Tom Peters wrote a 15-page paper titled Systems Have Their Place: SECOND Place.

« The research that eventually resulted in the publication of In Search of Excellence began in 1977… Eventually, my partner Bob Waterman and I locked onto a group of American companies… that were “doing it right,” and had never lost their focus on the basics. Our shorthand for the research results was captured in six words: “Hard is soft. Soft is hard.” »

« Paralleling our work, the quality “movement” took off, and enough “quality gurus” sprouted to fill a sizeable sports stadium… Yet a closer look reveals that for every quality program success there were scores of misfires… In my view there was a singular reason… too much reliance on the apparently “hard” procedures of, say, six-sigma programs and not enough attention to those underlying, apparently “soft” attributes such as the respect for and engagement of the workforce.  »

« Systems are terribly important! But it really doesn’t matter much which one, among the tested ones, you choose—as long as the culture is “right” and the passionate-determined leadership is in place. »

The paper features 10 cases.


Case #3/Johns Hopkins

« Dr. Peter Pronovost, appropriately called the father of the widely touted use of “checklists” in hospitals—and said by one high and mighty source to have saved more lives than any other doctor in America. »

« Used appropriately, and they very slowly but somewhat surely are coming to be, checklists can result in mind-boggling reductions in errors—e.g., 80% or 90% or even more in places of consequence. »

« The key, as is invariably the case in such circumstances, was tackling, and then, over time, dramatically altering “institutional culture.” For one example among dozens, or hundreds, nurses must be permitted—required!—to immediately intervene with docs who skip checklist steps. Talk about 20 megaton “culture change” in an environment where all too many docs treat the likes of nurses with blatant disrespect! »

« At one point in the book [Safe Patients, Smart Hospitals], Dr. Pronovost reflects, “When I was in medical school, I spent hundreds of hours looking into a microscope—a skill I never needed to know or ever use. Yet I didn’t have a single class that taught me communication or teamwork skills—something I need every day I walk into the hospital.” »


Case #6/Mayo Clinic

« One of the two core values instilled by William Mayo (Mayo Clinic) in 1910 was, effectively, practicing team medicine. »

« The potency of a team-based culture? Consider this from Dr. Nina Schwenk, a Mayo newcomer: “I am hundreds of times better [than in my prior hospital assignment] because of the support system. It’s like you are working in an organism; you are not a single cell when you are out there practicing.” (Yes, that’s not a misprint: “hundreds of times better.”) Such a culture lends itself to the safer and more effective practice of medicine, for which Mayo may have no worldwide peers. »

« To be sure there are numerous formal systems at Mayo, but the healthful elixir that matters is a peerless culture of co-operation—that dates back to William Mayo’s inspired leadership a century ago.  »


Case #8/IBM

« Lou Gerstner… was called in as CEO to save (or dismantle) a staggering IBM. His success was mindboggling, and like so many CEOs in those days, he wrote about it after the fact; i.e., Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance. No surprise, I was completely taken by a paragraph that appeared in the introduction:

“If I could have chosen not to tackle the IBM culture head-on, I probably wouldn’t have. My bias coming in was toward strategy, analysis, and measurement. In comparison, changing the attitude and behavior of hundreds of thousands of people is very, very hard. [Yet] I came to see, in my time at IBM, that culture isn’t just one aspect of the game—it is the game.” »


Case #9/Germany’s Mittelstand

« Germany’s extraordinary economic performance, particularly as high-end manufactured products exporter, is not by and large built on the backs of a few giant institutions such as Siemens or Daimler Benz. Instead the bedrock is a stellar set of middle-sized firms—the so-called Mittelstand. »

« I am hardly saying that systems and measures are not a big part of life in a Mittelstand firm. I am suggesting that they play a supporting role to an incredibly powerful and remarkably widespread national culture of quality work and self-managed employee on-the-job performance, accountability, and growth.  »


Tom Peters’ latest book is The Excellence Dividend.

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