Excellence Decoded: Insights from PENworks 2016

Last week, the Performance Excellence Network hosted our annual (sold out!) PENworks 2016 conference.  The event featured 31 local, regional, and national speakers, each sharing best practices and insights to improve organizational performance and personal and leadership effectiveness.


Some speakers were from large, complex organizations (Cargill, State of MN); some were from small nonprofits (Southeast Service Cooperative, Johnson Memorial Health Services, Punch Pizza); many were in between.  Some organizations have focused on improvement for two years, while some have been deliberately improving performance for 32 years.  But they all had one thing in common: they had an unquenchable thirst for improvement.  In fact, in the words of one of the keynotes: “to reach excellence, you cannot be satisfied with mediocrity.”  These organizations are all focused on improving outcomes for the benefit of their customers, workforce, and other stakeholders.  And they also proved that, while there are many pathways to excellence, there are some universal truths…


Here are 73 insights that come from PENworks 2016 speakers.  I’m sure there were hundreds of insights shared, but I think the ones listed below apply to pretty much any and all organizations on the journey to excellence.  They have been tested and validated by organizations that have reached true levels of high performance, and they are great reminders for all of our enterprises as we strive for ever-improving outcomes.


I encourage you to reflect on one or two a day. How does your organization (enterprise, department, division, team) stack up?  How can you improve your performance?


Insights from PENworks 2016 Keynote Speakers


John Sweeney, CEO/Owner, Brave New Workshop

  • To achieve excellence, above all, be of service to others.
  • To succeed, you must have a desire to change.  Be humble; be willing to improve.
  • To promote innovation, get comfortable in being uncomfortable – you’ll learn, stretch, improve.
  • Innovation, like improv, is a mindset: it can be learned, practiced, perfected.
  • In improv, you must take care of your partners first.  Leaders: it’s the same in business!
  • In athletics & in art, we spend 75% of our time practicing; that needs to be the case in business too.

Paul Hillen, VP of Global Marketing, Cargill

  • The key to building trust is in building relationships.
  • Good leaders create followers; great leaders create other great leaders.
  • Leaders need to define success in terms of others, not themselves.
  • Trust requires competency, reliability, and sincerity.
  • Leaders should always be teaching; leaders should always be learning.

Paul Batz, CEO/Founder, Good Leadership Enterprises and

Dan Mallin, Equals 3 LLC

  • Being good – goodness – is a critical part of being a good leader.
  • Good leaders spread positivity.
  • Organizations cannot sustain high performance when their leaders lead with fear.
  • Good leaders radiate goodness.
  • To succeed, you must build a culture of encouragement.
  • Relationships are critical to professional success; relationships are critical to organizational success.
  • To succeed, you must find the right partners inside and outside the organization.
  • Leaders should personally be involved in their employees’ development.
  • Good leaders build environments that support organizational and personal learning.
  • Belief systems come from a place of love or a place of fear.  Leaders must choose wisely.
  • Belief systems drive behaviors and behaviors drive results.  Be deliberate, intentional.

Mary Searcy Bixby, Founder/CEO, Charter School of San Diego (2015 Baldrige winner)

  • To reach excellence, you should crave opportunities for improvement: learn, adjust, improve.
  • To engage employees, start with purpose, give them autonomy & then let them master their role.
  • To have engaged students, you need engaged teachers.  The same is true in business!
  • To be useful, data needs to inform decision making and service delivery.
  • You must plan for the future: strategic planning is critical for organizational sustainability.
  • Leadership begins with vision.
  • The Baldrige Framework isn’t the only way to reach excellence, but it’s the best way to do so.
  • To reach excellence, you cannot be satisfied with mediocrity.

Dr. Glenn Crotty, COO, Charleston Area Medical Center (2015 Baldrige winner)

  • To reach excellence, improvement should be widespread, systematic, and fact-based.
  • To reach excellence, you must focus, use culture to drive change, and align strategy with operations.
  • People are not perfect; they are people!  So design processes to ensure that people can deliver outcomes.
  • Without benchmarks, you don’t know if your performance is any good.
  • To reach excellence, you must align organizational processes.
  • To succeed, you must be responsive, agile.
  • To increase value, you must remove activities that produce no value.

Dean Kappel, President Emeritus, Mid-America Transplant (2015 Baldrige winner)

  • To reach excellence, be persistent, build on successes, involve your whole team.
  • Don’t innovate just to innovate; innovate to increase value for customers and to improve outcomes.
  • Leaders: take care of your people so they can take care of your customers.
  • Mission statements should be short enough so you can remember, meaningful enough so it inspires.
  • Excellence is about purpose-driven work.

Dr. Amit Sood, Professor of Medicine, Mayo Clinic

  • Align your daily thoughts with higher principles; be intentional with your thinking.
  • Find joy in the ordinary.
  • To promote happiness, practice gratitude, compassion, acceptance, meaning, and forgiveness.
  • We develop compassion by finding commonality.  Search for what you share with others.
  • Look at the world the way you want the world to look at you.
  • Happiness is rooted in relationships.
  • To improve your happiness, stay curious: view the world as a 4 year old would.
  • To reduce stress & increase happiness, start the day with intentionality: think about 5 people who care about you.
  • Our brains need to rest every two hours to manage fatigue and reduce errors.
  • Strength and flexibility are keys to building resilience.

Insights from PENworks 2016 Breakout Speakers


  • Mission statements are not important.  What is: being mission-driven. Scott Davis, AMSOIL
  • Your organization cannot be aligned if employees don’t fully understand the mission and goals. John Puckett, Punch Pizza
  • Conflict is natural in the workplace; leadership is how you choose to respond. Mary Russell, HealthPartners
  • I guarantee that if your organization uses – and sticks with using – Baldrige, you will improve results. Paul Grizzell, Core Values Partners
  • To be great, study the great. Michael Garner, Momentum Consulting
  • Effective leaders in successful organizations believe that everyone matters.  Rosie Ward, Salveo Partners
  • All employees should contribute to building and implementing strategy.  Jack Priggen, Cardinal of MN
  • Action plans must be aligned with strategic objectives in order to optimize resources and achieve outcomes. Kathy Johnson, Johnson Memorial Health Services
  • Analyze organizational data in the context of what’s important to the organization – its mission, strategy, customer requirements. Ryan Sougstad, Augustana University
  • When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves. Linda Shell, VOA of Minnesota
  • Innovation is something original, redesigned, or improved that creates substantial value and satisfies an unmet need.  Mark Meier, CH Robinson
  • Communication is critical to organizational success, both inside and outside the organization. Virginia Brophy Achman, Twin Cities in Motion
  • To satisfy customer needs, you first need to know what they are. Susan Mau Larson, LifeSource
  • Improvement starts with people and culture. Dr. Chris Robison and Phil Zeccardi, Children’s Hospitals & Clinics
  • Planning should try to create the future you want, not predict the future you’ll get. Suzanne Riley, Southeast Service Cooperative
  • Workers need both accountability and authority to make change. Dr. Reinold Plate, Mayo Clinic
  • An FTE is a terrible thing to waste: engage your employees, rally around customers, set a vision of excellence.  Tim Houle, Crow Wing County
  • Measures help connect strategy to action; they create a basis for communication and alignment. Judy Plante, State of Minnesota
  • Problems can be solved by understanding the situation, designing and testing solutions, and then implementing and adjusting.  John Alberts, Austin Public Schools
  • Change is most likely to occur when people feel a connection to community and a sense of belonging.  Mary Randall, Pillsbury United Communities
  • The way we do small things determines how we do everything. Dr. Klint Willert, Brookings Schools

And one additional thing these speakers had in common: they never gave up on their improvement efforts.  As Harvard professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter says: “Everything looks like failure in the middle.”  So the difference between successful and unsuccessful organizations oftentimes is in their constancy of purpose – their resilience and their commitment to ongoing improvement.

2016 PENworks Logo

For the full schedule/program of PENworks 2016, visit here.


To download speaker slides, visit here and select “schedule” and then the topic/speaker you wish to see (scroll down to download the PDF).


And to order videos of the keynotes, visit here.  Videos are $20 each viewing for members ($40 for non-members), or you can download all six talks for $100 for members ($200 for non-members).


What other insights do you have regarding the journey to excellence?  Participate in a discussion on this topic: visit our LinkedIn group to post a comment.  And follow me on Twitter @LassiterBrian!


Never stop improving!


Brian S. Lassiter

President, Performance Excellence Network




Catalyst for Success Since 1987!