December 14, 2009
Column | basic training

The secrets of effective execution

There's a lot more to getting the job done than just giving orders.

By Art van Bodegraven and Kenneth B. Ackerman

Let's accept for the moment Larry the Cable Guy's definition of execution: "Get 'er done." That's clear enough and would seem a fundamental part of business management.

Yet execution is one of the least addressed issues in the literature of management and leadership. That's surprising, because here, as with most leadership issues, the example is set at the top. Whether the chief executive does a masterful job or flat out fails to execute, the template is likely to be followed all down the line.

Leaders who can consistently get organizations to execute tend to share the following traits:

  • They know themselves and are honest about their own strengths and weaknesses. At any level in the organization, self-assessment is a critical first step for team building. If financial analysis is not a personal strong point, it is essential that you identify and put a capable "numbers guy" on the team. (N.B.: "Guy" is a gender-neutral term.) If your writing skills are weak, add a writer. Knowing your weaknesses is important, but it is critical to also recognize your strengths in order to balance the contributions that all team members can make to the outcome, to successful execution.
  • They know their people and have assessed their strengths and weaknesses. Building an organization (or a team) is an inexact science, and the biggest —and most common —management mistakes involve the selection of subordinates and team members who don't pan out. While such mistakes are inevitable, the willingness to quickly correct them is essential for effective leadership and execution.
  • They are realistic in setting goals that are both ambitious and attainable. The late Vince Lombardi stressed the concept of "second effort," the ability of an athlete to accomplish that which appears, at first, to be impossible. In business, stretch goals require second effort for attainment. If not, they're not really stretch goals. But real stretch goals do demand the ability to move beyond a comfort zone to reach the used-to-be unattainable.

    There is a mission-critical difference between establishing stretch goals and setting unrealistic objectives for the sake of appearing to continually and continuously improve. When people tumble to the fact that they are being asked to accomplish the impossible, for no good reason except the boss's career, they often quit trying. In a distribution center, for example, it is unlikely that a goal of increasing shipping volume by orders of magnitude while maintaining zero errors and reducing headcount by a double-digit percentage will be reached. The frustration of failing to meet false stretch goals will drain energy from the management organization or from a project team.
  • They set the example. Follow-through is achieved through leadership by example. By setting an example as a person who gets things done, those around you will recognize that modeling your behavior can enhance their opportunities for success.

Creating a framework for execution
You can start the process of effective execution by identifying and challenging old, destructive beliefs.

First, squash the idea that yours is a commodity business. Commodities have one significant thing in common —customers believe that price is the only differentiator between competitors. Many managers in the logistics service industries overemphasize pricing, based on a belief that they are selling a commodity. The best companies in most industries are those that develop and deliver "special magic," a unique service or product that cannot be duplicated by the competition. Special magic is as much a mind-set as it is a reality. When you believe that your organization can create magical results for your customers, it is possible for the magic to become reality. More important, the customer will believe in the magic.

Second, make it clear to all concerned that profits don't always follow revenues; in fact, often the opposite is true. Bigger is not always better. Fortunately, the lean movement in both manufacturing and logistics exposes opportunities to raise profit by cutting fat, rather than by growing larger. Better yet, a lean approach can help synchronize bottom-line growth with top-line growth.

Next, discourage the assumption that "our ability to grow is limited." Many years ago, nearly every company in the warehouse service business operated in a single metropolitan area. Conventional wisdom held that quality would be compromised if branch operations were established at some distance from headquarters. Today, national service providers are common, and international service firms operate —successfully —on nearly every continent. The best of the best can provide quality services of many varieties from point of manufacture in distant lands to delivery to customers' locations across North America.

Every healthy business is also a growth business, limited only by the ambition and imagination of leadership. Growth involves quality as well as quantity. If your organization cannot be the largest in its field, is there any reason why it cannot be the best?

Another point: Control is vital, but overemphasizing it can be destructive. Results are what count, and creative people frequently break the rules to get results. Discipline may be important, but the promotion of creativity on your team is even more important. Finding the balance between order and discipline, and loosening the reins on mavericks is a critical management skill.

Understanding the execution system
To succeed at execution, it's important to understand both the pitfalls and the elements of success. As for the former, common reasons for failure in execution include a lack of necessary resources, poorly defined requirements, unrealistic timetables, misunderstood risks, and inability to respond to changed circumstances. A successful execution system, on the other hand, should include the following elements: standardization of the method, activity alignment, a regular review and refinement cycle, an organized communications program, and measurement of results.

Once you've hit upon a system that works, it's important to record the methodology. If you have 12 facilities in your network and the shipping accuracy rates of three are consistently higher than those of the other nine, it is critical to identify and describe in detail precisely how processes are performed at the successful facilities. Careful documentation of successful practices will help raise the quality of all performance.

It's also important to keep in mind that time management starts at the top. Management icon Peter Drucker observed that "effective executives know where the time goes." If time management is not built into your organization, execution is unlikely to be improved. How is the time of each management or team member best used? Are some people doing things right, but not doing the right things? Effective execution is enhanced by drawing back periodically to review whether or not everybody involved has the right priorities. Re-examining priorities should be part of every performance review.

To be successful at execution, we must understand the elements of a successful execution system, as well as the reasons for failure. There are nuances in definition that might be debated; yet most of us, like U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart on pornography, recognize effective execution when we see it.

About the Authors

Art van Bodegraven
Columnist
Art van Bodegraven was, among other roles, chief design officer for the DES Leadership Academy. He passed away on June 18, 2017. He will be greatly missed.

More articles by Art van Bodegraven
Kenneth B. Ackerman
Columnist
Kenneth B. Ackerman, president of The Ackerman Company, can be reached at (614) 488-3165.

More articles by Kenneth B. Ackerman

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