Tag Archives: operational effectiveness

How the Baldrige Process Can Enrich Any Management System

The “Baldrige Crystal” in a hall at NIST (Gaithersburg, MD). Image Credit: me.

Another wave of reviewing applications for the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award (MBNQA) is complete, and I am exhausted — and completely fulfilled and enriched!

That’s the way this process works. As a National Examiner, you will be frustrated, you may cry, and you may think your team of examiners will never come to consensus on the right words to say to the applicant! But because there is a structured process and a discipline, it always happens, and everyone learns.

I’ve been working with the Baldrige Excellence Framework (BEF) for almost 20 years. In the beginning, I used it as a template. Need to develop a Workforce Management Plan that’s solid, and integrates well with leadership, governance, and operations? There’s a framework for that (Criterion 5). Need to beef up your strategic planning process so you do the right thing and get it done right? There’s a framework for that (Criterion 2).

Need to develop Standard Work in any area of your organization, and don’t know where to start (or, want to make sure you covered all the bases)? There’s a framework for that.

Every year, 300 National Examiners are competitively selected from industry experts and senior leaders who care about performance and improvement, and want to share their expertise with others. The stakes are high… after all, this is the only award of its kind sponsored by the highest levels of government!

Once you become a National Examiner (my first year was 2009), you get to look at the Criteria Questions through a completely different lens. You start to see the rich layers of its structure. You begin to appreciate that this guidebook was carefully and iteratively crafted over three decades, drawing from the experiences of executives and senior leaders across a wide swath of industries, faced with both common and unique challenges.

The benefits to companies that are assessed for the award are clear and actionable, but helping others helps examiners, too. Yes, we put in a lot of volunteer hours on evenings and weekends (56 total, for me, this year) — but I got to go deep with one more organization. I got to see how they think of themselves, how they designed their organization to meet their strategic goals, how they act on that design. Our team of examiners got to discuss the strengths we noticed individually, the gaps that concerned us, and we worked together to come to consensus on the most useful and actionable recommendations for the applicant so they can advance to the next stage of quality maturity.

One of the things I learned this year was how well Baldrige complements other frameworks like ISO 9001 and lean. You may have a solid process in place for managing operations, leading continuous improvement events, and sustaining the improvements. You may have a robust strategic planning process, with clear connections between overall objectives and individual actions.

What Baldrige can help you do, even if you’re already a high performance organization, is:

  • tighten the gaps
  • call out places where standard work should be defined
  • identify new breakthrough opportunities for improvement
  • help everyone in your workforce see and understand the connections between people, processes, and technologies

The whitespace — those connections and seams — are where the greatest opportunities for improvement and innovation are hiding. The Criteria Questions in the Baldrige Excellence Framework (BEF) can help you illuminate them.

What Obama and McCain can learn from Michael Porter

On September 26, in the first Presidential debate between Barack Obama and John McCain, the candidates discussed the perceived success or failure of the war in Iraq. McCain vigorously promoted his feeling that the troop surge was a success, while Obama focused on the rationale behind invading in the first place – claiming that the tactics may be working, but the bigger picture, the strategy – was misplaced. McCain launched back with a criticism: “I’m afraid Senator Obama doesn’t understand the difference between a tactic and a strategy.”

“Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” — Sun Tzu, Chinese General, 500 B.C.

Pundits have questioned whether either of the candidates really knows the difference between strategy and tactics, despite some evidence to the contrary. In politics, the distinction between strategy and tactics is compounded by the fact that the military defines strategy in a very specific context where the concepts of policy and strategy can easily be entangled.

But politics aside… do you know the difference? And do you know why you should care?

The answer lies in a 1996 article in Harvard Business Review by Michael Porter entitled “What is Strategy?” – one of the classic articles in management. He argues that there is a fundamental difference between strategy, which involves striking a contrast between yourself and your competitors, and operational effectiveness, which means “performing similar activities better than rivals perform them.” All of the pillars of managing quality and productivity fall into this latter category, which explains why executives have, according to Porter, struggled to translate those operational improvements into sustainable profitability.

“Improving operational effectiveness is a necessary part of management, but it is not strategy… The operational agenda is the proper place for constant change, flexibility, and relentless efforts to achieve best practice. In contrast, the strategic agenda is the right place for defining a unique position, making clear trade-offs, and tightening fit… strategic continuity, in fact, should make an organization’s continual improvement more effective.”

Using this frame of reference, a country’s foreign policy is more akin to its strategy than war plans or their means of execution.

Why should you care? Because fighting the good fight of operational effectiveness will not necessarily win you the strategic war. Figuring out what you do uniquely, how and why you do it uncommonly well, and understanding how to align your capabilities with your mission is the secret to success. Are either of the candidates meeting these criteria? It’s your call.


Porter, M. (1996). What is strategy? Harvard Business Review, November-December 1996, 61-78.