Building a Culture of Excellence: Tom Peters

I created a series of sketch notes for Tiffani Bova’s “What’s Next” podcast where she meets brilliant people to discuss customer experience, growth and innovation. Tiffani Bova is a Global Customer Growth and Innovation Evangelist at Salesforce. I will post sketchnote versions of selected podcast episodes that enlightened me. Tiffani is also the author of a new book “Growth IQ: Get Smarter About the Choices that Will Make or Break Your Business” due for release in August 2018.

It is safe to assume that every CEO would have priority building a culture of Excellence because ultimately excellence drives growth and makes a company memorable.

Today, we have a bunch of complex models to help organizations become excellent, but in the pursuit of implementing these complex capability models, organizations forget that excellence is as much about people as it is about the process. It is as much about the small things as it is about the big things.

In a world that is obsessed with complexity, Tom Peters advocates simple things to enable a culture of excellence. He says,

“Embracing new technology is incredibly important, but EXCELLENCE IS HUMAN.”

Excellence is all about being close to your customers, creating ecosystems where best people can do their best work, developing people, listening, caring, smiling and saying “Thank you” often enough. These are not complex things, yet for many leaders, these are the most difficult things to do. And these simple things are at the core of excellence.

Please listen to this episode of the podcast and I am pretty sure it will be thought provoking, as it always is with whatever Tom shares.

Here is my sketchnote summary of the key nuggets of wisdom Tom Peters shared in this podcast episode.


Also See:

Real Influence is a By-Product

The world today reveres influence and this leads people to chase influence. When influence becomes a goal, you can easily lose focus on what truly builds influence.

Influence – real influence that changes people and their behaviors for better – is a by-product of:

  1. Clarifying your values to yourself and hence to others
  2. Living those values and setting the right example (being authentic and integral)
  3. Making a meaningful contribution to community (yes, business IS a community)
  4. Being super-generous about sharing your work, insights, art and gifts
  5. And being a champion at listening to others (listening is a way to respect others)
  6. Building trust one contribution, one conversation and one result at a time
  7. Truly connecting with others (technology is just a medium)
  8. Believing in your insights and ideas (strength of belief feeds passion)
  9. And still being flexible and open minded about letting the beliefs and learning evolve
  10. Sharing stories that move people to better position (in thinking and in actions)
  11. Providing a lens to people to see things from your unique point of view
  12. Taking the conversations forward by “adding” meaningful perspectives
  13. Being intentional about being generous
  14. Always being constructive in thinking and ways of working
  15. Being consistent in your pursuits

What do you think?

Also Read:

15 Simplest Acts of #Leadership


  1. Smile. It is a universal language of compassion, care and love. 
  2. Greet people by their names.
  3. Share positive feedback about the work they are doing.
  4. Ask them about their advice on a critical problem.
  5. Listen with an intent to understand.
  6. Learn about them, their work, their process and their challenges.
  7. Help them in getting rid of their roadblocks.
  8. Establish trust to create a non-threatening environment for people.
  9. Be your authentic self when dealing with people and remain integral.
  10. Act on their feedback.
  11. Show them how much you believe in them.
  12. Encourage them.
  13. Thank them for their contributions.
  14. Recognize their work and their achievements.
  15. Celebrate their accomplishments.


Optimize the Whole

When we think in parts, we improve in parts. Most of the business improvement is the game of ‘sub-optimization’. You optimize pieces without looking at the whole.

When a customer reports problem with your software, you do an incidental root cause analysis and address the code quality problem. You deploy tools, introduce new processes, measure constantly and yet – a few months later, you encounter a similar problem.

But when you look at the whole system, you might figure out that the real root cause is in something which is immeasurable yet important – may be, collaboration with other teams or how you sell. May be, inefficiencies rooted in how you support your customers after product is delivered.

We optimize the silos and the whole misses our radar. If ‘customer centricity’ is one of your key values, you should consider optimizing the whole customer journey with your organization – not just your development processes.

Often, we also optimize that which is measured. If your metrics are narrow, you will never be able to focus on systemic metrics that may really help your business and the customer.

Here are a few important things to consider when you optimize the whole:

We need to cultivate “a discipline to see the wholes, a framework for seeing interrelationships rather than things, for seeing patterns of change rather than snapshots

  • Focus on Value Stream. Value for customer is created in a series of interactions between various processes that starts right from first contact with the customer. Value stream mapping is a lean tool to identify a series of events right from conception to delivery of product or service.
  • Define what “complete” system means. Too often, we think of complete product as a set of completed features. For customers though, complete product is an experience they receive through each interaction with the organization. It helps to define what ‘complete’ means.
  • Measure Right. When you have narrow functional metrics, people in each function will work  hard to achieve their goals and yet, organization will not realize benefits of having such metrics. However, if you have more systemic metrics (and rewards) where people win only when the system wins, it aligns everyone to the same set of goals to ensure that ultimately, customer wins too.

Sub-optimization in organizations is a thinking problem. When you fail to see the whole, you undermine your capabilities as an organization.

And this may be the precise thing that holds you back from delivering a superior performance to your customers.

In 100 Words: Climbing Molehills Without Sweating

In one of the episodes of American television sitcom “I Love Lucy” Ricky comes home and finds his wife crawling on hands and knees in a determined search for lost earrings.

Ricky asks, “You lost your earrings in the living room?”

“No,” Lucy replies. “I lost them in the bedroom but the light is much better out here.”

We fall in a similar trap; taking easier (and safer) routes to find answers rather than having courage and patience to do ‘the right thing’. This tendency plagues our careers as much as organizations.

Mediocrity is climbing molehills without sweating.” – Icelandic Proverb

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Also Read: Other 100 Word Parables

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Story Reference: Compliance Isn’t Good Enough: Building Buy-In Through Trust at The Build Network

Great Story: Improvement and Tending the Garden

Improvement is not a product. It is process. On the journey to improve constantly, you can never announce that you have arrived because there isn’t a destination. If you get certified against an external standard, that is a milestone which can provide a framework to improve further. Organizations often fall in trap of thinking about external certifications like ISO as a destination beyond which they lose the motivation to travel further.

This reminds me of a very interesting story that I read in Subroto Bagchi’s book “The High Performance Entrepreneur”:

A monk was tending to a Japanese garden and meticulously, for hours on end, he was removing dry twigs from the immaculately maintained flowering bushes. A passer-by, who was fascinated by the complete concentration and care of the monk at work, could no longer hold himself. He asked the monk, “O holy one, when will your work be done?”

Without looking up, the monk replied, “When the last dry twig is removed from the garden”.

Bagchi adds,

“An organization, like a garden, is a living thing, and the process of removing dry twigs never ends. So, like the monk, the top management can never say, the job is done.”

Improvement was traditionally associated with growth, that if you constantly improve, you grow and prosper. As competition grew more global and fierce, constant and often dramatic improvements have become essential for mere survival.

For business leaders, it helps to adopt a mindset of Zen gardener and build a culture that strives to improve, before competition forces them to do so.

Related Reading at QAspire Blog

A Story on Importance of Processes: From Subroto Bagchi
Great Quotes: Gems from Subroto Bagchi on Leadership

Enjoy the Process – 2

In 2010, I wrote a post titled “Enjoy the Process”. The central idea of the post was:

“My point is – if we constantly keep our goal in perspective (and get overwhelmed by it), we become less efficient. Anxiousness (and sometimes fear) kills creativity. We rush through the process to see if our efforts are delivering results. Quest for instant gratification can result in sub-optimal outcomes. Focusing on the moment, on task currently on our hands enables us to fully express ourselves. One of the best gifts we can give ourselves is to enjoy the work while we are doing it (being in the moment) – and expressing our skills fully. It is both gratifying and satisfying.”

In his recent post “The Fruits of our Labors”, the awesome Steve Pressfield nailed it with a story of Cole Porter:

“I read a story about Cole Porter when he was writing songs for the movies. Sometimes the producers would shoot him down. He’d play them his newest tune and they’d reject it. They’d kick him out of the office. I loved his reaction:

“I got a million of ‘em.”

Cole Porter was a pro. He knew he didn’t have just one song, or ten songs, or a hundred and ten songs. He had a lifetime supply.

In other words, music wasn’t Cole Porter’s job, it was his career. It was his calling. It was his love. He was in it for the long haul, come rain or come shine (wait, that was Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer). He was in it for the process, not the product.”

Steve further concludes:

“Where is the joy in writing, dancing, film-making, or any art or entrepreneurial venture? It’s not in the praise; it’s not in a paycheck. (Though there’s nothing wrong with praise or paychecks.) It’s in the work itself. The sweat of it and the grind of it and the happy moments when it gets rolling all by itself. Krishna said that’s all we have a right to, and he hit the nail on the head. The joy is private and silent.”

Read Steve’s full post here.

Late Dr. C. K. Prahalad’s Business Wisdom

Gift of thoughts is the best gift we can receive. After my talk at Ahmedabad Management Association recently, I was gifted with a book titled “Purely Prahalad – Business Wisdom from Late Dr. C. K. Prahalad’s thoughts”. This book is compiled and edited by AMA’s team.

It is a brilliant collection of useful gems. Here are 5 thoughts from the global thinker that I learned the most from:

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Continuous Change

I am not interested in “charismatic leader” approach to innovation. Companies need continuous changes – not just episodic breakthroughs.

Don’t Wait Too Long

Finding the motivation to affect change is very difficult when the existing business model seem to be working well. But the question to ask is, “Will their zone of comfort force them to wait too long before they make a transition?”

Next v/s Best

Best practices lead to agreement on mediocrity. I do not have much interest in best practices. Because all of us benchmark each other, we gravitate towards mediocrity in a hurry. What we really need is to ask what is the next practice, so that we can become the benchmark companies, benchmark institutions around the world.

Creating an ‘Unlearning’ Organization

Creating a ‘learning organization’ is only half the solution. Just as important is creating an ‘unlearning organization’. To create the future, a company must unlearn at least some of its past. We’re all familiar with ‘learning curve’, but what about the ‘forgetting curve’ – the rate at which a company can unlearn those habits that hinder future success?

Helping Others

If you are honest about helping others rather than showing how smart you are, things are very easy.

Seth Godin on Project Leadership

We live in a time when our career is not just a sum total of years we spent in the industry. Our career is about what projects we initiated/handled/led and what difference did the project deliver. Project is a new eco-system, a new playground where we play and thrive as professionals to deliver our best.

Since everything we do is a project, I thought of seeking some guidance from Seth Godin (my hero) via his blog posts on how to thrive and lead in a project-oriented world:

If you choose to manage a project, it’s pretty safe. As the manager, you report. You report on what’s happening, you chronicle the results, you are the middleman.

If you choose to run a project, on the other hand, you’re on the hook. It’s an active engagement, bending the status quo to your will, ensuring that you ship.

Via post: “The difference between running and managing a project”

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Here’s another gem:

Instead of seeking excuses, the successful project is filled with people who are obsessed with avoiding excuses. If you relentlessly work to avoid opportunities to use your ability to blame, you may never actually need to blame anyone. If you’re not pulled over by the cop, no need to blame the speedometer, right?

Via post: Looking for the right excuse

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You don’t work on an assembly line any more. You work in project world, and more projects mean more chances to screw up, to learn, to make a reputation and to have more impact.

When it’s you against the boss, the goal is to do less work.

When it’s you against the project, the goal is to do more work.

– Via post: When is it due?

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So here are some critical questions:

  1. What projects you initiated in past few months (not because someone asked for, but because you believed in them)?
  2. Are you simply managing a project, or leading one?
  3. What difference are you delivering via your project(s)?

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Related Posts at QAspire

Projects as Opportunities to Practice Leadership

Thoughts on Project Leadership and Choices

7 Favorite Quotes From Blogosphere

I remember collecting and writing quotes in my diary as a student. A good quote has power to inspire us, to stir us and sometimes, make us uncomfortable. Quotes provide a spark to our thinking.

Here are a few recent quotes from my friends (via their posts) in blogosphere, that inspired me lately. You will like them too:

From: “Seeing Others” by Mary Jo Asmus

Most people crave acknowledgement; in a word, they want to be seen. Seeing others takes attention and quiet thought on your part. It requires you to notice, to listen, and to (sometimes) be surprised at what you see. Acknowledging others takes effort, but the rewards to you and your organization will be great.

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Via: 7 Breaths

To succeed, you must focus on the person you want to BE, not the things you want to have. Exercising is not a verb, but a way of life. The same thing goes for healthy eating. To succeed in anything you must BE the person who is consistent, intense, and intelligent. Work on seeing yourself as this person.

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From: “In Praise of Doing” by Dan Rockwell

Do something; stand on it and do something again. What you do makes a difference not what you want to do.

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From: The Danger of Walks By Kurt Harden at Cultural Offering

Employees need to be challenged.  They need to keep their chops sharp.  Without the stimulation of new challenges and, yes, problems to solve, sloppiness settles in.  What is the saying?  If you want something done well, give it to a busy person.

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From: Nicholas Bate

Brilliant isn’t making it on the stock exchange if you never see your kids. Brilliant isn’t winning the company Porsche two quarters in a row if the third quarter you were in hospital with chest pains.

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Via: “Indira Gandhi on Doing Work Versus Taking Credit For It” by Bob Sutton

My grandfather once told me that there were two kinds of people: those who do the work and those who take the credit. He told me to try to be in the first group; there was much less competition.

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From: “Why Sport is Actually a Spiritual Pursuit” by Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev

Being a sport means you are willing to play. Willing to play means you are involved or alive to the situation in which you exist, and that is the essence of life. If there is anything that is truly close to a spiritual process, in the normal course of life, that is sports. Swami Vivekananda went to the extent of saying, "In kicking a ball or playing a game, you are much closer to the Divine than you will ever be in prayer." You can pray without involvement, but you cannot play sports without involvement, and involvement is the essence of life.

Quality? Excellence? What?

I was casually discussing quality and excellence with one of my old friends. We were exchanging our ideas on these topics, when I realized that he used the words quality and excellence interchangeably. This led to some more thinking and here’s what I realized:

  • Quality is generally extrinsic. It is driven by external demands. We implement best practices in line with industry standards. We write our processes to get certified against a certain standard. We develop our products and services in line with the demands of our customers. When we continuously meet these demands, adhere to processes and improve upon them, we build repeatability in our success.
  • Excellence is always intrinsic. It is our innate desire to go out of our way to deliver a superior experience. Not because someone else demands it, but because ‘you’ want it that way. It is for your own satisfaction of having done a great job. Excellence is a ‘people’ game, and the one that pushes quality one step forward. In either cases, people are at the fulcrum.

So, how are they related?

In my view, quality is a route to excellence. People can do their best, walk that extra-mile and think of adding value once they are absolutely clear of how to do the basic things right. Processes given them a firm base on which they can build excellence. On the other hand, excellent people may fumble if they are not supported with right set of guidelines on delivering quality.

Secondly, excellence has a lot to do with people’s motivation to do a great job. It is their choice. Getting people to exercise their choice of delivering excellence is #1 leadership challenge. It starts with getting the right people and building the right culture.

Finally, just like quality, excellence is a moving target. Today’s excellent becomes tomorrow’s good enough and day-after-tomorrow’s mediocre.

Bottom line:

Pursuing excellence is a worthy goal. Knowing the close inter-relationship between quality and excellence is important. Defining them clearly is important. Getting people to excel, driving their motivation, creating a constantly improving culture and striking balance between adherence and motivation is a big challenge leaders face.

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Connected Thoughts at QAspire Blog:

A Worthy Goal for 2011 and Beyond

New year brings with it new predictions, agendas, resolutions and trends. New business models, new ways of working, cooler tools and technologies.

One thing that remains constant (and has remained constant) is “Excellence” – which is at the core of the success of any organization, product, service or an individual.

If I were to select only one theme for next many years, it would be excellence because once you start looking for excellence in everything and commit yourself to it, you often tend to get it.

Quality is often defined as “degree of excellence”, extent to which organizations, people and products reach their potential. In my view, quality is a route to excellence and continual improvement is the tool. Excellence requires passion to improve constantly.

As we start a new year, let me share one of the best definitions of excellence I have come across in the last year:

Excellence isn’t about meeting the spec, it’s about setting the spec. It defines what the consumer sees as quality right this minute, and tomorrow, if you’re good, you’ll reset that expectation again.

The surefire way to achieve excellence, then, is not to create a written spec and match it. The surefire way is to be human. To be artistic: to make a connection with the customer and to somehow change them for the better.

From Seth Godin’s post “What is Excellence” at Tom Peters website

So, seeking/delivering excellence in everything you do is a goal worth chasing in 2011 (and beyond). “Striving for excellence” should be a call to action for us to renew our focus on developing a culture of excellence, great leadership, adopting best practices, making them work in our context, continual improvement and superior service to our customers/peers.

On that note, wish you an “excellent” 2011!

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Experience and Expertise – A Few Thoughts

When a kid learns how to play music, he develops “ability” to play music. He knows the basics. He is able to play the music according to notes. He can play the songs exactly as the notes tell him to play.

Then a few more years of practice and he develops ability to play new songs without notes. The notes that he has been playing for all these years come naturally to him now. He can listen to a new song and immediately play it as well without any help of written notes.

A few more years and he is now an expert. He is able to invent and experiment with new combination of notes. He can listen to a new song and add his own improvisations/variations to the basic notes. He understands music so well that he is now able to compose new songs from scratch. He develops a sound judgment, is aware of what audience wants and can offer minute insight into each and every note that he plays. That is “expertise”.

With years of experience that we gain, it is very critical to gain expertise.

To be able to think beyond tactics of work. To be able to relate our work with a larger context. To be able to foresee things before they happen (pro-activity). To be able to offer  deep insights and sound judgment. To be able to build/deliver quality consistently. To raise the bar. To be able to do more in less time. To innovate and experiment. To bring about a positive change in people/organization through our work. To do things in a way that they become hard to measure.

That is real expertise – exactly the one which makes us valuable.

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P.S.: Expertise doesn’t always go up with experience. Another realization is that more knowledge does not always mean more expertise. Ability to execute that knowledge does. That is because most explicit knowledge is widely and freely available now. But to execute that knowledge well requires one to have implicit skills mentioned above.(You might also like reading my older post: Explicit v/s Tacit – Content v/s Process)

Have a GREAT start into the week!

In Pursuit Of “Customer Delight”: Getting The Basics Right

A lot of companies have the phrase “delighting our customers” in their well-crafted mission statements and quality policies. I see “customer delight” as a cherry, with the cake being “solving their problems and meeting the expectations” – so when we say “cherry on top of the cake”, the cake has to be right. Customers don’t get delighted by cherries alone, or by cherries on wrong cakes.

Here is the thing. To be able to reach a state where you “delight” your customers, you have to first “know and meet” customer’s basic expectations consistently. That is the core of your business – the reason why your customers come to you. Your products/services have to first meet the basic criteria of delivering the value that client is seeking.

So when you think of delighting your customer, think of the basics first.

  • Does your product/service meet the core expectation of the customer? Does it solve their problems? To what extent?
  • Do you have a method to accurately identify customer’s real/unique expectations? Their unique context?
  • Do you have right set of processes, people and technology that will help you deliver up to customer’s expectations consistently?
  • What is missing and how can you scale up to ensure consistency of delivery? What are the gaps that need to be filled?

Once you have these basics right, your efforts and investment on delighting your customers through various innovative and inclusive programs will yield the right returns. Right cherry on the right kind of cake is a delightful combo! Isn’t it?

Customer’s loyalty and further, advocacy only comes when you know how to deliver the basics right. Merely trying to delight customers when your core offering does not solve their real problems is an effort in vain. It may only help you keep a customer for now, but not on a long run.

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Excellence: Lessons From Anupam Kher

I have believed that most good things in life are either free or inexpensive. A good walk, a great hug, a few moments spent together, a long drive, a free lecture, time spent with friends and so on.

I write this because over the weekend, I experienced some of these. Monsoon is at its best. Cool weather and Friendship Day on a Sunday!

I visited an interactive session with one of the greatest Indian actors Anupam Kher at Ahmedabad Management Association (AMA) as a part of “Face to Face with Achievers of Excellence” program. Anupam Kher needs no introduction to the Indian audience, but for the others, Anupam Kher is one of the best actors in contemporary cinema who has worked in over 400 films and 100 plays winning a number of awards including Padma Shree.

Anupam talked about excellence – as he sees it. He delivered some simple yet powerful messages on excellence while narrating the tale of his life and career. Here is a quick summary of those powerful lessons:

  • Be your own enemy: We get too bogged down by comparisons and competition. On the road to excellence, you are your own benchmark. You have to be your strongest critic.
  • Remain curious: We are born curious, but as we grow, we loose our sense of wonder along the way. Never stop dreaming.
  • Failure is overrated: Schools and colleges sell the fear of failure. In pursuit of excellence, failures make you better. Failures bring us closer to ourselves and makes us do more. World does not stop if we fail, so do things you love doing, and if you fail, learn from it. Consistent success can sometimes become boring. Henry Ford said this, “Failure is the opportunity to begin again, more intelligently.”
  • Be comfortable with self: Most people spend their lives trying to become someone else. Be yourself and be comfortable with who you are. You can only excel in life when you are happy with who you are. (Read my piece on self-actualization)
  • Don’t stop trying: When you see your goal clearly, the hurdles become invisible. That does not mean hurdles are not there. They just become insignificant. When faced with hurdles, don’t stop trying. Anupam shared a great quote, “When you try, you risk failure. When you don’t try, you ensure it.”
  • Honesty and hard work: Once you know what you are good at, you need a lot of honesty (with self and with others) and hard work. I would add that persistence is equally important.

These lessons (and more) were nicely wrapped in powerful personal stories that engaged the audience. While all these things were known and read somewhere, a lecture like this with successful people helps a great deal in reinforcing them to your belief system.

I am inspired on this Monday morning, and you too have an upbeat start into the week.

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P.S: Jason Seiden at “Fail Spectacularly” blog has hosted the latest Carnival of Leadership Development featuring my post “5 Ways to Build Trust” Lessons from a Conversation)” along with a host of other GREAT posts on leadership and executive development. Check it out – some great ideas waiting to be explored!

Quality & Improvement: From “Experience” to “Advocacy”

Consider the following scenario:

You go to a new restaurant for the first time. You evaluate quality of food and quality of service. Your first visit was about experimenting with a new place and getting an experience.

A few weeks later, you go there again. You get a similar or a better experience this time. They have added a few new items to their menu. Service is better too. You loved their Italian Pizza. You now believe and trust that this restaurant is really good.

The third visit a few months later, you again get a similar or better experience. New recipes on the offer. The service staff is even more cordial. The ambience, decor has improved. You again ordered their specialized Italian Pizza. After this visit, you are now a “loyal” customer. Every time you want to eat that special Pizza, you visit the same restaurant.

Beyond this point, you start advocating this restaurant to your friends for specialized Italian Pizza. You recommend their food, service, ambience and overall quality. You become an evangelist.

Now think about your organization. How many customers are still experiencing you. How many of them really believe in you. How many customers are loyal? Do they advocate your services to others?

A common mistake organizations commit is to deliver great experience first time and then take the customer for granted. The moment there is someone else who is better and delivers a higher quality experience, a customer is lost!

So, quality is a moving target – each time a customer comes back to you, you need to deliver similar or better quality (of products, services and experience), you need to demonstrate improvement, care enough about them, stay on top of market trends and keep changing the rules of the game (innovation). When you consistently focus on delivering value, your customers move higher up in the value pyramid from “experience” to ‘belief & trust” to “loyalty” to “advocacy”.

Delivering great experiences through people, processes and leadership comes with a cost, but that cost is far less than the cost of losing a customer and then acquiring a new one all over again.

Note: My book ‘#QUALITYtweet – 140 bite-sized ideas to deliver quality in every project’ explores the people, process and leadership aspects to build a constantly improving organization culture. Check it out if you haven’t already!

Adding Value and Importance of 2%


Most professionals comply to given set of instructions to deliver the expected outcomes. Plain and consistent compliance to specs only takes you so far. For real progress, one has to “add value” by going beyond the specs. It is only when you see the larger picture, do things better, differently, more efficiently that you can add value.

Recently, I was talking to one of my colleagues who is a veteran in the industry.

He told me, “One should never start any work till the time one has 102% clarity on the task/project.”

I asked, “Can you explain why 102%?”

He elaborated, “One needs to be 100% clear about specs (what needs to be done) and then have at least 2% clarity on how one can add value on top of 100%”.

I instantly agreed.

The additional 2% does not necessarily have to be stellar things. They can be small things done with a lot of care. Lot of love.

2% is what makes all the difference in our performances. It makes them all special. It helps us deliver excellence. On a long run, It helps us in ‘standing out’.

Have a Great Weekend!