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Winning Again – The Challenge of Ongoing Excellence

When I heard Mike Forde, former Director of Operations, at Chelsea FC, speak at a CQI conference a few years ago, I was particularly interested to hear his talk “Tackling Efficiency – Scouting for Success”.

Forde spoke about the importance of adapting and analysing performance in a business where more than 75% of wages are spent on less than 10% of the workforce, return on investment is crucial, effective methods to create a world-class team, working in a high-pressure environment, and recognising, developing and retaining top talent.

In the course of his presentation, he referred to a study which explored the effects of success on athletes who reached the top of their sport.  The study talks about how the initial journey to win a world or Olympic medal is relatively similar for all athletes.

In-depth interviews were conducted with 17 world champion athletes, representing 7 different sports and 4 different countries with international wins spanning a 25-year period.

The results indicated that athletes who became the best in their sport, subsequently experienced additional demands, with most receiving little or no assistance in dealing with them.  While approximately one-third of the athletes coped well and continued to win, the remaining two-thirds did not – in fact they either never repeated their winning performance or took a significant amount of time to do so.

I was struck that something very similar often happens with organisations that embark upon improvement projects, Operational Excellence, or Continuous Improvement programmes.

  • An individual or small group of people are identified to learn about improvement tools and methods
  • A company is selected to train them
  • The people return to the workplace and embark upon a project


Making your project a success

Personal Drive

There’s no doubt about it, that people who have passion and fire in their bellies to make a change and achieve results through applying the tools and methods have a greater chance of success with their first improvement project.


Leadership Support

The most successful change agents have sponsorship and leadership who provide guidance and support.  If resistance or barriers are encountered, then the sponsor plays a vital role in keeping the project on track and the enthusiasm for what they are trying to achieve.


Tools and Methods

There’s no point handing a footballer a pair of ballet shoes and asking them to ‘get on with it’.  The same is true for you.  Understanding of, and access to, the right tools and methodology are crucial for you to accomplish project success.  For example, if you want to understand what causes variation in your process, you need to know how to use and interpret a Control Chart.


Influencing Skills

It is essential to understand the psychology of change, and the ability to influence is often the most vital of skills at their disposal.  It will make the difference between bringing the team and the people in the workplace with you or leaving a trail of dissatisfied colleagues who do not buy into the new principles of working you are trying to establish.


Be a Realist

If the first project you embark upon is a ‘fix the world’ problem, something people have continually struggled with over for years, it’s highly unlikely you’re going to fare any better than your predecessors.  If you can answer ‘yes’ to these questions/statements about your project, you’re likely to be on the right track.

  • Is this doable over a 4-6 month period?
  • Are you addressing an issue that is important to your organisation and gives sufficient dissatisfaction?
  • Does it give you, with your sponsor’s support, the authority to change?
  • Can you put together a small, carefully selected team (3-7 people) to investigate, work on, and implement solutions – not merely recommend solutions?

For the majority of people, their Lean Six Sigma training helps them answer these questions, which means that most organisations that invest in improvement training do get a degree of success at first.  They get their first ‘Gold Medal’.


Do results begat results?

You would think that this first result would be enough to drive them to go on and achieve further results, and ongoing excellence.

However, much like two-thirds of the athletes, many change agents get little or no assistance in dealing with future demands on them.

We hear all kinds of reasons why people were unable to sustain the momentum including:

“I was required to get on with my day job”

“We launched a huge improvement or change programme with little resource, authority or budget to support it and it just eventually died a death”

“We couldn’t agree where to start next; not everyone thought it had been a success”.

Some do have another go at some point in the future, often because a new crisis has come along which provides the burning platform for them to reinvigorate their drive, and get leadership support and authority.

This is not a vision for sustainable success and improvement.


Sustaining Ongoing Excellence – Staying Thirsty

We can’t deny the evidence that sustaining ongoing excellence requires a continuous level of dedication and commitment.

A thirst for understanding how what you do today is going to enable you to be more successful than yesterday, whether you are an athlete or a change agent.

We also need to acknowledge that some success may result in complacency, a sense that once you’ve achieved a result, you don’t need to keep trying.

This complacency is a guarantee of future failure.


How do you sustain improvement, transformation, and success?

Here are some themes for you to consider for ongoing excellence:

  1. Transformation is a team event!
    You can’t do it alone.  You need the leadership commitment to sponsor and support your improvements, whether they are project-based or continuous and every day.  Think about running a leadership workshop to get buy-in and understanding up front.
  2. Keep it real.
    Use your tools and methods to repeat success.  Don’t just trust in your instinct.  You need data and evidence of how the work is performing to begin to improve it.  The best athletes video themselves and analyse every step of their performance; they understand precisely how they use their bodies, and how they use their equipment.  Warren Knight, in his blog I didn’t tell you because you didn’t ask, referred to a customer he once worked with where each process operator was invited to video themselves whilst they worked and review it with their teammates.  What methods do you have to create that depth of understanding in your organisation about how the work is done?
  3. Challenge your thinking every day.
    What can you learn from others?  What can you learn from outside your organisation?  I heard a great story recently from a rail company that had visited a Formula 1 team in their quest to reduce their fuel bills.  As a result, they have implemented their regenerative braking technology.  Who knew there could be a link between F1 and trains?
  4. Context is king.
    Initiatives and enthusiasm are great, but they need to be accompanied by understanding your audience and bringing them with you, so they understand what you are trying to achieve and the part you want them to play.  They need to understand the context.  One customer was recently thrilled to learn that we would cover 5S in their training course.  He has been carrying around a 5S card for months; he has been told by his company that it is essential he keeps it with him, but he didn’t know what 5S was!
  5. If in doubt, ask yourself 3 questions.
    What are we trying to accomplish?  How will we know that a change is an improvement?  What changes can we make that will result in improvement?  Use PDSA throughout.  If you know the answers to the 3 questions, and you continue to ask them, you will achieve results and ongoing excellence.
  6. Find a coach or mentor that you trust.
    The world’s top athletes, sports professionals, and business leaders have a coach who works with them to achieve their full potential – even when things get tough!  Coaching is about challenging you to think deeper; it helps you to understand your strengths, how to use them and how others see them. Think about who might be a good mentor.  Is there someone in your business who has skills and expertise you can learn from, and draw on their knowledge?


Be relentless – hard work is the key to success

The thing that distinguishes one performer from another is how hard they work.

Of course, talent and a little bit of luck along the way will always help, but you can’t beat the fact that practice makes perfect, as psychologist K Anders Ericsson discovered when they analysed amateur pianists with professionals.

“The emerging picture from studies is that ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert – in anything.”  Daniel Levitin, Neurologist.

Sport, music, and business transformation – they are all the same.  Ongoing excellence requires a critical minimum level of practice.


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