15 Signs of Great Companies

I was recently asked by someone at an airport what makes a great company, and hurrying to catch a flight I gave a bit of a canned response. There was nothing I said that was wrong, but it was all very light and obvious stuff that didn't really give the depth I believed the gentleman was seeking. However, having boarded and needing to not fall asleep until I actually arrived at the destination, I decided that the question was worthy of a more considered reply...so here it is Andrew and everyone else who may be curious.

First, I better define what I consider to be great. By that, I mean a company that is successful financially, is a desirable place to work with great staff satisfaction, that is looked up to as a role model by others. Sure, with larger multinationals there may be some offices/locales that meet this criteria - as does the whole multinational worldwide - whilst some sites may well be basket cases. But overall, I believe that all of us know a good company when we experience it.

Having spent a number of years visiting over 300 companies on some professional basis, you do get to see a lot of good, plenty bad and far too much ugly. But you do get to see it, and all of it combines to give you real perspective.

And perspective is important. Initially in my younger days, the temptation to regard myself as something better than what I really was...well, it was huge. "Ha! These great Fortune 500 companies are making such stupid mistakes, I can't believe they're paying me to fix this." The reality is that the people I was dealing with were more than often very well educated, motivated, experienced, very intelligent and decent individuals. But somehow, circumstances conspired to dim even the brightest of stars. And many of the errors they made I often made beforehand...and even more unforgivably, afterwards.

Look, I'm not going to kid you: there are tens of thousands of books on how to create a great company. And they range from laughable to transcendent. But that's not my aim with this. What I offer you here is a little perspective from someone who has seen a lot in many different countries and has noticed a pattern emerge. Some things may be obvious to you, but I would think perhaps a few may give you pause to ponder. And remember, try and never be too critical, because as I have found far too often...there, by the Grace of God, Go I.

So, what do I look for? To me, the sign of a truly great company occurred when I finished an engagement and reflected a little: what did I give these guys and what did I learn? If I ever feel as if I learnt more than I gave, then it is very likely I have just walked out the door of a great company, one of the best in its business.

And with that thought, I began to list all the times I could recall I felt like that, and I did see a pattern emerge that came to 15 aspects which I believe are proven characteristics of companies that are truly special.

And here they are.

1: ‘Flavored’ Best Practices 

Many fine companies send their staff to very relevant and demanding training courses: people then come back all learned and proceed to do great things - so the story goes. But truly great companies go a step further: global best practice in itself is often not enough. It needs to be modified to unique organization requirements & culture. Great companies know that a real edge doesn't come from just accepting a cookie cutter approach, but in making that cookie cutter their own.

Think about it: how often have you heard the phrase "That won't work here, we're <different>". Yes, your company is different. So are all the other ones. And that doesn't mean that global best practice won't work. But it may well mean you may have to modify things such as emphasis, speed of roll out, terminology or justification, to fit into the local culture. But it does not mean not adopting it.

The great companies embrace best practices but make it their own. This type of approach usually entails the following:
  • Lean Six Sigma, TQM etc is developed / trained internally and brought into line with business needs, the system/process requirements and the culture of the company
  • It does not appear to staff as transplanted from ‘outside’, but rather organic best practice that forms a key part of what the organization is
  • There exists a very large internal knowledge base
  • Often in these troubled times, external training is done by a few people, then changed for internal needs and branded as the company's own

This approach does not come cheap initially, but the benefits it brings are real and as follows:
  • The tools are especially relevant to the organization
  • Add to prestige and its reputation
  • Further development becomes even more focused
  • Produces superior end results more quickly

You can train staff in many best practices using off the shelf solutions and end up with quite a good result in most cases. But the reality is that the best companies always seek advantage by tailoring and optimizing best practices to their culture and specific needs. And it's an advantage they usually find.

2: Leadership you can be proud of

All too often we hear of corporate scandals involving senior executives. This happens in all types of companies, both good and bad. But in great companies, you see a pattern emerge: their senior people are smart (no surprises) AND honorable…AND everyone knows it. The culture is such that integrity is valued and rewarded as highly as intelligence and aptitude.

And that is something rarer than it should be. I have met many clever individuals over the years in many different organizations, but sadly - frighteningly - at times I found their moral compass to be more than a little askew...and that was something that all their colleagues knew. Whilst sometimes corruption comes as a surprise to many, more often than not it is clever and unscrupulous people - who are well know for both traits in a company - who finally run out of luck.

But great companies demand both smart and honest people...and that is clear at all levels in the company. One trait alone is never enough.

So what does it involve in the real world? This... 
  • Very smart people who are also role models of best behavior, who are looked up to and respected internally
  • Strong image projection within the company - they have a high profile
  • They are known as superstars to be watched and emulated, representing the best of the organization’s ideals
  • They are promoted and celebrated
  • Decision makers whose decisions are respected and instructions followed

The business edge it gives their organizations is huge...
  • Staff respect the leaders and do as they should, putting in higher levels of commitment
  • Staff do not feel as if they can ‘get away’ with things with these people round - there is a higher level of integrity all around
  • Real pride in working for the organization
  • The right decisions tend to be made more often
  • A strong culture is created and external reputation is enhanced

I know the pressures that people are under to deliver the quarterlies. But rest assured: the price you pay when you behave wrongly will never be worth it. Great companies live by that.

3: No Semantic Cost Blowouts

I have heard these ones so often it triggers some sort of "zone out" chemical reaction in my brain..."This is an investment in our future"..."It's a critical part of our identity / strategy etc"...  No ‘future investments’ or ‘High but intangible returns’. Any and every excuse possible to NOT cut. And of course, I was shown all these justifications for the expenses, mostly emotionally worded ones with questionable numbers, and a few with strange formulas.

OK, here's a formula that great companies understand...

Costs = Costs

There are no sacred cows. No wordplay to provide some sort of impregnable shield for pet projects, products or departments is tolerated. When great companies decide to cut costs, they do so intelligently, but without fear or favor.

What it means in the real world is…
  • Management does not readily accept ‘intangibles’ when it comes to project justification
  • Costs are cut when and where they need to be
  • No ‘games with words’ to allow certain projects to go through
  • Very high bar set for any expenses with solid financial justification needed
  • ‘Merciless accountability’ is understood by all, used and publicized. No exceptions.

And the benefits are substantial...
  • Business is focused completely on the bottom line; targets are hard numbers, not ‘soft’ intangibles
  • Usually it means more transparency and truth in figures and finances
  • Management teams tend to be more united in outlook
  • Extremely low overheads at industry best practice levels

Semantics have their place in getting staff buy-in and marketing, but when it comes to the finances, don't try and fool people with word games. Great companies won't just ignore it, they will think far less of you for trying.

4: The Immediate Thought of Success

This is one I have subconsciously noted over many years, though its only recently I have realized it. It also emphasizes that 'first impressions are lasting' indeed. It comes when a new idea is suggested and is usually the first reaction I see, or one where the idea is analyzed from a certain perspective. These are broadly the two types of reactions I see... 

“I need this to make it happen…” vs. “It can’t happen because of…”

At times the tone comes across quietly, often easy to miss. But it screams "Great Company" to me when it's the former. What is the attitude of people when they first come across a challenge that seems insurmountable? Great people in great companies always find a way to make things happen, and it's reflected in their language, their words, their thinking, their approach...within the first few minutes at most, and often in the first sentence.

Granted, cultures can vary, and some otherwise optimistic people at times start off listing the negatives only so they can make sure they're a non-issue. But more often than not, you see very quickly how people approach a situation...and it reflects the culture of the company.

Great companies have people who always try and find a way. Lesser companies come up with excuses. Not concerns or issues to be addressed...but showstoppers. 'Showstoppers' which were really nothing more than a beacon as to a lack of imagination, will or both.

Great companies think and act differently. A few of the things you note are...
  • A ‘Winners Thinking’ - how do we make something happen?
  • An immediate reaction to a good idea that seeks to make it happen
  • An entrepreneurial spirit that exists at all levels
  • People automatically look at something new as “How can I do it?” rather than “I can’t do it because of…”
  • These qualities are usually hinted at during psychometric appraisal
  • It is used in conjunction with strong risk management awareness

The advantages I have seen it gives are...
  • More forward thinking actions
  • Less (dangerous) risk averse - they know how to manage risk intelligently
  • Ability to force other competitors to make mistakes in trying to match skills and execution
  • An entrepreneurial spirit that is more positive in its outlook on action and less likely to cause conflict

Indeed, first impressions can be lasting...and they can be the most cutting insight into what a company is really made of.

5: Loyalty To Values, Principles and Ideals…never to people

In many companies large and small, I have heard the word loyalty mentioned ad nauseum: You have to look after the company's best interests; you need to make sacrifices with hours worked, pay received etc etc. All for this for the "greater good".

In great companies, indeed there must be loyalty...but the loyalty is to the highest ideals and values of the company, rather than the many alternatives. Not to it's bottom line IF that means something illegal or immoral.

And absolutely not to people in the company who are not holding onto those ideals. Too often, we see the demand for loyalty as a mafia like demand for silence when something wrong is happening.

How hypocritical. Organizations have / develop values, visions, principles, codes of conduct etc etc that are supposed to guide their people as to how to act. And they sound great to the public, regulators, investors and of course staff. 

But when the results are down, these wonderful words too often go out the window. Loyalty is to the bottom line and the manager who is going to make it happen, no matter how it may go against those wonderful words...and quite often the letter of the law. But great companies don't think that way. They understand what matter is the long term .

I have noted that in truly great companies…
  • An organization is viewed as a collection of principles, values and ideal that inspire the best in an individual
  • People think emotively of what the organization means to their value system
  • Anyone who does not live up to them deserves no support or loyalty
  • Maximizing profit can only be done properly within the right context

And companies that act like this enjoy a number of rewards...
  • Likely to have costly legal issues far below industry norms
  • Very low theft, misbehavior or improper activities by staff
  • Higher retention of desirable individuals and better retention of capable staff
  • Higher overall productivity

Loyalty is a dangerous trait if misdirected. But when directed towards the highest ideals, it is a core of a great company that underpins its foundation of success.

6: Hidden Metrics Revealed

Great companies are ALWAYS data driven. And they are driven to a level of detail that leaves rivals in the dust. You notice this clearly when you see an analytics function that is well resourced and that goes into data behind the data, that constantly tests its validity, that compares huge data sets regularly, that tries to establish patterns, that constantly and consistently models and assesses the accuracy of those models and assumptions.

The data conclusions are held in the highest regard: they are near sacrosanct, and anyone who makes a decision in contradiction to them for whatever reason is held to account. So, unless you happen to be some near psychic visionary, its the analysis that always wins over 'gut feeling'.

Of course, sometimes gut feeling can win the day...in which case, analytics has to find out if it was a statistical fluke or if there is some new pattern that can be predicted. 

Greatness is however built on knowing the facts. This means that...
  • There is a focus on the ‘data behind the data’
  • Very detailed data gathering as to supporting headline numbers
  • Looking at how data correlates with multiple factors (internal / external)
  • Decisions made must be backed up by data that was been ‘through the fire’

And this rigor results in...
  • Much improved ability to understand the for need and to enact change
  • More effective and focused allocation of costs
  • Decisions made highly likely to be optimal
  • Data pool can be on-sold to the industry

Right now, we are on the cusp of a revolution with what is generally known as Big Data and Predictive Analytics (will have more to say about this in a future article): rest assured that great companies are leading the charge in this field.

7: Mild or Wild?: The Smart Choice between improvement vs. radical innovation

Just about every time I have gone into an organization, it is because change was needed, in one form or another. But then we come to the hard part - what sort of change, especially in terms of "a little or a lot"? In other words...

"Do we improve what we have or do we gun for something new"

This is one of the toughest choices in business. Too little change at too low a level of risk and you risk being left behind by more adventurous competitors. Too radical changes, and you risk imploding in one form or another. It's a balancing act few - if any - get right all the time.

But great companies get it right far more often than not - and they do so by using a combination of tools, of detailed analysis and - critically - not letting internal company politics play a role in the decision, all too often the downfall of many.

What it means in the real world are
  • Usage of a broad combination of tools when deciding on strategy, PPM, operations
  • “Do we go for improvement or can we (need to) go for a breakthrough?” is the key question
  • Proactive and highly analytical decision making
  • Lean Six Sigma, Kaizen and TQM etc known and balanced with innovation protocols
  • A disciplined, scientific approach that still allows for bright, radical ideas to succeed

And getting this balance right means...
  • Optimal allocation of all resources
  • Greater focus on areas where chances of success highest
  • Low level of costly mistakes and the need for corrections
  • You maximize ROI and other key financial metrics
  • Competition is often wrong-footed

Mastery of getting this balance right is a hallmark of a great company that has got some amazing IQ behind it...and perhaps the odd bit of fortune to boot.

8: Risk Management: One Step Ahead 

”We’re ready for anything” vs. “We can’t do it because / We can't fail…”

A lot of the characteristics I mentioned earlier - especially points 4 & 7, relate directly to risk management, arguably one of the most important skills any company can have. When it boils down to it, whenever a company fails at something, it's because they simply didn't understand the risks (internal and/or external) that the activity involved. 

But one must be cautious: an over-aversion to any form of risk is not "risk management", but rather a simple cocktail of fear and incompetence. Great companies always - whether they trade bonds, sell wheat, build planes or make furniture, have amazingly comprehensive risk management that lets them safely push the envelope of activity.

Great companies simply manage risk better. They break new ground without breaking their necks.

The characteristics here are that...
  • Risk management is very sophisticated, often built into the culture of the organization at all levels
  • Intelligently handling risks is strongly emphasized in an entrepreneurial culture
  • Encouragement of adventurous undertakings alongside a ‘What if this happens…then this is needed to make it OK’ mindset
  • View is not “Reasons for not doing something” but “How we can do something successfully, no matter what happens”
  • Very strong mathematical / statistics based approach…yet with a spark for new ideas

A business like this gains a real advantage...
  • Decisions tend to be more optimal with less chance of costly changes required
  • Overall number / cost of mistakes reduced – non-optimal ideas tend to be stopped sooner
  • Encourages a more adventurous business mindset without adding to the total risk profile (compared to less sophisticated operators)

In so many companies, risk management is given lip service, done largely as a showcase for compliance purposes with very little impact on strategic or operational business decisions. In great companies, it's a real tool for excellence, allowing for new limits to be pushed safely.

9: Riding The Wave Smart 

Great companies always offer fair rewards and penalties in good and challenging times.

I have often seen great careers ruined even for great people...simply because they took a responsible position in a business at a terrible time. Sure, you have to take the blame come what may, but I truly have felt sorry for people who came into serious responsibility around late 2008, who effectively had to juggle hand grenades whilst dancing on a mine field built on an unstable cliff - it was a rare company that wasn't hammered during this time. Many of these people were blamed for the wider malaise which occurred for the next few years.

This is a tough one - great companies hold people accountable and don't readily accept excuses. But truly great companies also understand the concept of "the best possible in the circumstances". Determining the metrics for this is never easy, but great companies do it: they do not want to lose strong leaders when all that was possible was done right and external factors simply proved overwhelming.

But the flip side is this: during boom times, great companies don't over reward. Whilst they do allow the team to share in the spoils for good performance, they don't throw away rewards just for having been in the right time at the right place...unless people's performance clearly contributed to the outlandish result.

Great companies have high standards…and that includes a high standard of common sense. This means that...
  • Companies are fair to decision makers during tough times
  • Staff are not punished unduly during a tough patch…
  • They don’t reward anyone for an easy market where they ride the ‘good times’
  • Standards are still very high, but so is fairness and common sense
  • Strong rewards are offered for outperforming the environment

The advantages of this approach are that...
  • Common sense is seen as prevailing by staff and good people are not unfairly pressured
  • People tend to stay and work harder
  • There is better overall morale
  • A truer understanding of actual performance

You cannot easily change your environment, but you can change your approach to be fair and reasonable about it. Great companies know what excellence really is, and they don't kick people when they're down or throw rose petals before them when times make even the mediocre look good. 

10: All industries equal(ly demanding) 

This was a common one in Eastern Europe and - surprisingly - in Australia. Some industries - such as hospitality, retail, waste disposal and some aspects of logistics - are seen as not having the highest standards of education and training for entry, thus there is aversion to the most advanced business practices being introduced. This is a real issue with mid size companies, less so with larger ones. But it does exist.

Great companies differ greatly across the world and across industries in many ways, but one definite consistency they have is that no matter if you are baking pizza or hauling garbage, you are going to be exposed to the same thinking that permeates on the factory floor of Toyota or Boeing. Best practice is best practice, and a great company knows that if it gets people to do a certain job, then they must be willing to accept that some time down the track, they will have to relearn how do to that job, because 'better' does not just refer to faster processes, more fuel efficient cars or superior color contrast TVs. It means a better way to make a pizza or a more efficient and safer way to raise a garbage bin.

Great companies make no allowances for lesser knowledge/effort in any industry, and this requirement sees that...
  • Where the business is pizzas, waste management, aerospace, retail, pharmaceuticals, IT…same standards of excellence apply
  • Same expectations of gathering new knowledge and using it to advance profitability
  • Industry or organization not allowed to be immune because “Our people are not that capable”
  • TQM, LSS, Kaizen, Value Engineering, advanced finance and accounting etc are used
  • Driven strongly by venture capital involvement

And the business edge? I can think of a few...
  • Better overall results compared to less ambitious competitors
  • Creating a culture of high achievement where excuses not accepted
  • Expands the base of an entire body of knowledge for a sector
  • Adds greatly to shareholder value

There are simply no excuses when it comes to bettering yourself. Great companies don't allow their staff any excuses because of the industry they're in: greatness comes from realizing and embracing constant change, not excuses for stagnation.

11: Smart Data Flow Detailed

When you do consultancy work, the one thing you learn to look for first, fast and hard is internal data. The more, the merrier you will be (assuming it's actually right). But when you slowly realize that data is non existent, that it's hard to access (either because its confidential [when it has no reason to be], not sourced, not in an easily used format, out of date or simply not able to be found) or that it's wrong, you know this is going to be painful for all.

The company is flying blind, in effect.

Great companies are the opposite: accurate information is available in detail to almost everyone, with only small exceptions for truly sensitive information with a restricted need to know. The information is up to date and - critically - it doesn't take ages to get and it comes in a format that is easily understood and manipulated for further analysis. Individuals are trained in interpreting results - it's not just a set of numbers to people. It is relevant data.

I have seen that great companies treat data as a flow: it must be constantly shared, refined and improved. Information is transformed the right way into a format that can be used by individuals downstream and that makes a point. It is this flow of information that still remains one of the hidden secrets of great companies.

In the real world of great companies, this means...
  • Information is everywhere and can be quickly manipulated into a format where it is useful
  • Informatics department / function
  • Emphasis on data quality, single source
  • Tightly integrated IT systems (usually SAP R/3)
  • Decision making is backed up by detailed data that is accurate, in depth and flows across all aspects of the business.

The advantages to great companies include...
  • Smoother, faster decisions that can be more easily defended
  • Greater confidence in coming to a conclusion
  • Often lowered internal costs
  • Very strong component of successful Lean Six Sigma initiatives 

At times, you see departments hoarding information, slowing down its flow and generally trying to hinder a rival department. It should be remembered that theft is not just a matter of taking something, but not passing it on or deliberately slowing it down. The penalties need to be appropriate for this - great companies don't tolerate this type of behaviour. 

12: Completely $ Driven 

Companies are comprised of many different people doing different jobs. In larger companies, segmentation of work often means that many people never see a P&L statement. They have a very specific function and do it well, but they never really see how their work hits the bottom line, except perhaps in a very abstract form on occasion.

Unless you happen to work in a great company, where it's not just accountants who care about the bottom line. This has only become clear to me recently, but I now realize that great companies strive to make certain that even their most junior staff working in fields far removed from 'official' financial responsibility are clearly aware of how what they do impacts the bottom line, both directly and indirectly. There are internal training courses that teach people not just the basic financials of their work, but how their work flows through in terms of cost, right up until the Annual Report. 

They are shown what could go wrong in their role and what it could end up costing the company in terms of dollars. And this refers to people starting in the mail sorting room, in kitchens, in graphic design sections  as well as the accounts section, procurement or office administration.

Great companies make certain that…
  • Cost consciousness / financial awareness permeates the organization at all levels, in all departments and staff, even very junior ones
  • KPIs always have a dollar value target – no acceptance of ‘intangibles’
  • Measures such as time, goodwill, data accuracy, customer complaints etc. – decision makers assign dollar values to everything and analyze on that basis

And when they do this, they find...
  • Smarter bottom line decisions that are easily justified
  • Less conflict with finance functions - it would be a rare department that does not often lock horns with the CFO!
  • Individuals tend to have good (better than expected) analysis and mathematical skills across the business
  • Greater efficiency with decisions as everyone understands and speaks from the same baseline
  • Strong ability to execute actions focused on ultimate profitability

The bottom line matters to everyone, and the detail of how every component of it is critical, so it follows on that all staff have a role to play in understanding the financial metrics of what they do. Great companies ensure it.

13: Focus, Ambition, Drive in staff 

One of the really horrid things about going into a company in trouble is the 'vibe' you get in the place. Shoulders slouched, glum expressions and lethargy by staff are often the first sign of poor work performance. It's a self fulfilling cycle of misery and it has been especially prevalent during M&A activity, when staff often don't know what the future holds for them.

Great companies go through tough times also, but overall, they have a very positive approach and that reflects in the atmosphere in the work environment. Staff like being there. They are focused and motivated to do well. There is a sense of pride in being there and a belief that it is a great place to be. There is a willingness to do more. No one is ‘drifting’.

There are a lot ways companies achieve this: sometimes its the prestige of the brand, the nature of the role, the pay...often a combination. There is often great management, and indeed there could be a boom in the sector, making for excellent treatment of people. But whatever the reason, great companies enjoy very great staff.

And that means…
  • Individuals driven by pride in the organization, the product and / (or?) their role
  • See themselves as a key part of success
  • Work is a key aspects of their lives
  • Willing to put in hard hours and provide high level ideas and commitment
  • Something that attaches the individual to the organization at an emotional level provides for exceptional work performance
  • Paranoia at times; fear of being outclassed pushes them harder

And that type of staff quality and satisfaction 
  • Get more quality output from people
  • Lower staff turnover 
  • A superior resource value proposition for investors
  • Stronger drive often leads to more cutting edge breakthroughs in certain sectors
  • Public perception and ability to attract similar standard of recruits

This one is obvious: we have all heard the "people are our most important asset". Everyone says that. But great companies prove it, time and time again. They invest in their staff and the staff show it with the way they behave...and the way they deliver.

14: Competitive Intelligence is Strong

The tragedy of so many companies is that they think they know what the competition is up to, but they only know the result...but not the how and why. Competitive Intelligence is an art form that when practiced correctly, reveals the whole slew of secrets:

And that is how it is practiced in great companies. Many people assume that CI is just knowing about a new rival product specifications way before it launches. Great companies know that real CI is knowing the thinking that decided those specifications, their efficiency in coming to design and manufacturing decisions as well as.

The best CI function I ever saw was in a large multinational automaker: 18 people devoted full time exclusively to studying the competition (in just one country). Whilst I cannot go into to many details, I can say they left me near stunned with their depth of knowledge, the processes they used and their analytic abilities. Interestingly, 2 people had a background in the intelligence community...

Great companies don't shoot in the dark, and they go to great efforts to understand the 'enemy'. This means that…
  • Market and key competitors very well understood; strategically, tactically and culturally
  • Good overview of comparative costs and SWOTs
  • Predictive analysis very sophisticated
  • Key decisions made only after detailed BI forecasting
  • A large database is created

Good CI results in some remarkable advantages...
  • More accurate decisions are likely to be made
  • There is a better allocation of resources
  • Fewer changes or firefighting / contingencies need to be put in place at short notice
  • BI database allows for targeting of competition weak spots
  • BI can be sold, shared or traded

CI data is quite often shared between competitors who want to team up against a mutual threat. Often it is simply sold. But it stands as a characteristic of great companies: they don't wish to operate blind if eight or 9 figure sums are at stake on strategic decisions. They want to understand not just the what, by the how and why.

15: Know the Total Business

This leads on from point 13 and perhaps hints at one of the most important yet least understood characteristics of a great organization. It is the fact that staff care what happens beyond their own responsibility.

And I don't just mean the total viability of the company - which of course relates to job security. I mean all the activity that ha[[ens in between: the actions they rely on others to do their own job and the activities others rely on them. Great companies make sure staff care about this and are given the resources to understand.

Just about all companies provide a quick introduction to new hires about what the company does. But after that, many people are often struck in a role where they become increasingly unaware of changes around them. Internal company bulletins and message boards only go so far, so isolation can become a real issue. And when eventually information does flow, people realize how things could have been done much better.

In great companies, staff understand "The Flow"…and their role in it and beyond. The Flow is simply the transfer of knowledge, activity, money etc from one part of the company to another. It's a concept that forms a key aspect of Lean Six Sigma. Whilst the flow is often modeled, less considered is the understanding individuals have of their full impact in it...except with great companies who take a holistic approach to all parts of their business.

Those winning companies ensure that...
  • People know how to do their job well…and the entire business almost as well
  • Strong knowledge of how the whole organization operates, how their responsibilities and decisions impact and are impacted by upstream / downstream activities
  • They get the big picture, understand the entire flow of how everything happens and can optimize their performance
  • Individuals become more involved in the entire business

The advantages gained are significant...
  • Lessened organizational tension and conflict
  • Individual decision making is more holistic
  • Decisions tend to be faster and smarter
  • Easier for individuals to transfer between units / functions

In too many companies, people have the attitude of "I just need to know my job and well, and that's it." That's not going to get a promotion, and it's not going to tick a box for what it takes to be a great company. The Flow of the business is critical to success and great companies have staff who realize and appreciate that fact, as well as offering the tools and time to let it happen. People who work in great companies realize just that...they work in great companies, not merely have a job to do.


So there you have it: what a great company looks like through the eyes of someone who has seen a few of them (and perhaps a few not so great). Some of the above should be fairly obvious, but a few have hopefully surprised you. But it's all real: having had the pleasure (?) of dealing with well over 100 companies up close and personal, you get to see patterns emerge of what separates bad from good, and good from great.

There is of course a lot more than can be written about this, but the above 15 points are the ones that really popped into my mind when I reflected on all the places I have seen over the past two decades plus. Many were huge multinationals, quite a few were mid-sized firms with perhaps moderate overseas presence and a number were smaller start-ups with less than 50 individuals. Sure, there have to be differences, but greatness tends to encompass so much of the above.

Greatness is about not picking up a few of the above, but striving for all of them. And sure, it's not easy. But what is much harder than the above is to try and survive as an also run, as a second tier operation that constantly struggles not just for results, but for relevancy. In many ways, greatness is the hardest thing to achieve...except for the alternative, which is accepting ongoing failure.

And that is something no truly great company would ever do.