Pathways to Excellence: Insights from PENworks 2014

Last week, the Performance Excellence Network hosted our annual (sold out!) conference, PENworks 2014.  The event featured 18 local, regional, and national organizations on the journey to excellence, each sharing best practices in leadership, strategic planning, customer focus, measurement and knowledge management, workforce engagement, and operations.

Some speakers were from large, multinational corporations (Seagate, Boeing); some were from small nonprofits (Pewaukee School District, Sutter Davis Hospital, Winona Health, LifeSource); many were in between.  Some organizations have focused on improvement for two years, while some have been on the journey for 22 years.  But they all had one thing in common: they are not satisfied with “good enough,” and are continuously striving to improve outcomes for their customers, workforce, and other stakeholders.  They also proved that, while there are many pathways to excellence, there are some universal truths…

Building off of last month’s blog (A Recipe for Excellence: 50 Ingredients that Drive Organizational Performance), here are 32 insights that come from PENworks 2014 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.  How does your organization (enterprise, department, division, team) stack up?

Excellent organizations…


  1. “You can be excellent at anything, but you cannot be excellent at everything,” Rulon Stacey, CEO of Fairview Health Services (former CEO of Baldrige-winning Poudre Valley Health System, CO).
  2. Excellent organizations must have a bold vision – it gets everyone on the same page and it makes it clear the important role of senior leadership, Larry Potterfield, CEO of Baldrige-winning MidwayUSA.
  3. Have and articulate non-negotiable core values that guide planning, decision-making, hiring, and reward and accountability systems (Potterfield).
  4. “Don’t focus on winning awards.  Focus on improving processes so that they produce consistently excellent results for the customer,” Dave Brucks, Executive Director of Functional Excellence, Seagate.
  5. Focus on outcomes – “focus on results that matter to stakeholders, not just activity,” Janet Wagner, CEO of Baldrige-winning Sutter Davis Hospital (CA).
  6. “Strategic plans should consider all aspects of your environment – customers, resources, facilities and technology, culture, and competitors,” Lisa Erwin, Vice Chancellor, UMD.
  7. “The ability to create alignment is one of a leader’s most important roles,” JoAnn Sternke, Superintendent of Baldrige-winning Pewaukee Public Schools (WI).

Have a Passion for Excellence…

  1. Excellent organizations have a passion for excellence, not just good and not even just great (Stacey).
  2. Organizations that aspire to be excellent compare their performance to the top 10% of their industries/market, not to industry average (Stacey).
  3. “Don’t wait until your organization is perfect to begin the journey to excellence” (Sternke on the value of doing a Baldrige-based assessment sooner rather than later).

Continuously Learn and Improve…

  1. Take intelligent risks: “innovation comes from having a culture of allowing employees to try and fail,” David Spong, retired president, Baldrige-winning Boeing Aerospace.
  2. Choose an improvement system; stick with it and learn from it: “Trying to improve without using a system is like hitting a piñata with a blindfold on” (Sternke).
  3. Have a bias for action – “the most important step is the first one,” Susan Gunderson, CEO of LifeSource.
  4. Ask a lot of questions; use data to monitor performance and make decisions; use scorecards and dashboards to learn and focus (Spong).

Effectively Manage Change…

  1. “There is always turbulence and change…learn to prioritize, focus, and adjust to sustain performance” (Wagner).
  2. Stay the course – have constancy of purpose, be relentless in your pursuit of excellence: “When in doubt, follow the plan” (Spong).
  3. Manage the pace of improvement/change – the journey to excellence should move from crawl to walk to run (Spong), and start small and add layers of improvement to your processes, Bryan Vaughn, president of Baldrige-winning PRO-TEC (OH).
  4. Build momentum – use 90-day plans to break big objectives into implementable components; celebrate interim successes (Sternke).

Focus on Workforce…

  1. Get the right people on the bus – employee retention starts during the recruiting and new hire process (Vaughn).
  2. Get people in the right bus seats – get people in the right jobs based on fit: they’re happier and the organization is happier (Wagner).
  3. Hire employees who share your organization’s values (Potterfield).
  4. Focus on workforce engagement – make everyone a leader, empower them, and hold them accountable (Vaughn).
  5. “Delegate decisions to the lowest level of the organization where they can effectively be carried out,” Michael Garner, Director of Operations, Cardinal of Minnesota.
  6. Focus on trust and integrity (Vaughn).
  7. Develop people – leaders must develop and groom the next generation of leaders (Wagner).
  8. Promote accountability – focus on your high performers and let low performers work for your competitors (Wagner)!

Focus on Customers, Stakeholders…

  1. Focus on the customer – let customer expectations drive improvement and innovation (Wagner).
  2. “Customer data trumps my opinion,” Jeff Thiemann, CEO, Portico Benefit Services.
  3. Partner and collaborate – to leverage core competencies and to build capacity (Stacey).

Communicate Effectively…

  1. To gain trust, communicate often and close the loop with your people (Sternke).
  2. Be transparent – share all results, good, bad, or indifferent (Wagner).
  3. “Words have power” (Erwin) and “Be careful what you call your improvement efforts” (Sternke).  To reduce natural resistance, sometimes the best strategy is not to label your efforts but to just start improving.

And one additional thing all high performing organizations 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.

What other insights do you all have on the journey to excellence?  Post your thoughts or your reaction to the insights above on our LinkedIn discussion page, our blog page, or my Twitter account.

Never stop improving!

Brian S. Lassiter

President, Performance Excellence Network (formerly Minnesota Council for Quality)

Catalyst for Success for 27 Years!