The "Excellence" business is booming.
Thomas J. Peters, who, along with Robert H. Waterman Jr., wrote In Search of Excellence, still spends much of his time on the lecture circuit, telling people from such groups as the Young Presidents' Organization how they can keep their growing companies entrepreneurial and stay close to their customers. But he also has started a new four-company enterprise that builds on the search for corporate excellence.
On the boards for this fall and the coming year are five-day residential seminars for executives and division heads of small and medium-size companies, a PBS show, continuing the consulting business, possibly a newsletter, and, yes, it is true, "A Year of Excellence," the Peters and Waterman Management By Wandering Around (MBWA) executive appointment book.
True to the Excellence philosophy of giving managers autonomy, Peters has divided his new enterprise into four companies so that the four partners can have their own entrepreneurial entities. Skunkworks Inc. is the holding company. ("Skunk works" is Excellence lingo for small groups of people who get together to work on a company problem outside the corporate structure.) The Palo Alto Consulting Center is, as it sounds, a consulting operation. A Center for Management Excellence is the seminar education and research company. Not Just Another Publishing Company plans to be, as the name suggests, more than a publishing company, the perpetrator of Skunkworks-related tangible products. Bob LeDuc, a former Harvard Business School professor in organizational behavior and an ex-personnel manager for Hewlett-Packard Co.'s primary research and development facility, is running A Center for Management Excellence and doing most of the consulting. And Nancy Austin, who also worked at Hewlett-Packard, as manager of executive education, is responsible for Not Just Another Publishing Company. Monitoring the financial end of things is the fourth partner, Ian Thompson.
Of the planned offerings, the Excellence appointment diary is probably the furthest from what one might except from a former management consultant. Most self-respecting intellectual advisers would rather be caught behind their desks in their underwear than in the calendar business, even the classy, giltedged, leatherbound, metallic-foilstamped market segment Peters and Waterman are getting into. And, in fact, the idea was the brainchild of Nancy Austin. But according to Austin, the MBWA appointment book is meant to be more than an advantageous use of the commercial opportunity provided by Excellence's best-selling success. This calendar is a tool, she says, designed to help the user make MBWA his or her top strategic priority. Each page spread is adorned with aphorisms, quips, and one-and-two-liners on MBWA, working with customers, and other pertinent subjects. Blocks of an hour or more each week are shaded to be reserved for MBWA. Also to be included: a glossary of Excellence terms; "the world's longest list" of 800 numbers for airlines, hotels, car rentals, travelers checks, trains, and charter airlines; and a business-card pocket on the inside back cover. For readers wondering about how entrepreneurial a consultant can be, it seems the answer is becoming clear.
More in line with what one would except from a couple of Stanford B-school PhD types is A Center for Management Excellence, which LeDuc and Peters are hoping will come to be exactly what the name suggests -- a place that is a catalyst, a clearinghouse, a magnet for new ways of thinking about management. The first activity on the schedule is a series of five-day residential seminars for executives of small and medium-size companies. Designed to focus on the "general management role" in fostering closeness to the customer, superior customer service, product quality, and creating and maintaining an entrepreneurial atmosphere that is "rewarding and positive" for the people who work there, LeDuc expects the seminars to include lectures, question-and-answer periods, case studies, small-group work, celebration, (or "hoopla," another Excellence word for company celebrations), and to be generally organized so that participants can learn from one another. That, he says, is where the real learning takes place.
Also concerned with learning, but not directly under Peters's wing, is "Toward Excellence," an "executive action planning process" that includes a videotape, workbook, and discussion plan program designed for managers who would like to implement some of the ideas presented in In Search of Excellence. Produced in conjunction with Peters by Zenger-Miller, a Cupertino, Calif.-based company that develops management training programs for a wide variety of companies, "Toward Excellence" is aimed at helping executives understand the characteristics of excellence, evaluate their own and their competitors' performances in relation to those criteria, take specific action, and outline an ongoing process that will "step up the pace" to distinguished performance. Some 200 companies are now using the program.
What all this adds up to, of course, is a belief that the basic attitudes and concepts in In Search of Excellence can be taught, or at least reinforced. And Peters, LeDuc, Austin, Jack Zenger, and Dale Miller believe that one of the best ways of doing that is to provide a forum for the people who are actually doing what they are studying and writing about and for whom they are creating products.
Most significant perhaps is the evolution of the Excellence message itself.In the 20 months since In Search of Excellence first appeared, Peters has talked to more than 300 groups -- in San Diego, St. Paul, Kansas City, Geneva, Stockholm, and a host of other places. Along the way he has picked up more examples, more stories, more questions, and become more certain than ever that he and Waterman's best instincts about American management were correct.
"The companies are more extremely what they are than we had supposed, not less," he said in an address to the Presidents Association of the American Management Association. "One, Management By Wandering Around is more extensively practiced by the good guys and less by the bad than we said. Two, our winners, even in the lower ends of markets, find astonishing ways to provide superior tailored service and top quality. Three, virtually no innovation occurs according to plan. And four, attention to people, treating them as adults, with dignity and respect, is a powerful theme. We underestimated."
When asked for the two or three most significant things he has learned since the book came out, Peters names six:
1. There are only three distinctive "areas of competence" in determining excellence (as opposed to eight attributes): superior customer service, internal entrepreneurship, and facilitating the first two through a "bone-deep" belief in the dignity, worth, and creative potential of every person in the organization."
2. Productivity goals should be gains of 200%, 300%, 600%, not 2.5%. Top performers do hundreds of times better than the norm.
3. A lot of people "sign up" for the notion of MBWA, but few do it.
4. "Fun. Zest. Excitement. Enthusiasm." The best companies have it.
5. What to do first? Close down the executive dining room. Paint out the reserved-parking places. Get live customer information -- read customer complaints, spend two hours in the clerk's office processing customer requests, randomly call half a dozen customers. Call your own company and ask for something a typical customer would request. Spend a minimum of 4 days out of the next 20 in the field. Find something to celebrate.
6. "Look in the mirror." Final responsibility for results comes back to the manager, not the government, or the Japanese, or a superior.