Establishing a Culture of Excellence: A Conversation With Arun Hariharan

Arun Hariharan is a quality, knowledge management, and performance management practitioner. He has worked with several large companies and is the founder and CEO of The CPi Coach.

Written for both quality practitioners and business leaders, his latest book, Continuous Permanent Improvement (Quality Press, 2014), is a strategic distillation of experiences, anecdotes, stories, case studies, and lessons learned from successes and mistakes in nearly three decades of experience.

Hariharan has worked with business processes, systematic thinking, customer focus, quality, and performance measurements in a variety of companies and industries as diverse as financial services, telecom, manufacturing, conglomerate, and management consulting.

He spoke with ASQ about key lessons in establishing a culture of continuous permanent improvement.

Q. You talk often in your book about the need to establish a culture of excellence at an organization as a way to ensure success. Others would use profitability or market-share as a way to gauge success. How do excellence and profitability work together to define success in an organization?

Arun Hariharan: In a business, clearly, profitability and market-share are key measures of success. A culture of excellence is an important enabler to achieve financial results – in any event – to achieve them in a sustained way. A culture of excellence will ensure that the organization is proactive and does not miss any improvement opportunity. It can be said that financial results are the end and a culture of excellence is an important means of achieving this end – that’s how they work together.

I would like to use the example of Toyota and another automobile manufacturer (that shall remain unnamed out of respect for the dead!). Both started their automobile manufacturing operations around the same time some decades ago. Toyota decided to follow the path of excellence.

The other company, because it enjoyed a monopoly for many years in its market, made good money for several years despite palming off a shoddy quality product. The party lasted as long as customers had no choice. In the 1980s competition set in, but this company still refused to pay attention to quality or excellence. It believed that it would always have a bunch of “loyal” customers despite its poor quality and despite competitors offering better value.

The reality turned out to be very different. From the very first year that competition set in, the company that did not believe in excellence started losing market-share, eventually going bankrupt. An announcement of its shutting down appeared recently. On the other hand, Toyota, a company that believes in a culture of excellence, is a world-leader in profitability and market share.

Q. How big of a role should upper management play in establishing a culture of excellence versus regular employees?

AH: Upper management is the biggest make or break factor in establishing a culture of excellence. More than merely telling people that excellence is important, it is important to demonstrate to employees that upper management means this. The best way to convince employees is for senior people to actually get involved and spend time in excellence.

For example, I know CEOs who have spent time month after month for years in reviewing quality and customer related performance measures – with the same seriousness with which they review revenue and profits. Another important thing that upper management must do is to ensure that employees’ performance appraisals, starting with the CEO, include measures related to excellence – and that people’s bonuses and growth in the company are actually linked to this.

Perhaps the most important element in establishing the culture of excellence is for upper management to create an atmosphere where employees genuinely feel encouraged, not afraid, to make quality problems, defects and customer-complaints visible, so that they can be solved and prevented.

Q. Is there one particular tool or tools that you recommend are used every day in an organization that wants to commit to establishing a culture of excellence?

AH: We found that if strategic COPIS, root cause analysis, value stream mapping and simply listening to customers can become the organization’s habits rather than merely seen as tools to be used by a few, they will go a long way in establishing a culture of excellence.

Q. How should leaders capture, retain and apply organizational knowledge gathered in the pursuit of excellence?

AH: I look at customer-voice (which could include complaints or data obtained by surveys) as the most important part of organizational knowledge gathered in the pursuit of excellence. Once this knowledge is captured, some of the methods described in my recent book (such as root cause analysis to get to the root of the problem, identify the solution, and make the solution permanent by embedding it into the process) could be applied.

Another important part of organizational knowledge that we found worth retaining and replicating is completed excellence initiatives, including formal quality improvement projects. For example, an improvement project done in one part of the organization could be easily replicated in other locations if the organization has a structured way of capturing, storing, retrieving and applying relevant organizational knowledge.

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5 Responses to Establishing a Culture of Excellence: A Conversation With Arun Hariharan

  1. Jose Demar Pauly says:

    Thanks a lot for a very informative discussion on Culture of Excellence. In relation to this, may I be allowed to ask if what is in opinion the best way to influence an organizational culture in pursuit of continuous improvement and customer satisfaction? There would surely be the greatest factor of the prevailing organizational culture as shaped by the national culture and leaders’ influence. Hence, is there such a strong difference with how to achieve the culture of excellence as influenced by its regional or national culture?

    • Thank you, Jose and Nankie, for your comments.

      In response to Jose’s question, I agree that national and regional cultures have a role in influencing organizational culture. However, my opinion and experience is that the reverse is also true – after all, the national culture is nothing but the sum total of the cultures of individuals and organizations that make the nation! I know organizations that started off as “misfits” in the sense that they pursued excellence when almost nobody around them believed in excellence (I am sure you can think of an example or two yourself). However, over time, their relentless pursuit of excellence, and the consistent business results that this gave them has made them role models and the culture is spreading to other organizations. To my mind, the most important role of a quality professional is to be the agent of this culture-change. Another thing that I often experience is that quick-hits or regular visible benefits from excellence on the one hand, will help quality folks to achieve higher levels of commitment and involvement from leadership, which in turn, will lead to bigger and long-term benefits, and the desired culture of excellence. And, make sure your organization recognizes and rewards employees who demonstrate excellence in their work in a visible manner, so that the culture spreads. You may wish to read the chapter “A word to Business Leaders” from the book. This chapter addresses the culture-question in detail.

  2. Hi Arun,
    You lifted out the real essentials very well !
    Nankie de Wit

  3. Edward Livingston says:

    Enjoyed the article/discussion with Arun …where can I get the book ?

  4. Julia McIntosh, ASQ communications says:

    Hello, Edward. There’s a link to the book in Arun’s intro, I also emailed it to you. Thanks for your interest!