Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Still Looking For The Silver Bullet: 30 Years After 'In Search of Excellence'

If you’re old enough, you’ll remember the excitement that business consultant Tom Peters brought with his seminars and books in the 1980s: In Search of Excellence, Passion For Excellence... Managers in government agencies and electric utilities I knew were swept up and inspired by examples of how to be a successful business: reward action, trust your intuition, listen to your customers, cut red tape, match authority with responsibility...

I think we all liked the kinds of stories Tom Peters told. We liked the story about how astronaut Frank Borman insisted on clean tray tables when he took over as president of Eastern Airlines. If you can’t take care of the tray tables, why should the customer think you can take care of the engines? “Now clean your desk,” we’d joke. We also like the one about how a worker took the initiative to charter an airplane to get some important delivery through. “Get the helicopter,” we’d joke.

The eight ‘themes’ Peters and coauthor Robert Waterman highlighted were:

  1. A bias for action, active decision making - 'getting on with it'. Facilitate quick decision making & problem solving tends to avoid bureaucratic control
  2. Close to the customer - learning from the people served by the business.
  3. Autonomy and entrepreneurship - fostering innovation and nurturing 'champions'.
  4. Productivity through people- treating rank and file employees as a source of quality.
  5. Hands-on, value-driven - management philosophy that guides everyday practice - management showing its commitment.
  6. Stick to the knitting - stay with the business that you know.
  7. Simple form, lean staff - some of the best companies have minimal HQ staff.
  8. Simultaneous loose-tight properties - autonomy in shop-floor activities plus centralized values.
You’d think that with advice like this, American businesses and governments would be in ‘excellent’ shape. Next year is the 30th anniversary of the publication of In Search of Excellence. Maybe the celebration is yet to come but it’s hard to hear much talk these days about Tom Peters and the themes in In Search of Excellence.

Those must not have been the silver bullets we were looking for.

--Mike Sato


  1. Hi Mike - I remember this so well. I was working as a manager and management trainer at the time. For a big local "Aluminum User."

    We really did make this stuff work, especially internally, but we also were well aware that Government just did not have the motive nor the organization structures nor incentives to apply it other than in minimal ways.

    Unfortunately, a very few years later, our company - and many others - changed their top-level motive to that of "Increase the Stock Price." In the short term, layoffs work really well to do that, and that is what happened, along with a number of other methods that did not generate enthusiasm and commitment to quality from the troops. I kind of feel we are seeing the results now of that.

  2. True, the investors in the electric utility company I worked for in the late '80s became the only customers management cared about-- along with the investment bankers-- and writing the quarterly earnings reports and the annual reports became a real work of art.


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