Management Consultant Mike Eldon

Becoming a world class company

Lots of local organisations, as they craft their vision statements, proclaim that their dream is to be ‘world class’. Nice thought. But let’s face it, some are distinctly more aware than others about what being world class actually means – never mind about whether they have a snow-ball’s chance in hell of becoming so.

Let us not however underestimate the competence, indeed the excellence, that exists in this country. Quite a few organisations here have a wonderful grasp of what it means to be excellent – as measured by genuinely global standards. Such star performers are also good at assessing objectively where they conform to international best practice and where they fall short. They celebrate when they’re approaching these highest standards, and they’re always working hard to improve.

More and more companies are using a Balanced Score Card approach to identify key areas where they must do well if the bottom line is to look healthy. The classic Balanced Score Card structure is to look at how satisfied customers are; how well talent is being treated; the robustness of systems and procedures; and, finally, the state of the consequential financials.

Back in 1982, Tom Peters and Bob Waterman published their seminal In Search of Excellence, having examined 43 of the Fortune 500’s top performing companies. The major common strengths they found that explained the great corporate successes of the seventies and eighties were treating employees as valuable assets, staying close to customers, and being action-oriented. (The authors were delighted with their findings, as they were fed up with observing the behaviour of all the soulless, number-crunching, systems-designing MBAs who at that time were making America lose its competitive edge.)

More recently, Jim Collins looked into what enabled good companies to become great. And a million other management gurus have written on what it takes to be excellent. But whatever framework you use, whichever guru you follow, how do you figure out whether you match up to global leaders or not?

First, you must have the very appetite to carry out the benchmarking. Then you need the passion and the ambition to excel, the courage to confront inconvenient truths… and the unbashful straightforwardness to acknowledge and celebrate areas where you’re hot.

Recently, Davis & Shirtliff chose ‘Achieving World Class’ as the theme of their annual management conference. Until not too long ago the company’s ambition was ‘merely’ to be the best company in East Africa. But as it has expanded and prospered so have its ambitions, and now it’s going for global benchmarking.

In his presentation to his leadership team, owner and Chairman Alec Davis defined a world class organisation as one that is ‘market leading, respected and financially successful’, and mentioned international examples such as Toyota, Microsoft, Walmart and Coca Cola… plus Safaricom, Nakumat, Kenya Airways, Serena and other local ones.

He then went into more detail about what makes world class companies, describing how, through constant innovation and improvement, they’ve changed not only their products but the very markets in which they operate; how their products are easily accessible to their customers – who stay loyal; how they employ proud staff, of high integrity, who deliver consistent quality; how the companies are strongly branded; how they run efficient systems… and thanks to all of this, how they enjoy high growth and healthy profits.

Davis then graded his company in each of these areas. Quite a number scored A; a few got by with a B; and one (which shall be nameless!) only managed a lowly C. As you can imagine, much of the time at the conference was spent discussing how to convert that C into an A, but also where else it was possible to move to the next level.

It’s no surprise that Davis & Shirtliff is ISO certified, or that each year it enters COYA, the Company Of the Year Awards, or that it consistently goes home with a trophy in one category or another. Ten years ago I was part of the team at the Kenya Institute of Management that launched COYA. Our aim was to proclaim corporate excellence – overall, in the various functional areas, and in leadership. And it’s the same with the initiative of PWC and the East African, that annually recognises best-of-breed companies and leaders.

Whether one is being judged by independent assessors or by one’s peers, it’s good to get a feel of how one is doing relative to others. If one comes out on top, that’s great for self-esteem and self-confidence, and great for generating further boldness. And if one does not, at least ones knows there’s work to be done… and there’s always next year’s event.

Some firms are so tough, so ambitious, they look beyond their own industry to gauge themselves. The CEO of the renowned Serena Hotels spoke at a previous Davis & Shirtliff conference, at which the theme was ‘Exceeding Customer Expectations’. He told the story of an American fast food company that, in a bid to further speed up its service, sent its people to study the Ferrari Formula One pit crew in action. Food for thought indeed!

Is it only an elite few who can aspire to be world class? Maybe not. We know it’s those with unusual determination, those with the cheek to defy the rational, the normal, who do best. So why not ignore the conventional wisdom that world class companies can only come from the West, or Japan, or some Asian Tiger? To be great one must dream great, and one must dream that it is possible to be world class, here in Kenya. After all, some companies already are. Certainly many many individual Kenyans are.

I once read that the most important quality needed by an entrepreneur is curiosity. Surely that includes the curiosity to find out what being world class involves. Couple that with the determination to become so, and who knows what can happen.