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True March Madness:
Trying to Close Gaps without a System
Craig A. Anderson
March 2007

We recently spent time at three organizations, all at different points on their
Baldrige journeys. It was clear that major gaps separated the "best" and "worst"
performers. This got us thinking: Why? Why do these gaps exist? Why do
organizations perform so differently? What prevents organizations at any stage of
maturity from moving rapidly to close gaps and improve overall performance?

These are not just rhetorical questions. Our success depends on helping
organizations (and individuals) perform to the peak of their abilities. We think a lot
about what differentiates performance, and we keep coming back to one core
differentiator: the ability to think and act systematically. This is more than being
"smart"; systematic thinking means having a structure and process for channeling
your vision, energy, and "smarts" into life patterns that achieve results. High
performers do this naturally; immature organizations (and people) treat life as an
endless sequence of random, meaningless activities. Which is frustrating and
wasteful, because gaps that appear huge can actually be tiny to those who “get it”
and move forward systematically.

Here are some examples:

Struggling with Approach
Our low performer struggles with the concept of operating as a system. Actions
are reactive, and organizational learning is non-existent. For example, this
organization uses a random inspection process to assess the performance of a
key division. Sounds good? No. The inspection process operates with a high (and
unmeasured) level of variation. The results of the inspection process are collected
haphazardly, results are not analyzed, and there is no apparent modification of the
process based on the accumulated data and lessons learned over time. In
Baldrige nomenclature, we would say this organization is stumbling over its basic
approach.

Struggling with Deployment
Our mid-level performer struggles with deployment. Certain approaches make
sense in theory, but deployment is almost non-existent. Stovepipes are
everywhere. A budget and planning office does a terrific job of mapping out its key
processes for the purposes of understanding and improvement, but no learning or
sharing is evident. Customer-driven planning activities occur in several offices
(usually after offsite “retreats”), but systematic follow-up is nowhere to be seen.
This mid-level performer has a basic understanding of how to move forward, but
lacks the full knowledge and discipline to execute systematically.  

Focused on Learning and Integration
Our high performer embraces a systematic approach across multiple locations
and functions. The passionate, tight knit senior leadership team promotes a
common culture and process based on the Baldrige Performance Excellence
system. The challenges for this organization are fundamentally different than for our
low and mid-level performers: approach and deployment are consistent, and the
focus is on organizational and personal learning and integration. Senior leadership
commits time and energy to ensure that leaders at all levels are engaged fully in
the collective effort to learn, develop, and excel. The pursuit of excellence
permeates every major activity this organization undertakes.

The Challenge
Which brings us back to the main challenge: What prevents organizations at any
stage of maturity from moving rapidly to close gaps and improve overall
performance? The flip answer would be to say "nothing". The truthful answer is to
say that the key is whether or not the organization possesses a “critical mass” of
systematic knowledge. This "critical mass" will look different in each organization,
but must include enough people in decision-making positions who understand the
importance of management the organization systematically. There truly is no
substitute for knowledge. Offsite retreats, meetings, plans, pilot tests, tools, etc.,
will end up getting you nowhere without higher order thinking. And yet so many
organizations persist in these sorts of activities without knowledge. Make this the
year that you take your thinking, and your organization, to new levels of
performance.