At the recent management retreat of a leading logistics provider, the CEO ended his opening remarks, which were intended to be inspirational, with a slide that simply stated "execution"--not once, but three times. "If there's only one thing I'd like you to take away from my talk, then it is operational excellence. Just remember these three words: execution, execution, execution," he exclaimed.

I felt a bit let down, even betrayed, by the closing of his speech. Highlighting operational excellence instead of presenting a compelling vision appears to be every leader's preferred fallback solution, the lowest-common denominator that is rarely met with resistance. And while I spotted a few head's nodding in the audience, I also had to wonder: What were his colleagues really thinking when they heard his blunt words? How do managers feel when they're told they're simply expected to execute?

Reducing the execution gap

It is true that in a company's daily business bridging between strategy and execution is the most daunting challenge. Bold visions and meticulous plans can get lost in translation, and frustration is lurking at every single moment of conversion. No wonder there are initiatives such as Brightline that specialize in helping companies reduce the gap between strategy design and delivery.

This will become even more important with the rise of robots in the workplace. Managers can't be blamed for thinking that the best way to execute flawlessly may simply be to automate. Machines can be accused of many things, but lack of execution is not one of them. Chances are automation will constantly raise the bar both for robots--and for humans.

Excellence is the next five minutes

All that being said, the problem is not so much the point of conversion but to conceive of strategy and execution as two separate acts to begin with. The distinction between them has always felt artificial. Where does one end and the other start? Rather, it might make more sense to view them as a continuum: if your strategy is poor, even the most flawless execution won't help you (in fact, it will make things worse); and if your strategy is great but the execution flawed, it will not only undercut your strategic intention but also hamper future strategy planning.

Execution is a constant: it doesn't occur after planning; it occurs while planning. If the coffee is lukewarm at your strategy planning session and the meeting poorly prepared, your strategy will reflect that. Execution is everything, everything is execution.

For Tom Peters, management guru and author of the 1982 bestseller, In Search of Excellence, excellence means honoring this insight. In his new book, The Excellence Dividend, he writes: "Excellence is not an aspiration. Excellence is the next five minutes. Excellence is not a goal. It is a way of life."

And further: "Excellence is your next conversation. Excellence is your next meeting. Excellence is shutting up and listening - really listening. Excellence is your next customer contact. Excellence is turning 'insignificant' tasks into models of ... Excellence."

If one part is zero, the whole is zero, too

A business turn-around specialist, who now heads up the Japanese division of a global retailer, told me that while it is true that the whole is often greater than the sum of the parts, for companies, the whole is actually a multiple, meaning that if one part is zero, the whole is zero, too. Therefore, if just one single employee doesn't perform, it should be treated as a company-wide crisis.

In any human enterprise, there will always be some zeros, so that operational excellence depends on the willingness of others to over-perform in order to make up for them. On a recent conference call, I witnessed two busy executives trying to offload a translation task to a vendor, arguing over whose budget would cover it. A young manager chimed in and said there was no need to outsource it--he would translate the text right after their call. "Consider it done," he said.

In any organization there are those who go on and on about what ought to be done, and there are those who just do it; there are those who just muddle through by giving 80 percent, and there are those who give 120; there are people who pretend to care and those who really do. Your job as a leader is to discern between these two types.

When I was overseeing the marketing organization of a design firm, I once told my team that fixing a typo can save the world, and I meant this quite literally. For it is exactly the kind of "a typo on a PowerPoint slide doesn't matter all that much in the grand scheme of things" attitude that can lead to endemic sloppiness. What is worth fixing if not those very mistakes we can quickly and easily correct? And how credible is your vision for excellence if it doesn't manifest itself in the small details that hold it all together?

Excellence means doing things for their own sake

But even if you raise awareness of the enormous importance of execution, how do you motivate people to attend to it? One obstacle is the novelty factor. Humans are neophiles: we tend to be more motivated when we execute tasks when that are new and inspire us to prove ourselves. Or in business lingo: we love innovation. We pay more attention, we are more focused, and we are eager to deliver our best work. Typically, sloppiness creeps in once we master a task and must perform it repeatedly.

Mastery means doing something you've done a hundred times and still do it as if it were the first time. This is of course the daily bread of actors and other stage performers. It might be easier for them because they have the benefit of performing in front of a live audience. If they perform half-heartedly, it threatens the entire project and turns it into one big zero.

Companies can simulate this kind of audience pressure by increasing the level of transparency within their organization. At Salesforce.com, for example, every employee, including managers and senior executives, is required to share his or her goals and the weekly progress toward them with the entire company. Everyone's performance is out in the limelight, no one can hide. The company's success is well known, and Salesforce also consistently ranks as one of the most desirable places to work. Employees feel that the company's unique culture pushes them to deliver their best work. Operational excellence is a boon to employee satisfaction and happiness.

Ultimately, however, nothing can replace intrinsic motivation, understanding quality as a moral obligation. The philosopher Bertrand Russell once wrote: "The modern man thinks that everything ought to be done for the sake of something else, and never for its own sake."

That's the crux of our times, especially in business, and overcoming it is the essence of excellence. It means doing things for their own sake, not just to reach a goal. It means honoring the task at hand and giving it our very best as if the whole world depended on it.

Because it does.

Published on: Apr 24, 2018