The Pursuit of Excellence
July 21, 2010 by Paul Hogendoorn
Most of North America has felt the effects of the downturn in the automotive industry the last two years, but my region – Southwestern Ontario – has been hit harder than most. In fact, I have read many reports and stories about how the London region in particular has been hard hit.
But it’s not all bad news; it’s just that it seems that the bad news is printed quicker, and more often.
The other day, I needed to drive from my office to the airport to pick up a colleague. The drive took me east on Highway 401 and then north on Veterans Memorial Parkway – about 16 kilometers. It was a route I have taken many times, but on this particular day, I was more sensitive to the indications of success than I was to the evidence of failure.
I noticed a Germany-based seat manufacturing company, in a bright new building with a full parking lot. Following that, I saw an American transmission part factory. And then on Veterans Memorial Parkway, I passed a brand-new food manufacturing facility, a new Korean building-materials facility, two other German Tier 1 companies, a Canadian high-tech environmental company, another advanced manufacturing Tier 1 supplier, a local, family-owned packaging company, and then at the end was an aircraft company that built airplanes entirely from composite materials.
There were many apparent differences between these companies, from their places of origin – be it local or from the U.S., Europe, Asia – to the industry they were in -be that automotive, environmental, packaging, food or aircraft.
But there were also many noteworthy similarities: they all appeared to be successful, despite the difficult business climate, and they all appeared to have an air of "excellence" about them. After giving that some thought, I realized that I had been in most of those facilities, and they were all concerned with the pursuit of excellence in all that they did.
They were concerned about excellence in their products, in their processes, in their staff, in their staff and management relationships, in their buildings, and even in the landscaping around their buildings. Everything about them had to be "excellent"; good enough was never good enough. One company took it to such an extreme that even the shrubs in the front garden had to be the same as the exotic shrubs in the front gardens at its head office in Europe.
Common sense would suggest that those would be the first things to be disregarded in a downturn. Gardens, foyers, receptionists, building appearance, etc.; none of those things add value to the product or for the customer. But the evidence, what I tuned into on that particular day, suggested otherwise. These companies weren’t spending money in the pursuit of excellence because they were successful enough to afford it – it was that they were successful enough to afford it because they pursued excellence in every facet of their business.
One company official told me about how visitors from head office took as much notice of the shrubs and office furniture as they did of equipment on the production floor. I guess the theory is that excellence isn’t more important in some areas of the business than in others. If the gardens are well tended, then so are the relationships with the employees. If the office furniture is clean and in perfect order, then the production equipment likely is, too. It made me think of other factories I had toured in earlier years that were no longer around, and it seemed to suggest a correlation between a company’s lack of attention to excellence in all areas of their business and their eventual demise. The domestic Tier 1s with the worst gardens, building maintenance and office furniture also seemed to be the factories with the most stressed employee relations and the poorest equipment conditions. And they were the first factories to be closed.
So what does the pursuit of excellence really cost, even in supposedly non-critical things like gardens, parking lots and office furniture? Not much, really – maybe only a percent or two of the total revenue of the operation. But what does it return? I’d argue, "Nearly everything": morale, attitude – everybody settling for nothing short of excellence, in virtually everything they do.
That’s the difference between success and failure, between those London companies that have survived and thrived and all those that failed.
History, recent and longer term, suggests that the pursuit of excellence in all facets of a business is a better strategy for success than even a collection of the singular goals popular today, like product quality, production efficiency and cost reductions.
Partial excellence isn’t excellence at all. Excellence is an attitude that has to permeate everything in order for a company to be truly excellent.
Paul Hogendoorn is president of OES Inc. and a founding member and past chair of the London Region Manufacturing Council. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.