Thursday, January 3, 2008

Is Good The Enemy Of Better, And Better The Enemy Of Best?

These snow capped Bee Balm plants are in our 'winter' garden here at Oyster Pond.
In the summer the blooms have a purple and red hue that capture the attention of honey bees. On a bitterly cold day like this, they get my attention as
a contrast in reality.

A few days ago I wrote the following in a posting...

"a blog posting is nearing that explores the issue of how we set our expectations, not only for our students... for our products, services, and our personal performance. I will argue for example that when we simply expect something/one to do or be good at what we are, we are actually setting the bar too low! Good is in fact the enemy of 'better'... and better is the enemy of best! When ever we see/hear someone compare something to another and say it is better so we should choose it... we should in fact say, but is it the best?"

This is a discussion that I have had countless times during my career. I have participated in four business turn-around projects over the years, usually taking over the sales, service and marketing portfolios. In each situation the sales and service teams claimed that they had inferior products, and that was what was causing their poor results. When my corporation's quarterly performance was being measured, there was no time for changing product configurations before the next ninety day report card, so each time it was necessary to change the things we had control over... the capability of the personnel doing the marketing, selling and servicing. It is my belief that better selling improves results and with the best quality of selling, a team can move product to customers that is not 'feature-to-feature' as good as the competition.

The key to this ability is 'excellence' in each measurable area of the
marketing, selling and servicing process. Usually it was not a motivational issue... poorly timed motivation would generate more of what we were getting, poor overall performance. Excellence requires understanding what the status quo is for each team, relative to measurable functions. Then its necessary to establish 'best in class' performance for each of those functions. Training should then be instituted, to take the teams from poor to good; from good to better... and then ultimately to best in class. At each stage, performance (and inevitably results) will improve until excellence is achieved.

Training is often the first thing that's cut when companies get into performance trouble. In these companies, training is looked upon as an expense, rather than an investment. This is a fundamental error when it comes to marketing, sales and service professionals... they should be looked upon as an asset in the company; an asset that needs routine maintenance (also known in professional arenas as Continuing Education). We would not think of going to a doctor who has not kept up her/his skills, and learned all of the new drugs or procedures and skills... why then do we hope that our key customer interfaces should be any different? Without an customer interface businesses die... or at a minimum, don't achieve their potential!

Often people are replaced in the field with new people who are also not trained adequately to achieve 'best levels of performance' and more importantly, results. Serious consideration should be given to evaluating measurable skills prior to 'exchanging' personnel. Even experienced sales and service people should be retrained 'annually' for three to five days on the skills necessary to achieve and maintain excellence... a couple of days on the sales fundamentals and a couple on new techniques such as time management, communication alternatives and so on. Nothing stands still today, if we don't keep up with new tools, skills, techniques we will be beaten by those who do.

Most sales and service teams can plot the performance of personnel relative to skills and outcomes. When we look at sales team performance outcomes over several years, it is likely that there will be a 'Bell Curve" plot. It is normal to find around 20% that are over-target performers, 60% that are in the 85 to 100% range regularly, and then there are the 20% that consistently fail to rise to the minimum acceptable level (85% to plan). Over the years we usually see some churning at the edges of each level, but the names remain the same. It is important to note that the most effort by sales managers is usually expended trying to get the bottom 20% to improve. I have found that effort to be mainly wasted.

It is interesting that Jack Welch, the renowned Chairman and CEO of General Electric which has arguably the most excellent selling machine in the world, automatically cut the bottom 10% of all management from the GE team. He didn't want the company wasting its time trying to improve employees that had consistently displayed poor performance. He wanted management to spend time on two things... 1) move the entire team to higher levels of excellence (move the bell curve along the 'X' axis by understanding what made the upper twenty percent excel and then train the middle 60% on those skills) and 2) find replacements that would challenge the upper 20% for their spot on the Bell Curve.

These issues of good, better and best resound in every aspect of life. In a world that is deemed to be "FLAT" per the book by Thomas Friedman ( a columnist in the New York Times) The World is Flat, we need to look deeply at the laisser-faire attitudes of some Bluenosers. It is no longer possible to accept poor performance by our leaders in government, business and education. For example, accepting the loss of a couple of major shipping companies in our port over the past two years... we have made excuses that the competition was too strong from the US ports... in reality it was a good example of someone else in another part of the world, working effectively to out perform our 'good enough' efforts... its a 'world is flat issue'.

How do I now make this an argument for change in Nova Scotia? The main issues we have are in education, health care and the performance of the bureaucracy. We could start out by measuring the critical performance issues, and then rating individuals against the necessary achievement criteria. Let's recognize that there will be strong objections to this, but when the objectors see that the idea is to provide (re)training so that performance improvement is possible, they should come around. I also understand that the various public employee unions will object... we must find a way to gain their confidence and work with them. In the long run, higher performance will guarantee long term employment and more satisfying work.

I have been told that this is a naive way to approach things in Nova Scotia. I believe it is naive to not approach it this way! Again, I encourage you to comment herein. I have removed the review component in the comments section, and you can speak out without your name attached. Just make an entry below, and thank you in advance.

Let's remember that one SUCCESS NOURISHES HOPE and we can do it one issue at a time


Anonymous said...

Some years ago when working as radiographer I was helping an orthopedist reduce a badly fractured arm. Eventually all the fragments were in place but one, and the surgeon decided to go ahead and put on the cast. When I asked about the out of place fragment he said "perfect is the enemy of good" and explained that, when the swelling went down, the wayward fragment would probably drop into place. Follow-up films a month later showed that he was right, and I always remembered the lesson.

I don't know much about Nova Scotia but there is probably lots of good that should be considered before reaching out to be better.

Just another american 2 cents (almost a nickel now).


Karin said...

My irritation when it comes to our leadership in this province and the trickle down effect it has on citizens is the "good enough"syndrome.We are not encouraged to push for excellence in any of the pillars of society and in many cases entreprenuriel spirit is derided.
The loss of the two shipping lines is a perfect example of how we have allowed the "good enough"malaise to affect our success.When the loss occurred there was a flurry of activity to sell our port to shippers in Asia many of whom reported they didn't know Nova Scotia had such a facility.How could that happen?
We need strong,visionary,brave leadership in our cities,in our province,in business and labor.We must break the cycle of "good enough"or our province will be left behind economically and broken in spirit.
Thank you Bruce for this blog.

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Grad. Saint Mary's University, 1975, got into the medical device business initially in sales, then various management positions up to president, all in Medical Devices. I prefer therapy products over diagnostic, but they are all fun, and in a way have defined my life. I have now evolved, with help from my 35 year partner Lynnda with whom I now share every hour. I am into staying healthy, photography, kayaking, bicycling, gardening and two books a week. I wish I had gotten to this stage earlier!