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In Search of Organizational Excellence?

Just Put Eight Key Strategies Together!


by Jeffrey Parks and Cheryl Hilvert

Achieving organizational excellence is a journey. It requires commitment and effort, plus it has major benefits.

Local government managers strive for excellence in their organizations and in the services they provide to communities. They pursue training and continuing education for themselves and for staff members, as well as strive to learn from the great organizations of both the public and private sectors.

They also work diligently to enhance and measure performance, develop a workplace where the best and brightest employees can thrive, and relentlessly seek to improve the experience delivered to customers.

So, where is the excellence they are seeking?

Unfortunately, while many organizations focus on building pieces of organizational excellence, few address it holistically. An organization that achieves excellence performs deliberate work that simultaneously considers the needs of its customers, along with vision and values, employee engagement and competency, performance measurement, and managing the change that inevitably comes from this work.

The Journey toward Excellence

To achieve organizational excellence, managers have to focus on eight areas. Here are these key strategies (see Figure 1, Framework for Organizational Excellence).

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1. Delight your customers. Local governments have multiple types of customers and customer relationships. They include the transactional relationships in which customers receive and pay for services (utility customers, renters of facilities), as well as the more complicated relationships with residents, nonprofits, and business partners with whom local governments work in building a community.

Important internal customer relationships—those where employees ask one another, “What quality, timeliness, and format of work do you need from me?”—also must be fully leveraged to support work of the entire organization.

Regardless of the type of relationship, managers have to ensure that, through effective customer feedback and input, they fully understand the needs and wants of these groups.They should also know them well enough to anticipate future needs and wants.

Ongoing dialogue with customer groups, as well as a focus on the importance of these relationships, will lead to better collaboration, trust, and organizational performance.

2. Get results from vision and strategic planning. Excellent, high-performing organizations know where they are going. They have clearly defined their vision (a picture of success for three to five years ahead); their mission (why they exist); and their strategies (levers for accomplishing the vision).

These have been developed with full employee representation, as well as input of customers and stakeholders to ensure alignment with their needs and wants.

These organizations deploy their strategic direction down through their agencies, departments, divisions, teams, and individual employees through goals that, when accomplished, contribute to the achievement of the organizational vision.

At the front lines, employees have a clear line of sight where they understand how what they do on a daily basis contributes to that accomplishment. When people think and act more strategically, the vision comes to life and becomes the focus of organizational efforts.

3. Create a culture from your values. Author and management guru Peter Drucker said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” While vision and strategy are critical, this statement underscores the importance of creating a quality work culture from the values your organization identifies.

Core values describe the behavioral and social norms to which an organization dedicates itself. They need to be uniquely yours, not a cut-and-paste version from another organization.

They also need to be embedded in your work and not just posted on the wall or in a strategic planning notebook. The values should include behavioral indicators that tell staff both what the value looks like in day-to-day behavior and how they will be measured.

When defined in an open and inclusive manner, values can drive the culture of an organization in the desired direction. Values should be reflected in all aspects of the personnel management system, including marketing, recruiting, screening, hiring, orientation, performance appraisals, and termination, as well as in other organizational systems, policies, and procedures.

The true test of organizational values is: Do you and your entire organization follow them when it’s difficult or expensive? Hopefully you do, and they become your North Star.

4. Understand and incorporate both leadership and management. Local government managers need to understand the difference between leadership and management and incorporate the critical work of each in their organizations.

Leadership is about creating a vision, which includes thinking longer term, understanding your customers, and balancing the needs of the many different constituencies an organization serves. It is also about your behavior and its positive influence on others.

Leaders employ effective ways to achieve organizational vision, shape organizational culture, and drive continuous improvement of people, processes, and systems. Leadership also is about inspiring and empowering the organization to excel.1

The good news is that you don’t have to do this work alone. Leadership is not positional. Anyone in your organization can be a leader. Your job is to ensure that people have the skills, understanding, and time to influence the work—and success—of your organization.

While different from leadership, good management is also important to organizational excellence. Management is the execution of the organization’s vision and strategies through effective planning; organizing; staffing; budgeting; communication; and achievement of projects, activities, and tasks.

It is about the enforcement of the organization’s values. It is about feedback, encouragement, and development of staff to deliver on work in a way that values the individual, yet propels the organization forward.

5. Pay attention to engagement and passion. In its 2013 State of the American Workplace2 report, Gallup states that less than 30 percent of employees are “engaged” in their work. These figures have remained consistent since the year 2000.

How can we expect to achieve organizational excellence with these disappointing numbers? The answer is: We have to work differently.

Managers need to pay more attention to those things that make our employees feel valued. When employees feel their needs; opinions; professional and personal growth; and they, as key contributors of organizational success, are valued, they generally have higher commitment to the organization.

When employees are valued only for the task work they produce, they often lack real engagement and commitment and may show simple compliance or the bare minimum in terms of contribution or work product.

Gallup’s Employee Engagement Hierarchy3 (see Figure 2) provides guidance to managers to focus first on employees’ basic needs, then work to align the employee and teams to organizational mission, vision, and culture. It also speaks to importance of feedback, personal and professional growth and development, and benefits that can be achieved when organizations and their employees grow together.

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6. Maximize performance. While employee engagement is an important focus for managers, maximizing employee competence is also critical work. The Performance Equation (see Figure 3) shows a systematic approach to improving performance in your organization, as well as provides a diagnostic tool to identify issues of poor and weak individual and team performance. Its major messages to managers are:

  • Ensure the right employees are hired in the first place and ensure that they are placed in the right role. This includes hiring for technical expertise, but also for the values that best fit the desired culture of your organization.
  • The employee’s supervisor should provide clear and detailed performance expectations. Too many times, the employee, especially new employees, are challenged to “guess what’s in the supervisor’s head.” Employees should be told of the expectations and what is needed, along with how results will be measured.
  • Provide timely and specific performance feedback. Help employees know what you appreciate and want more of, as well as what you need changed and why.
  • Make sure employees have the right equipment, tools, and materials, as well as a safe, encouraging environment to be successful. Provide what’s necessary to make them as successful as they wanted to be on their first day of employment.
  • Provide appropriate recognition, appreciation, and rewards when deserved. Thank-you notes and recognizing staff for good performance in front of their peers are key tools for any manager’s toolbox. Likewise, hold people accountable for poor or weak performance. Employees can spot “chicken management” and not holding poor performers accountable from a mile away.
  • Ensure that employees get the training, coaching, and mentoring they need to develop the knowledge, skills, and confidence to perform well in their current job or prepare them for advancement in the organization.
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If employees are not performing to expectations, chances are that one or more of these steps may be missing or lacking. Use the performance equation to identify where the breakdown is occurring and take action to address what is missing.

7. Measure progress. If managers wish to influence behavior and performance, they should examine what their organization measures and rewards. Most organizations are good at measuring the operational or day-to-day issues.

Excellent organizations create a mix of measures that matter, including both strategic and managerial, and map those to the outcomes that are identified in the vision or strategic plan.

Balanced-scorecard thinking is a good place to start. It suggests that there are four perspectives from which to view the organization and its health: customers, financial/budget, internal processes, and organizational capacity (people, technology, and organizational systems).

High-performing organizations develop predictive measures to drive more substantial progress in the journey to excellence. Figure 4, Leading, Current, and Lagging Organizational Success Indicators, demonstrates that organizational capacity measures have the most predictive power. Is the right talent on board? Does the organization have high employee engagement and competence? Does it possess the right technology and do people understand and use it?

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Process measures provide a sense of the organization’s ability to execute current processes, improve them, or develop new ones. Customer measures generally answer the question, “How did we do today?” and recognize that it is important to measure both the customers’ outcome and their experience.

Financial or budget measures, while important to understand, typically only reflect how the organization has done in the past and don’t alone lead it forward toward the future.

8. Manage change. Leading change is about winning hearts and minds for the change effort. The change might be the implementation of a major piece of software, a new policy, or a change in organizational structure or approach.

Change efforts should leverage the driving forces already in place and minimize the resistance forces. When people find a “what’s in it for me?” they will usually buy into the change.

Managers and leaders must be able to articulate how the change will improve the organization and how it will affect people. This is best done through manager and employee face-to-face conversations individually or in small groups.

A major factor in the success of change is the level of trust in the senior managers and the history of past change efforts. You can’t wait to fix a trust problem when you decide to embark on a change; it has to be earned and re-earned along the way.

In Figure 5, Six Critical Elements for Success in Managing Change, it becomes clear what happens when a critical element of the change equation is missing. Change challenges can be diagnosed by starting in the right column with the symptom and working backwards to identify the element of success that is missing. This chart is particularly useful when planning a change effort, taking a midpoint pulse check, or doing an after-action review.

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Benefits of Excellence

Organizations can expect these positive outcomes from this work:

  • Vision and strategies are cascaded throughout the organization and guide all work, actions, and decisions.
  • Core values drive behaviors, with the goal of achieving the desired organizational culture.
  • The organization’s measures facilitate effective and confident decision making and contribute to higher performance.
  • The organization retains its “All Stars,” and they feel valued and equipped for excellence, bringing energy, commitment, and their “whole self” to the workplace.
  • Residents and other stakeholders feel they receive excellent services delivered with a positive experience.
  • The organization’s reputation—service delivery, attraction and retention of great people and talent, bond rating, and financial performance—is solid and enduring.

A Call to Action

In these times of decreased resources, ever-increasing demands for services, and distrust of government at all levels, managers would be smart to pursue a strategy of organizational excellence.

Most organizations already have many of the pieces in place so the costs and efforts associated with building an excellence strategy can be less daunting. With attention and focus on the principles, organizational excellence can be achieved. Just remember that the journey forward begins with a single step. . .and putting the key strategies to excellence together.

Endnotes

1 Adapted from John W. Gardner, Leadership Papers, “Number 1 The Nature of Leadership,” (The Independent Sector, January 1986).

2 Gallup, 2013 State of the American Workplace, http://www.gallup.com/services/178514/state-american-workplace.aspx.

3 Gallup, “Business Journal,” April 24, 2014; http://www.gallup.com/businessjournal/168614/really-manage-engagement-without-managers.aspx. 

 

Ask Yourself

As a manager interested in achieving organizational excellence, ask yourself four questions:

1. What’s the best organization I’ve ever been a part of?

2. Why was it so good?

3. How did it feel to be a part of it?

4. What was done to build it and sustain it?

Comments & Ratings

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Wayne Sommer

I'd love to see folks answer those four questions here. Do we sometimes think (and say) we are part of a great organization because we want to believe we are and maybe inspire others to believe the same to the point of action? Or, are we sometimes just deluding ourselves but don't want to admit it for fear of not being seen as a "team player"? Thoughts?

Wayne Sommer

I'll start. I've been part of some good organizations and one pretty vile group in the past. I would say the "best" organization (and I am going to use that term "organization" loosely for this example) was a college softball team. (Don't laugh. We were serious about the game back then.) It was a great team not because it had talented team members (which we did have some very talented players and some average players) but because everyone was focused on the same goal: win the championship. We had natural leaders that stepped forward and the rest of the team was willing to follow them, emphasis on "willing." Egos were put aside. People didn't argue over playing time or position. If someone happened to miss a game, we adjusted to fill their role as best we could. When someone was in a slump, we worked on them AS A TEAM to encourage them out of it. We cared about each other as well as about our mission. Common purpose. Common values. 100% effort at all times. We never gave up in close games and as a consequence, we never lost. It was an indescribable joy to experience success like that.

Since that time I have worked in service companies, financial institutions, non-profits, and, now, a local government. I've seen the good and the ugly side of organizations. But, when a group (a subset, a department, a project team, etc.) rallied around a common purpose--employing common values--and consistently gave their best effort for the sake of the mission/objective, the success experienced was the same as my college softball experience. Unfortunately, I can't say I have experienced an entire organization putting it all together and becoming a great organization. (I hope to someday.) I have seen some get close, and when they did, it was the same ingredients: common purpose, shared values, maximum effort.

Grant Yee
Grant Yee said

Thank you Wayne for your insight, it was very helpful. I find it remarkable that many of us played on some kind of team sport when we were young, but that camaraderie and team spirit is so often missing in the workplace. I think you hit it on the head with your statement " We cared about each other as well as about our mission". Leaders in great organizations are passionate about their higher noble purpose, work culture, and the people in the organization. I hope someday to experience a "world championship" organization in local government.

Jeff Parks
Jeff Parks said

Hi Wayne - Jeff Parks here (co-author of the article). Thanks for your support of this idea and approach. In our training and work we use examples of organizations that we feel qualify as having Organizational Excellence or being a High Performance Organization (HPO). My favorite is the UCONN Women's basketball team. Their 111 game winning streak recently ended by 2 points in overtime even though this year's team lacked size and bench depth. The things you described above helped them achieve much more than was ever expected in a "rebuilding" year.

Corporate examples come easily to mind - Ritz Carlton, LL Bean, and USAA. These organizations have placed huge emphasis on their core values which have translated to very positive cultures. I don't believer we put it in the article above, but we ask "What's your organization's greatest asset?". Nearly everyone answers "the people". We like to respond:
"We believe that your people are your greatest resource ... but your greatest asset is your reputation." Think about how the best players in the country come beg to play at UCONN ... and Google's 600:1 applications/position ratio.

There are both Federal and local government examples of excellence, but usually it occurs in pockets of the organization versus totally throughout. I was proud to serve 20 years in the US Coast Guard where the missions were so compelling and rewarding that nearly everyone could see (and feel) that they were contributing to something meaningful and rewarding. NASA is another example of mission-fueled passion.

On the local government side, take a look at Prince William, Arlington, and Chesterfield Counties in Virginia and the cities of Montgomery and Dublin, Ohio. They are doing a lot of things well.

If I had any general guidance, I'd say to have a holistic framework for excellence (the above one is ours, but it's certainly not the only one), assess yourselves against that framework, vigorously benchmark others in the areas you want to improve, and have senior leader visible and active support for the long-term journey to implement and sustain this work.

Hope this is useful to you, Grant, and others that may follow. Jeff

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