by Martin Overby
The feats of the 20th Century, whether it's Sir Edmund Hillary climbing Mt.Everest or Neil Armstrong walking on the moon, are always pushing at the boundaries of man's expectations for himself. It seems a mystery of human nature that man rarely rests content while another mountain lies on the horizon. It isn't only explorers or astronauts, the adventurers, but even children climbing on to counters to look in the cupboard or window shoppers who are stretching for things just beyond reach. Man's yearning will always drive individuals and industry beyond themselves. The desire for things and the pursuit of them are the means by which men earn their livelihood. Whether we desire small things like a holiday or large things like a home, there are practical steps we take to acquire what we want. Even the greatest achievements, the summit of Everest or a journey to Mars are the culmination of small determined steps.
The pace of change in our society requires us to engage in the active development of our business (or risk premature retirement). Innovation isn't easy, often a problem has to be exhaustively examined. With each breakthrough, it's frequently unclear where the creative 'kernel' of an idea came from _ except out of the hubris of hard work. The engineering industry maintains a discipline called the 'Best Practice Principle' which means proven and effective innovations are studied and incorporated across the industry thus raising the overall quality of engineering. That's specifically why airplanes are one of the safest modes of travel. The best practice principle can work for us too. If we set our sights on the highest standards and work to acheive them, then in time we'll gain a reputation for them, thus winning the prize of consumer confidence.
So how do we begin our pursuit of excellence. Probably the first step we can take is to read about the latest developments within our industry from a trade journal - usually there is more than one to choose from. By reading one, you see what issues the industry leaders are considering. They may discuss things beyond your understanding or experience, but usually the article gives background information filled with clues about customer expectations, quality standards, new techniques, etc. Eventually the trade magazine becomes a welcome source of news. The next step would be to visit an annual or seasonal trade fair where the industry's 'State of the Art' is on show. Exhibitors are very receptive to questions because this is the PR event of the year. Their background knowledge is vast and they can easily fill in the gaps in one's understanding. But beware of the sales pitch that's a part of each presentation - visit another stand and hear a different explanation. Trade shows and journals indicate directions the industry is leaning toward but may not have arrived at. There is one more obvious step to take that's both simple and practical.
It's always a good idea to do some or a lot of field research. Investigate how the industry performs in the real world. For example, if you have a cafe and want to improve it, then it's crucial to take opportunities to visit better cafes as a customer, sample their food, watch how they lay things out - basically: learn by observation. Enjoy being a customer and analyze what makes this place special. One visit may not be enough! You'll probably come away with so many ideas that 'field research' will become an indispensable habit.
Most of us work alongside others, yet fail to seize the moment to put our heads together, and throw out new ideas. The fruitful exercise of 'Brainstorming' is best practiced by setting specific time aside. The benefits of a meeting where the wildest ideas can be suggested and considered openly means no one needs to feel their ideas are stupid. The openness and courtesy of such meetings can spill over into our normal routine because we begin to respect each other's comments on how things are going.
There are very few industries where everything depends on one highly skilled person. It takes thousands and thousands of people working together closely to send a man to the moon. And in our own business concerns, achieving excellence depends on everyone involved setting their sights on the highest. Working together effectively is no small trick. Everyone has ideas they consider their own, and when these conflict with anothers ideas, nothing happens smoothly until the differences are resolved. At this point of tension, we do well to recall our mutual goal of excellence. If we truly want to acheive excellence, rather than our own notoriety, it is better to hold our own ideas loosely. Good ideas remain good even if not implemented immediately. The importance of working as a team far outweighs most individual ideas.
Working together as a team in pursuit of excellence brings up one final question - Why go to all the trouble in the first place when maintaining the status quo is the easiest course? We are back to the mystery mentioned at the beginning. It seems that seeking excellence leads us to participate in something that transcends ourselves - and we are drawn to it. The artistry we discover in things well done and the unexpected pleasure of finding something perfectly accomplished are evidence of a goodness behind all we see. It may be that we are perceiving only a shadow of the Creativity that there is in God. It is the glory of God to conceal things but the glory of kings to search things out. Proverbs 25:2
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