Brexit through the excellence prism

Brexit is an issue that has the potential to impact not only the British and European economies but also the global market. The ongoing uncertainty, after more than 2 years of discussion, debate, and negotiation, will have to end, one way or another, as the deadline of the 29th March looms. Taking a step back, how does Brexit fair when viewed through the excellence prism?

It started with a referendum, a democratic vote. As reasonable starting point and the question put was clear – do you want to Leave or Remain in the EU? In excellence terms, a referendum is basically a perception survey on steroids. And, when we’re assessing a survey, one of the things we check is the sample – who was included? The referendum covered anyone registered to vote in the UK. That means foreign nationals, including EU citizens, living in UK could participate, so long as they were registered to vote.

 
RoboBee

But it excluded the estimated 1 million UK citizens who live and work in the EU, taking advantage of the “freedom of movement” that has been such a bone of contention and which was one of the contributing factors to triggering the referendum in the first place. Not good from an excellent perspective – that’s a relevant stakeholder group which was excluded. However, giving the difference between the “Remain” and “Leave” vote was more than 1 million, even if there had been a 100% turnout (extremely unlikely) AND all of them voted to remain (again, even in this population, extremely unlikely), whilst it might have made the margin closer, the outcome would have been the same.

The campaigns in the run-up to the vote were unlike a “normal election”, where people vote for a candidate based on their policies and the winner is then held accountable by the electorate for delivering against the promises made. In the referendum, the government wanted to remain – pretty easy to keep that promise as it effectively meant “doing nothing”. Who would deliver the “leave” vote wasn’t considered, and that’s been the problem ever since the vote to “leave” was cast.

There’s also the issue of the tactics adopted in the campaign. Probably the most memorable argument from the “Leave” campaign was plastered across the side of their bus – the claim the government could spend an extra £350 million a week on the National Health Service instead of giving it to the EU. No one is committed to delivering that promise. The “Remain” campaign adopted “Project Fear” tactics; focusing on the negatives of leaving, not the positives of staying. Neither side put forward a clear, inspiring and inclusive vision for the future; something that is a basic building block of excellence.

The “Irish backstop” issue that now dominates the news wasn’t even a consideration during the campaign. But the origins of the “backstop” are in the Good Friday Agreement; a legally binding agreement that makes a hard border illegal. Understanding and complying with the law is a basic requirement; it’s not even on the excellence scale.

Finally, once the political dust settled, the UK had a Government committed to delivering Brexit. Red lines were drawn and negotiations started with the EU. And those “red lines” have become a mantra over the last 2 years, along with “delivering the result of the referendum”. Whilst the result of the referendum cannot be debated, the “red lines” that have defined the deal that’s now stuck in Parliament can be. Where did those red lines come from?

They weren’t in the referendum question – that was a binary choice. They were in the Conservative Party manifesto of the 2017 election but that failed to return a majority in the House of Commons, let alone attract a majority of the public vote. The UK is now facing the choice of a deal that does not deliver what the majority of people want or a no-deal that not only damages the UK economy but also has significant impact on the EU, especially Ireland. People are being given a “lose-lose” option.

Excellence means creating “win-win” situations where no stakeholders opinion is ignored. Achieving a “win-win” means compromising; finding a middle-ground where no one feels like a loser. Whilst it might be too much to expect “excellence in politics”, is it too much to ask for a little bit once in a while?

To RoboBee or Not to RoboBee

I was watching the National Geographic channel the other night and there was a short film, from a series entitled Innovation Explorers, about a scientist working in robotics. He starts with what he admits is a grand statement; that “robotics will be the next internet”, before explaining the project they’re working on; building a drone of bee-like robots, inspired by nature. He explains that while individual bees cannot fly far, by working together, they are very successfully before adding that his robobees “could be useful in applications where you don’t want to put a human or animal”.

 
RoboBee

Taken at face value, this appears to be a great example of “innovation for the sake of innovation”. It’s not clear how this innovation could be put to practical use; what currently unsolvable problem will suddenly be unlocked by the appearance of a robobee (or, indeed, a hive of robobees) on the scene. They’re going to have to wait and see if someone else can find the problem that only a robobee can solve.

This set my mind off in 2 directions. The first is the parallel with what I see happening in many organisations. Innovation is important (it must be because everyone says so). Innovation is “the next big thing” and “if you don’t innovate, you die”. Now, there’s obviously truth in that; think of all the former global giants who’ve been on the wrong side of a disruption and are now desperately playing “catch-up” or have retired from the race altogether. But many organisations don’t stop to think about the basic questions: what, where and why do they need to innovate? They start with a generic “how?” and, in many cases I’ve seen, the result looks something like a mid-90s “Employee Suggestion Scheme”. The focus is on ideation, and generally it’s quantity over quality.

Without a clear focus, ideas may come thick and fast but very few are addressing the “big issues”. And, more often than not, the system becomes overloaded as the process for sorting the “gold from the dirt” cannot cope. The organisations that “get it” focus the creative energy and talent of the people, and other stakeholders, on the strategic challenges they face. They start with a set of specific problems that need to be solved. They don’t start with a solution, then go looking for the problem it solves.

Which takes me back to the other direction my somewhat scrambled brain wandered off in; what do bees actually do? For years, scientists have tried to work out how such a tiny, fragile and, let’s face it, not very agile creature manages to survive. How can they fly such long distances with those wings? How do they communicate the location of food sources so effectively? How do they even remember where those food sources are with such a tiny brain? The sharp-eyed amongst you will have noticed these are the “how”, not “what” questions. With all the coverage of COP24, it’s clear the scientists are now understanding the “what” better than the “how” as, with global bee populations declining, we’re finding out the hard way what they do. It may be too late to find out how.

Which leads me back to our intrepid inventor and his robobees. Maybe this is his niche – the problem that fits his solution. Maybe his robobees can help the eco-system survive by doing what real bees do, while someone else works out how we can help the bees recover their numbers sufficiently. But, if we’re going to be able to successfully create a robobee capable of doing this job, we would have to have a better understanding not only of what they do, but how they do it.

However, as a species, maybe we have taken a step forward. At least we have now identified a problem that needs an innovative solution. Get your thinking caps on.

A new way to recruit?

I saw a program on BBC (yes, I live in Belgium but old habits die hard) about a small, family run chocolatier (Who’s the Boss?, Sunday 6th March). They face, as pretty much all organisations do, increasing pressures and new competition in the global marketplace. The program was basically an experiment on involving the staff in the selection of a new Business Development Manager, a role seen as critical to the future success of the company.

Three candidates had been pre-selected and all spent a week on trial in the company. The only thing was that they didn’t know the staff were involved in the selection process. Not only did they get the opportunity to meet, work and socialise with each of the candidates, they also had the opportunity to see, remotely how they promoted the company and product in a sales pitch.
people

At the end of the week, the staff voted for the candidate they felt was the right person for the job. The empowerment for them was obvious from the interviews; they knew the importance of making the right choice. This was THEIR future too. And the confidence of knowing the workforce was behind the successful candidate must have played a significant part in her success in the first months of her job.

It looked like the perfect way of getting the right person for the job AND rapidly integrating them so they can start to make and impact immediately.

This led me to think about a number of the companies I’ve worked in. I’ve never seen this type of process used before. But I’ve seen many managers appointed to roles where culturally, skill-set wise or, worse still, both, it’s very quickly clear they’re not the right person for the job. As a result, I’ve seen high-performing teams disintegrate virtually overnight and highly engaged individuals leaving for pastures new. If the people themselves were more involved in the process, could this have been avoided?

Excellent organisations ensure they have the right people, in the right place, when they are needed. At the Business Excellence Institute, we’ve a training course specifically around the recruitment process, incorporating many of the concepts used in the program (although, hands up, while it does involve peers it doesn’t include a democratic voting process). The training is designed to give managers the tools & skills they need to recruit the talent they need.

It’s time for some new thinking.

Do Excellence Awards work…?

This might be controversial but I’m not sure that any of the excellence awards have really helped promote the concepts of excellence, as was originally intended. Why? Well, having been involved in various roles in a number of different award schemes since the turn of the century, it saddens me to say this but when was the last time a globally recognised organisation won one? And I mean the WHOLE organisation, not just a plant or business unit.

We all have our own views about which organisations are “excellent” but do we see them appearing in the lists of Excellence Award Winners? In the vast majority of the Excellence Awards out there, it’s not THE most excellent organisation in the country / region / world that wins – it’s the best out of the people who applied. And the number of organisations that apply has been dropping steadily since the “golden years” at the end of the last century. Of those that do apply, it’s more often than not a small part of a large, global company – an “artificial entity”. The assessors are looking at their achievements within the achievements of the parent. A sub-set of the results.

Excellence Award

I’ve been lucky enough to take part in Global Assessments; looking at the whole organisation, starting with their global strategy (what they want to achieve) and their existing annual reporting (what they have achieved so far). Using the current award schemes, such an assessment is a massive undertaking, both for the applicant and the assessors… which is why so few companies try to do it.

But does it have to be this way? I don’t think so. The real benefit of any assessment comes from focusing on what really matters to the organisation – their strategic goals and how they have set about achieving them. Focusing the assessment around these key strategies, rather than “ticking all the boxes in the Model”, reduce the workload for all involved AND provides value-adding feedback for the Management Team. The trick, as always, it’s to avoid getting lost in the details… it’s easier to assess everything, stick to the script, than plan and execute a truly strategic assessment. But this is about excellence; it’s not supposed to be easy!

If we want an Excellence Award that really recognises the best in the world, we need a completely new approach. It’s time for some new thinking…

Where Excellence Went Wrong

The Total Quality Management (TQM) movement started in Japan and spread as people recognised the tremendous benefits. In the late 80s and early 90s, the Baldrige Model and EFQM Model appeared in the US and Europe – holistic management frameworks that went beyond the product to look at all aspects of the business. Initially, these were championed by many high-profile organisations and TQM was “the hot topic” on the management agenda. Its popularity peaked in the 90s; since then there has been a steady decline. Now excellence models tend to be used in discrete pockets within a large company, like a single manufacturing site, or within the public sector. So what went wrong…?

Part of the reason lies within HOW these Models where used – another part lies with WHO was using them. Excellence Models are designed as holistic tools – they cover all aspects of the organisation from the Leadership & Strategy through People and Resource Management through to Product Development & Delivery and, finally, Customer Relationship Management.

However, the “QM” in TQM was usually interpreted as “Quality Management”. This interpretation meant it was often coupled with process management, product quality and ISO 9000 certification. It was the job of the Quality Manager, not line management. Don’t get me wrong – product quality and quality management are very important. But the holistic excellence models went far beyond these traditional boundaries.

Over the years, I’ve had the privilege to work with some Quality Managers who were capable of applying excellence models at a strategic level – most of them have since moved on to more senior roles. But I’ve also worked with many who tried to use excellence models as a check-list – something it’s not designed for and something that tends to produce generic, meaningless feedback.

This is nothing new. We all know that the success of any organisational development initiative depends more heavily on the individuals selected to deploy it than the tool itself. If the wrong people are involved, it doesn’t matter how good the tool is… and if you’re looking at a tool that applies to the whole organisation, you can’t only involve people from a single function.

Fast forward 20+ years to today. We find a number of “excellence evangelists” who are completely convinced that excellence models work and freely eulogise about the benefits to all who will listen. Some are lucky enough to be in organisations where they are supported but many more are not and therefore can’t “practice what they preach”. They’re often met with comments like “we tried that before and it didn’t work”. I’m sure you recognise these people – or maybe you are one yourself. At conferences and events, we see the “same old faces” year after year. Where’s the new blood? The new ideas? The “next generation”…?

We know that, if applied correctly, excellence models can deliver great benefits. We also know that “management fads” come in cycles. The vast majority of CEOs interviewed place topics like sustainability, competitiveness and innovation high on their priority lists. Topics the excellence models were designed to address. But we must learn the lessons of the past. Excellence is not “quality management”. It’s not just the domain of operations and it is definitely not a staff function. It wasn’t in Japan and it helped them build one of the world’s strongest economies.

So, where does this leave us? If we’re going to re-energise the excellence movement, we need a new approach. Look at the success of Six Sigma – the vast majority of the tools in the toolkit went back to the 1950s. Someone just added new packaging. Can we do the same with “excellence”?

To me, it seems simple. It seems we’re missing a single two-letter word. “OF”. Excellence Models are not about Quality Management. They’re about the Quality OF Management. To be able to talk credibly about the Quality OF Management clearly requires a different skill set and different experience. But there are many people who gained some experience in quality management over the past 20 years who are now in “senior management” positions. People who know the potential of this tool and are now in a position to use it at a strategic level.

It’s time for some new thinking…