecting their health, especially when they present with particular symptoms. But what universal prescription, beyond something like “eat healthy and exercise” (note the tautology), can be made to help all people to be healthy? Not many that warrant confidence. Similarly, organisations have various circumstances that preclude universal prescriptions from being worthwhile. Instead, by adopting the view that “a system cannot understand itself”, I prefer to take a more investigative approach, such as a targeted Business Excellence diagnostic.
In the present article, I am simply dealing with the polarities of prescriptive and non-prescriptive approaches. One might rightly note that “prescriptiveness” is a matter of degree, and identify semi-prescriptive approaches, or perhaps place them on a scale. I could not find a comprehensive evaluation of the prescriptiveness of the various frameworks and models, so please let me know if you are aware of one. Oddly, most popular frameworks are claimed to be non-prescriptive, and yet a quick look soon reveals that they mandate the use of specific tools, for example benchmarking (for the curious, look up Russell Ackoff’s arguments and examples of how benchmarking is just another dangerous fad).
3. ^ An older example is the first wave of Lean that was derived from the Toyota Production System (TPS). It was well-intended: Observe Toyota’s tools and procedures, and apply them in other companies. Over time (i.e. many failures later) it was recognised that these visible artefacts were a minor detail, and the right mindset was also needed… But even now, Mark Graban observes the persistence of a focus on the tools: “Some organizations misunderstand Lean and think it’s about posting a ton of charts and graphs.”
If you want to know more about the mindset and leadership behind TPS, I suggest reading Taiichi Ohno first hand. Only by doing so can you really get a feel for how warped the transfer of ideas from Toyota has been. For example, see a bit of what he wrote about process documentation here. As for prescriptive approaches, Ohno noted: “You are a fool if you do just as I say. You are a greater fool if you don’t do as I say. You should think for yourself and come up with better ideas than mine.” (p.178)
Ohno, T. 2013, Taiichi Ohno’s Workplace Management, Special 100th Birthday edn, McGraw Hill.
Examining the issue of “copying” the visible tools, John Hunter gives a good tip: “One of the best ways to make sure you don’t just copy practices is to learn from organizations in different fields because then you can’t just copy what they do (normally) you have to think about how to adapt it to your situation.”
Finally, for an introduction to “why” organisations have such a propensity to copy, see the concepts of Mimetic Isomorphism and Legitimacy in this classic:
DiMaggio, P.J. & Powell, W.W. 1983, ‘The iron cage revisited: Institutional isomorphism and collective rationality in organizational fields’, American sociological review, pp. 147-60.
4. ^ Paradoxically, while finding truly optimal solutions for some organisational issues might require super-human thinking, the promises of pre-packaged answers might instead act as thought-terminating clichés. For example, if “X is best practice”, what more is there to think about? If the cliché is believed, the mind jumps straight to the next step, which might be “How much will X cost?” or “How long will X take?”.
5. ^ Early in our work with EC Group we briefly discussed the possibility of introducing a more formalised approach to employee development with the Harada Method. However, at the time this was not a good fit for EC, as the growing operations were fully managed by the directors who lacked the time to take on the additional coaching role. To what degree, if at all, these initial discussions influenced the example in the article is uncertain.
6. ^ The below article provides various definitions and discusses the pros and cons of secondments. Of particular interest here is that despite a generally positive view of them, secondments are not painted as a universal solution to employee development.
7. ^ As for interviewing the employee in question, it would have been inappropriate both ethically and methodologically. (a) I was not able to guarantee them anonymity, so this could create a lot of unwelcome pressure for them. (b) Given the lack of anonymity, if in actuality they had a negative experience, it is unlikely that they would openly share that with me.
8. ^ This talk by Paula Marshal at a recent conference is especially helpful, as it is an account by a business leader who has been on the business excellence journey for some time now.
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