An Integrated Approach to Deploying Goals and Mission
Greg Kesler
White paper, 1993

Creating Direction for the Business

Continuous improvement has captured the attention of business leaders, resulting in many initiatives aimed at becoming more competitive. In many or most companies, these initiatives have a distinct “program” orientation, not well connected with each other or with the business plan. In many companies the program orientation has resulted in a limited application of potentially powerful concepts. Often businesses have not planned strategies effectively; more often, implementation has not been complete. Slogans and posters have not resulted in changes in competitiveness or process improvement.

Numerous managers express frustration over ineffective efforts to produce high involvement cultures where large numbers of people take an active interest in competitiveness of the business. At the same time, team members and middle managers express confusion about “where we are going” with the business.

Management is now exhorted to manage less and lead more (Kotter, 1991). Leaders are expected to provide more vision to their organizations. The need for increased direction in today’s uncertain times is real, in our judgment. Empowerment requires a great deal more than allowing freedom to act; it means creating an environment where large numbers of people understand and are enthusiastic about what the business is trying to achieve and how it intends to achieve it.

Who Creates the Direction?

Traditional strategy-setting has been dominated by data-based analysis and often secretive staff work. Complex analytically-based methods have largely given way to action-oriented strategies for converting operations into competitive weapons. Strategic planning staffs and loose-leaf binders of analytically-derived, financially-oriented plans are less common.

Furthermore, argues Robert Hayes, the traditional top-down orientation has emphasized grandiose strategic leaps, rather than the patient step-by-step improvements that are difficult for competitors to copy. Focusing on major milestones induces a top-down, “strategic leap” mentality in an organization. Such “leaps” might take a variety of forms such as major acquisitions, all new product lines, and large shifts toward automation or off-shore sourcing.

Increasingly companies are succeeding, Hayes argues, by not depending on such strategic leaps but by seeking competitive advantage through continual, incremental improvements. But this kind of change requires a real discipline and, as Hayes points out, a very different kind of organization with a great deal of expertise at all levels. Success rests on ingenuity at all levels, the capacity to learn, persistence, and the ability to exploit opportunities as they arise.

Strategic action for continuous improvement is the responsibility of all managers (indeed, all employees); these imperatives should not become the domain of staffers and project people. This kind of participation requires high levels of understanding and commitment to a single purpose. Creating that sense of purpose is the leadership role.

Creating a Unifying Purpose for the Organization

In some client companies it is surprising to us how many people, at all levels, understand where the company is going; in others we are often surprised at how little knowledge, even among managers, there is about company goals and strategies. The need for leadership to “paint pictures about the future,” as one of our clients puts it, has captured executive attention. The current interest in vision, values, and direction is a response to the need to create a unifying purpose for large numbers of people across an entire organization. Most executives recognize the need to provide a more company-wide sense of purpose, and still many have trouble getting beyond broad, usually repackaged statements of philosophy or public relations slogans.

When change is constant, especially in large complex divisions or businesses, the need to anchor the improvement activities of thousands of people to a single direction is key. The variables shift — new products, new processes, new markets, new financial expectations — the more important the anchor point becomes. We agree with Chris Bartlett’s (1989) three, simple criteria for an effective vision or direction:

  1. Clarity — meaningful and understandable
  2. Consistency — across all units and issues
  3. Continuity — maintaining the same focus over time


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