The ‘Center of Excellence’ problem

center of excellence steve gunn

‘Center of Excellence’

That’s a well used phrase in my experience. Most companies I have worked for have seen themselves as a center of excellence, and the countries I have lived in have also seen themselves as centers of excellence or greatness.. Indeed many people see themselves in the same light…

It’s admirable to aspire to excellence and wonderful to have achieved it and we should celebrate those achievements.. However.. excellence and greatness are always a work in progress.. once achieved they require continuous hard work, commitment and honest objective review to look and see if we are still achieving those standards and goals. We have to ask the hard questions not just believe our own press, which albeit once probably true, may now not be…

Back in “the day” after my time in broadcast TV I was very fortunate to work as a consultant to companies who wanted to revitalize their business in some way – companies who had been around a long time and seen considerable success but who’s performance was no longer what it used to be…

This position was a “no win” for me..Usually appointed by the board or the chairman, the CEO and MD would welcome me with gritted teeth.. usually because the implication of the arrival of someone like me was that they weren’t doing something.. Often they would talk change and growth but find it hard to embrace.

Where i started was to emphasize that we all just needed to be together in seeing what had changed with respect to how we were losing our customers, and to do what was necessary to get them back.. be it small issues or larger strategic ones. And that nothing was personal…Everyone said yes, and some meant it….

Change is HARD when we grow allegiance to all that was and I respect that, Ive been there.. But reality isn’t nasty or threatening, its healthy.. And so the first thing I usually would do was to find out what the customers thought..

One classic situation was at a very old established studio that had a track record going back just short of the big bang.. It was an icon in the industry.. I had been there for a visit when I was Director of Production working for one of the large American Studios, accompanied by 3 people from Burbank with a lot of “say” in the business… We were treated ‘ok’ but got the feeling that we should appreciate the chance to be there. The person who showed us around wasn’t even a sales person but the head of Health and Safety.. We enjoyed the visit and were appreciative but a little underwhelmed by the lack of interest and passion and left with the idea that customers fit around them not the other way.

Anyway long story short now a few years later I was working for that same studio company, employed by the Chairman and sitting across from the CEO and MD.. Amongst many hot business issues..we’d had nothing but complaints about the catering.. every day, every week complaints.. I brought this up and was scowled at because “the people who’ve been here for all these years don’t have an issue so why does Steve”. I was told… I explained that I didn’t have an issue, I liked the catering, but I don’t matter, the customers do… And I HAD been talking to the customers..
This issue rattled cages and was taken that I was directly criticizing all that had been, all that was holy and good…. and was known as “Steve has an issue with the catering”. It was mentioned at meetings as a jibe at me quite frequently…

So I commissioned a catering survey… and guess what, a very small percentage of the thousands of people who worked on the site actually ate there… In fact a restaurant had opened down the road and themed itself on movies and TV as was doing a roaring trade.. The business was going off site… My point was that our focus was on movie and tv production, and however well we service those productions with stages and studios and all the paraphernalia, a production crew, like an army, marches on its stomach… Happy crews make happy producers make repeat work…

Of course this got me in even more hot water because I had shown the incumbents something they hadn’t been aware of because of the ‘center of excellence’ issue. I don,t blame them, its easy to do … BUT a simple objective review process – on ongoing basis, and with customer surveys, would make sure it couldn’t happen again.. And in order to do that you can’t be emotionally attached to that you are always the best.. otherwise you’ll take it all as criticism and be blinded.. You have to be emotionally attached to that you will do anything to be the best…..

Another company where I’d worked for just over a year, I did some simple calculations and discovered they’d been over paying staff for nearly a decade.. Not rocket science just a calculation.. but a calculation nobody had bothered to do…

The point to this rambling piece, is that countries, businesses and people need to have a process of constant review.. openness and willingness to change.. Once we consider we are the best we are already losing, because its a constant work in progress.. It can’t be our view of whats happening, nor can it be a popularity contest, it has to be based on the results.. Did we do all we could ? could we have done it better ? As soon as we stop asking these questions we go backwards….

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