We’ve all just experience an incredible two years, with layers of unprecedented challenges that have impacted our organizations, our communities, and ourselves.  But in every crisis, there is opportunity –opportunity to learn and discover new (and better) ways of doing things, of more effectively managing change and navigating challenges, of maintaining stability and resilience. Winston Churchill said: “never let a good crisis go to waste.”

So as we begin to transition from constant reaction and crisis mode into a more reflective, forwarding-looking, hopeful mode, it’s a good time to consider what we – collectively, as organizational leaders – have learned through the pandemic, and to thoughtfully forge a new path forward.  Usually, the best insights come from the best organizations – those that have a proven track record of achieving and sustaining good results, both in good times and in bad.  I would argue those come from Baldrige Award recipients.

Last summer, the Baldrige Performance Excellence Program and the Alliance for Performance Excellence (the network of state and regional Baldrige-based programs like PEN) commissioned a research project to study the use of the Baldrige Excellence Framework to improve organizational resilience and sustainability during these challenging times.  Using a research approach called General Systems Theory (GST), a team of 11 researchers from various universities (led by PEN member Walden University) pursued a goal of better understanding how the use of an excellence framework like Baldrige might have helped organizations navigate challenges, sustain performance, and maintain resilience.  In short, the research team studied how different interrelated business processes affect and change other business processes, ultimately impacting the overall system and its results.  The conclusions are insightful and can certainly help any size and type of organization as we continue to navigate today’s challenges.  (Read on for a link to the full report!)

The study identified 16 themes – I would loosely define them as best practices that these high performing organizations embraced during the last few years.  Here are the top five, ranked in order of occurrence within these high performing organizations:

Embed a culture of excellence (what the research subjected called a “Baldrige culture”) – you cannot achieve and sustain excellence without first aspiring to achieve and sustain excellence. In this research, 94% of interviewed respondents indicated this was key to their success: a vision of high performance, supported by a culture that viewed the organization as a system (rather than individual, fragmented parts).  In fact, a theme from these high performing organizations was they managed their enterprises as an ecosystem.  The vice president of transformation at a multiple-time Baldrige winner said: “[we] perform as an organism. The organization has a soul. It’s a feeling, an entity [that] feels bigger than an organization. [The] organization has an emotional response to things…we care for one another…your outputs are my inputs…your pain points become mine.”

These organizations were also well-prepared, most having contingency, disaster recovery, and/or business continuity plans.  They were ready for crisis.  They had focus and discipline to sustain excellence despite challenging circumstances.  They were resilient, practicing agility and rapid response and trying to find new and innovative ways to solve problems and accomplish objectives through new approaches.  Their cultures embrace change but maintain absolutes for certain things, like their core values.

Strategically planning for the future – As Yogi Berra said “if you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll end up some place else” (or the frequently modified corollary: “if you don’t know where you’re going, any path will get you there”).  These high performing organizations all had systematic planning processes.  They strived for organizational alignment rather than fragmented silos, which in turn improved their consistency and optimized their resources, despite the ever-changing environment.  They focused on the future, having both a long-term vision of where they wanted to go (their guiding “north star” as the whitepaper called it), but also shorter-term action plans that facilitated more immediate (re)action. During the pandemic, planning cycles decreased, more scenario plans were used, and all of them used rapid cycles of planning (so they could shift more quickly and reallocate resources – “pivot” – more frequently).

Leadership – during times of crisis, these high performing organizations declared that effective, stable, and consistent leadership was key to sustaining performance. According to the study, effective leadership is “…best accomplished through participatory and inclusive processes that engage all members of the organization.”  Translated, that means values-based, purpose-driven, inclusive and authentic leadership.  From the study: “Of note was the importance of engaging good people — the right people — who demonstrated a shared fundamental goal to pursue excellence, were willing to embark on the Baldrige journey, and, in the process, changed the culture to an aspirational one, which was essential to organizational sustainability and resilience.”  Excellence, then, starts at the top but permeates throughout the organization, with a highly engaged, capable workforce that believes in the vision and is committed to excellence.

Metrics, measures and analysis – these organizations largely used data to make decisions, especially during times when variables are constantly changing.  They viewed their measures as checkpoints, to guide their improvements and provide a feedback loop on their strategies.  One of the key insights is that these organizations focused on aligning nearly everything they did on their strategies, focusing on what they viewed as truly important in terms of impacting ultimate outcomes.  Implied in this notion was a laser focus on what’s important.

Most leaders interviewed stated that they “…were intentional in what they chose to measure, essentially measuring what matters and acting on that information to effective positive, meaningful improvements.” Many leaders transparently and openly shared performance with their teams (even if results were heading the wrong way), thereby creating more open, collaborative problem-solving cultures; most also used comparative data to gauge how they were doing compared to others in equally difficult times.

Process – processes are what transform inputs into outcomes, and the higher forming organizations realize that if you want better outcomes, you need better processes. The study confirmed that.  The organizations that did better during the pandemic are process-focused: they’ve identified and documented key processes throughout their organization, measuring and improving performance, and tackling the root causes of problems.  And in having a process orientation, teams better understand how their work fits in with others’ (you could extend that to suppliers and partners, certainly during the unprecedented supply chain disruptions).

Probably none of those findings should surprise you: they are solid practices in “good times” and in bad.  But they became paramount the last couple of years.

A little lower on the list were some interesting other insights worth mentioning.  Here are four more thematic best practices from the research.  Higher performing organizations during the pandemic also:

  • Have constancy of purpose – they stick with the vision of being excellent even during tough times.  They promote accountability throughout their organizations, and they don’t give up even during times of crisis.  They are patient, but persistent.
  • Are agile – they are committed to organizational (and personal) learning, they create scenario plans and run tests; they evaluate and improve virtually every key process in their enterprise.  They rapidly respond to changing circumstances. They pivot; they innovate.
  • Are focused – they are results-based organizations, stretching for higher performance and consistently winning.  They attempt to focus on key strategies, key customer segments, key outcomes and goals, key processes.  By focusing on what’s truly important, they attempt to eliminate the “noise” that often consumes us. An interesting notion that came from this research is that an organization doesn’t have to be excellent at everything – just the things that are truly important for them (and those things differ across organizations).
  • Are highly collaborative, people- and team-based cultures – they value their people, their customers, their partners and communities.  They focus on relationships and engagement over just satisfaction.  They value diversity and are inclusive; they truly empower their workforce.  And they recognize the importance of collaborating with – and continually adding value to – those they serve.

Achieving and sustaining high performance is difficult, even in “normal” times.  But achieving and sustaining high performance these last couple of years is extraordinary.

In the words of the study’s authors: “leaders who embrace the bold goal of attaining…performance excellence lead their organizations in various approaches to embed [excellence] throughout the organization’s culture.”  They go on to conclude: “The use of the Baldrige Performance Excellence Framework demonstrates that, ultimately, achieving organizational sustainability and resilience depends upon not the resilience of individuals, but upon the resilience of everyone in the organization and the community.”

Download a copy of the full Walden University study here.

What other insights/tips do you have regarding achieving and sustaining excellence during challenging times?  Participate in a discussion on this topic: visit our LinkedIn group to post a comment.  And follow me on Twitter @LassiterBrian!

Stay healthy and never stop improving!

Brian S. Lassiter

President, Performance Excellence Network


A Catalyst for Success Since 1987!

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