Nobody Raves About Average: 52 Insights on the Road to Excellence

Last week, the Performance Excellence Network hosted our annual PENworks 2017 conference.  The event featured 31 local, regional, and national speakers, each sharing best practices and insights to improve organizational performance in areas such as leadership effectiveness, customer focus, workforce engagement, and operational efficiency.


Some speakers were from large, complex organizations (3M, Ecolab, Mayo Clinic, State of Minnesota); some were from small nonprofits (Rochester Public Library, Homewood Suites Hotel); 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.


The reason may be simple: in my opinion, no one raves about being average.  You don’t hear someone complimenting the sports team that goes .500 and finishes third in the division; you don’t celebrate the school or the hospital or the community that places at the 50th percentile in their state or national ranking; you don’t marvel at the business that’s in the middle of their market, in the middle of customer satisfaction rankings, or in the middle for employee engagement scores.  Nobody raves about average.


But everyone raves about legendary: about world class outcomes; about true performance excellence.  Everyone raves about disciplined, systematic, continuous – and sometimes breakthrough – improvement; about top quartile or top decile rankings in key outcomes; about growing; about achieving mission and purpose.  Everyone raves about winning.


There was a lot shared at the conference about legendary – about true world class performance from some, and about aspiring and improving performance of others.  All 31 speakers had something to share – insights that truly do improve performance.

Here are some of them – 52 insights that come from PENworks 2017 keynote speakers.  I’m sure they represent only a small sample of the hundreds or thousands of insights shared at the conference, but these listed below apply to pretty much any and all organizations on the journey to excellence.  They have been used, tested and validated by organizations that are serious about continuous improvement; 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, project, or team) stack up?  How can you improve your performance?


Bill George, Professor of Management, Harvard Business School (and retired Chairman/CEO of Medtronic)

  • Today – more than ever – the world needs proven, authentic leadership.
  • Performance excellence starts with serving people.
  • It’s no longer about work-life balance, but work-life integration and blending.
  • All leaders – all people – need time for reflection & introspection.
  • Leaders: you need others to help you see your blind spots.
  • The hardest person you will ever have to lead is yourself.
  • Organizations are only successful with authentic leaders; leaders are authentic by staying true to their values.
  • Your True North is the compass that guides you successfully through life – your values, beliefs, principles.
  • Many failed leaders focus on the short-term over the long-term.
  • Good leadership makes the difference between success & failure of any organization.
  • Good leaders know that you don’t want everyone with the same point of view – there is true power in diversity.
  • Leadership is not about managing a budget or making a product – it’s about leading people.
  • Wherever you go, there you are.  Find your True North.

Jamie Capehart, Performance Improvement Specialist, Park Place Lexus (Plano, TX)

  • You cannot fully satisfy your customers without fully satisfying your employees.
  • To sustain customer delight, have a systematic way to drive process excellence.
  • To understand customer needs, ask them!
  • Customer delight requires personalized, flawless execution.
  • For a great customer experience, every touchpoint has to be perfect.
  • Define your culture before it defines you!
  • To delight customers, focus on process, hire for attitude, empower your people.
  • The goal should always be to move from customer service to satisfaction to delight to a “wow” experience!
  • Superior customer service starts with superior employees.

Greg Haralson, CEO, Memorial Hermann Sugar Land Hospital (Houston)

  • Excellence requires optimism and persistence.
  • Excellence requires humble leadership – check your ego at the door.
  • If you achieve everything in your strategic plan, then your plan isn’t ambitious enough.
  • Excellence results from focusing on your core competencies.

Jeff Mihelich, Assistant City Manager, Ft. Collins CO

  • Excellence happens one employee at a time.
  • Excellence is never achieved by accident.
  • Sometimes you have to go slow to go fast.  Be deliberate; be thoughtful.
  • Excellence requires complete mission clarity – and alignment to that mission.

Maryruth Butler, Executive Director of Kindred Nursing & Rehabilitation Mountain Valley (Kellogg, ID)

  • Regardless of the type of your organization, it’s about relationships.  It’s always about people.
  • The turtle often wins the race.  To achieve excellence, just get in and get started.
  • To achieve excellence, compare yourself to others that are excellent.
  • To achieve excellence, keep your people engaged – create momentum!
  • Innovation doesn’t have to be grand.  Make meaningful change that creates value for customers.
  • To engage your workers, you must first learn what engages your workers.
  • Slow and steady improvement will still get you to excellence.
  • Innovation is a process.
  • Excellence starts by creating a culture that supports & encourages it.

Bryan Williams, CEO, B. Williams Enterprise (formerly Global Corporate Director of Training & Organizational Effectiveness, Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company)

  • To get more of what’s right, focus on what’s right.
  • Excellent service begins with excellent leadership.
  • Leaders must recognize the significance in each individual person.
  • World class service is delivered one customer at a time.
  • The strongest leaders have followers because of what the leaders have done for them.
  • EVERYONE who works hard needs to be appreciated.  Re-hire your best people!
  • Leaders: just like a garden, you need to tend to your people every day.
  • The best organizations treat their workers as well as they treat their customers.
  • Leaders: you get the behaviors that you demonstrate, celebrate, tolerate.
  • Leaders: treat your team EXACTLY how you want them to treat your customers.
  • Whatever you focus on will improve.
  • To be exceptional, you must be consistently exceptional.  Being exceptional once doesn’t count; it’s a fluke.

Though not a keynote, Minnesota Lt. Governor Tina Smith summed it up nicely during the presentation of our Performance Excellence Awards: ““Effective leadership and high performing organizations share several things in common. They build strong teams with a common purpose.  They allow time for reflection, learning, and fun.  And, most importantly, they listen to everyone.”

The insights presented at PENworks proved that excellence is:

  • Scalable – it works in small, medium, and large organizations
  • Adaptable – it works in any sector, any industry
  • Developmental – it meets an organization where it is
  • Transferrable – you can learn, adopt best practices from other organizations
  • Systematic – requires consistent, data-based, repeatable methods


And I guess one last insight – a common theme that shared by our keynotes – is that excellence requires commitment (of leadership and of resources), focus, discipline, and persistence.  Organizations (and the individual leaders who lead them) which achieve and sustain world class outcomes simply never give up.  They have constancy of purpose and remain steadfast in moving forward with improvements.


Dave Brucks, director of quality for Entegris and PEN’s board chair, was the emcee of PENworks.  He closed the first day with a quote from Winston Churchill that I think sums it up:


“To improve is to change; to be perfect (or to be excellent, I suppose) is to change often.”


Think big; start small; move fast.  But for Pete’s stake – just start and get (and keep) moving!



For the full schedule/program of PENworks 2017, visit here.


To download speaker slidesvisit here.


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 keynote 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!