Working towards excellence

I like things to be done right. And who doesn’t. As consumers, we expect services to be completed correctly and products to function as they should – and we deserve as much. If I hire a painter to paint my living room red, I want it to be red, not purple, and I can’t imagine that many homeowners would feel otherwise.

So, if customers deserve to get what they contract for, then service providers have an obligation to serve their clients well. The perplexing thing is that often this doesn’t happen. Of course, miscommunication, changes, and cost increases can play havoc with a project, but I keep running into an impediment that is completely within the control of the project team – a lack of committment to excellence.

Let me give an example from my current grad school experience. This semester, I’m in a Project Management class in the business school. Our term project is to plan a hypothetical high-society wedding between a bride and groom of different non-western cultures and our wedding must respect both cultures. We are specifically prohibited from “Americanizing” the wedding. We are formed into teams of about 8 individuals, most if not all of whom are adults who have full-time jobs, many as project managers. Because our wedding involves non-western cultures, the activities don’t fall into typical western categories. So far, so good. The problem is that some of my teammates are approaching this project with quite a bit less than full effort and others are using canned western wedding templates for budgeting, sequencing, and decisionmaking. Granted, this is only a school project with no real client to disappoint, but in my mind it doesn’t take a great deal of extra effort to, say, create budget categories that track the activities involved in this project rather than simply download and fill in a western template that contains activities that don’t even apply in our chosen cultures.

My concern is not that we’ll get a bad grade (we won’t), but the lack of a true committment to excellence. Perhaps a student project is not a good example – after all, the student mentality of doing just enough to get the grade is fairly prevalent and my teammates all have full-time stressful jobs on top of their schoolwork. However, I think there’s an attitude evident in this class that pervades much of the work culture in the United States, and herein lies the real problem. A good-enough attitude at an employee level yields shoddy products and disappointing services. When it’s company-wide, a good-enough attitude adversely affects the company’s ability to compete. When a good-enough attitude pervades a nation, the nation’s trade balance suffers.

I suppose it’s not so simple. People have different ways of thinking and working and it’s a challenge to assemble a team with a shared vision. Moreover, in today’s market team members often can’t do their best work because they haven’t been allotted the time and resources they need to do so. Perhaps I’m a Pollyanna, but I’d like to think that, despite this, sometimes teams really do manage to achieve excellence. I truly hope that someday I’ll be part of such a team.

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