Five truths you must know about performance excellence

Every year, organizations of all sizes from around the globe gather to compare notes on their quality journey, hear best practices and generally be inspired to continue the hard work of pursuing performance excellence. The 31st edition of this gathering – the Quest for Excellence Conference – was held in early April just outside Washington, D.C. Hundreds of organizations spent three days learning from one another, and I was pumped to be part of it. Looking back on this year’s conference, I had five key takeaways:

1. Excellence takes time. There are no “overnight successes” in the quality arena. Despite wide variations in industry, size and location, the organizations participating at Quest had one thing in common: they had all been on their journey for many years. They had all devoted significant resources to the endeavor. They did not treat it as a hobby or a part-time job; they put everything they had into it, and they committed for the long haul, fully aware that true excellence takes time.

2. Perfection is a myth. The idea of achieving perfection works well as a theoretical ideal, but in practical terms it does not exist, and certainly not in the world of continuous improvement. Even award-winning organizations receive two things from judges: a trophy, and list of things they could still do better. The very best organizations will readily admit that the list of opportunities for improvement is far more meaningful than any hardware. And because perfection is never obtainable, the journey is always ongoing.

3. Data is king. No matter the industry sector – manufacturing, health care, education or non-profit – every Baldrige-obsessed organization makes data the center of its universe. They collect it, analyze it and use it to drive decision-making at all levels of their organization. They keep looking for creative new ways to slice it, show it and share it. They also look for ways to compare their data to the data of other high-performance organizations in order to benchmark.

4. Copy off your neighbor. Unlike high school, the quality community accepts – even encourages – copious copying. You learn by looking at how other organizations have improved, even if those other organizations are in another industry. That cross-pollination is precisely what the Quest conference is designed to facilitate! Listen closely at Quest and you hear lots of stories of organizations whose biggest breakthroughs had their origin in another entity’s insights.

5. Narcissism is not all bad. Forget what you’ve been told about staring too long in a mirror. At its core, the pursuit of performance excellence is about self-reflection. Organizations that examine their own strengths and weaknesses – honestly and thoroughly – are positioned to improve much faster than those unwilling to regularly and rigorously self-reflect. You can learn a lot by looking at others, but sometimes you learn the most by looking closely at yourself.

Overall, I was energized by this year’s Quest for Excellence Conference. It’s always encouraging to be reminded of the five truths shown above. Many of the organizations honored for excellence at this year’s Quest conference began their journeys a decade or more ago, and all of them stumbled along the way. But they persevered, and in so doing, they began to build expertise that they are now “paying forward” to organizations that are just starting the process. That’s fun to see, and it’s exactly what the Baldrige Excellence Framework was designed to facilitate.

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