Building on Small Successes

Tom Peters

I just won an award, in a Beijing-sponsored international contest, for some photographs I took on a recent lecture tour in China. If, when I started tentatively fiddling with photography three summers ago, some “hobby instructor” had proposed that I aim to win an award in an international contest by 1988, I doubtless would have dropped my camera on the spot. Instead, my motivation and ultimate success stemmed from a tiny “aha” here and there, near the start, which spurred me to take the next step along the path.

I tell this story because I believe that business, in practice, duplicates life: One fruitfully goes about pursuing a new hobby the same way in which one effectively implements a business strategy. So I strongly support the master hypothesis of management consultant/author Bob Schaffer, set forth in the galleys of his fine forthcoming book on implementation, The Breakthrough Strategy: Using Short-term Success to Build the High Performance Organization.

Businesses aiming to increase competitiveness, Schaffer writes, should follow a “breakthrough strategy,” which consists of “locating and starting at once with the gains that can be achieved quickly and then using these first successes as stepping stones to increasingly ambitious gains.” He decries our overemphasis on strategic planning and our characteristic “perpetual preparation” approach, as he calls it. Schaffer urges managers to “put aside their studies, explanations, preparations, preliminaries, training, gearing up, analyses, and programs—and focus on accomplishing a short-term result, a success.”

Begin, Schaffer urges, by identifying a “breakthrough project,” which is “loaded for success.” Such a project is (1) urgent and compelling—a real attention-getter; (2) a first-step goal achievable in a short period of time (weeks rather than months); (3) a bottom-line result, discrete, and measurable; (4) something that the participants feel ready and able to accomplish; and (5) achievable with available resources and authority.

The book documents in detail genuine breakthroughs that Schaffer observed during two decades working with firms such as PPG, Motorola, Allied-Signal, Morgan Guaranty, and Lever Brothers. One typical effort involved a Pennwalt Corporation plant, which makes refrigerants for automobile air conditioners. Its necessary goal was to reduce costs to world-class, competitive levels. But to most of us, that’s like the novice’s goal of winning an award three years from now in an international photography contest—a turn-off, not a turn-on.

The grand objective was repeatedly pared—first from reducing overall production costs to reducing the costs of hydrofluoric acid production (the key cost component); then to reducing production costs of hydrofluoric acid by 18 percent in five months; next to increasing raw material feed rates into six kilns by 20 percent within three months; and, finally, to increasing the feed rate into one kiln by 20 percent in less than two months. Top plant management acknowledged that it would have accepted far less than even this trimmed-down goal, in order to prove to the stalled factory team that it was capable of quickly putting a win under its belt.

The Pennwalt team did beat its first goal, and by a wide margin. It demonstrated competence to itself (with what Schaffer calls an “empowering, zestful experience,” like a football two-minute drill) and then moved promptly onward to top goal after goal—and got all the way to that world-class competitor mountaintop.

According to Schaffer, such an incremental approach “permits managers to experiment, one safe step at a time, with new modes for successfully bringing together people who can achieve the result—without being overly threatened about the erosion of their authority.” In another example, a visit to a disgruntled customer, by two busloads of hourly and supervisory employees from an Allied-Signal home furnishings fiber mill, started a quest for a breakthrough project. Major quality problems were finally trimmed to a first attempt to reduce drips, which coagulate into nylon lumps in the fiber and clog customers’ machines. This sub-goal, in turn, was pruned to no drips on one good machine, No. 806, within the next two months. The achievement of perfection on that doable first task incited a spirited process that ended up saving over $4 million a year in one mill alone!

Schaffer lays out a six-step approach to building on the initial win: (1) “extend the scope of the original breakthrough”; (2) “organize a series of new, related projects”; (3) “move up and down the line”; (4) “cross boundaries with interfunctional projects”; (5) “expand by migration to new sites”; and (6) “expand beyond the gates to customers and vendors.”

Schaffer chides senior managers who retort, “We don’t have time for step-by-step changes around here. We need to make things happen fast.” His rebuttal, with which I agree, is that the process of achieving and then building on tiny successes is paradoxical. The starting point is, by design, as tiny as possible. But the momentum that can be built rapidly, if the scheme is managed artfully, will surprise the proponents of traditional big-bang programs, such as quality circles or culture change efforts.

There are no panaceas in our urgent quest for competitiveness. But after studying implementation for 25 years, I am convinced that a well thought out “small wins approach” is the premier path to effective strategy implementation, and therefore to long-term organizational capability building.

(c) 1988 TPG Communications.

All rights reserved.