Managing Momentum

Tom Peters

Whether it’s a football season or a factory’s fiscal year, we all give a nod to the importance of momentum. “They lost their momentum after the turnover.” “They’re on a roll.” Etc.

But, other than acknowledging momentum’s value, what do we do about it? Usually nothing. After all, momentum is one of those soft words—important, even critical, but squishy when you get up close.

Some people don’t buy that cop out, and I’m one of them. I think that most quality programs, for instance, fall far short of their potential principally because management neglects to manage momentum. Hence my “demand”: that you (1) consider momentum to be a “hard” word, not a “soft” one; and (2) think “manage” whenever you think “momentum.” In short, sustaining momentum is subject to the same discipline as annual budgeting.

Some get the point. Milliken and Company, the South Carolina-based textile maker and winner of the 1989 Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award, does a lot right—but nothing better than managing momentum. For years, they have used local (factory, division) and corporate “sharing rallies” (“fabulous bragging sessions,” as company President Tom Malone calls them) to sustain enthusiasm. Domino’s Pizza Distribution (the dough topping and equipment provider to Domino’s franchisees) has a year-round “Olympics” process, which likewise spotlights and nudges forward their quality program. While he was at Paul Revere Life Insurance Companies, service quality guru Pat Townsend initiated a similar campaign, called Quality Has Value. And at stellar floor-cleaning equipment-maker, Tennant, the annual Zero Defects Day and the buildup thereto have played a leading role in maintaining momentum.

All four firms think that sustaining momentum is amenable to hard-nosed thought, meticulous planning and painstaking execution. Here are some common elements to those four programs, a host of others that I’ve run across.

1. Structured competitions and a blow-out celebration. All of the best “momentum programs” feature a big-bang celebration—e.g., the finals of Domino’s Olympics, day-long celebrations for everyone at Tennant and Paul Revere. These annual galas dramatically spotlight progress. Though structured competitions are a part of almost all these programs, the goal is to “create lots of winners, no losers.” There are big prizes, to be sure. Mainly there are lots of prizes—e.g., for showing up and participating per se.

2. Variety. A new team plans each year’s big events at Tennant and Domino’s, and it’s a big deal to get the nod as manager of the affair. Competitions, goals, prizes, and venue change each year. “Keep it fresh” is the winners’ motto.

3. Semi-spontaneous celebrations. The big, structured celebration is important. Informal, spur-of-the-moment recognition is even more vital. It must be spontaneous to be effective. But you must also make these “unplanned” events habitual. One star hotel manager, for example, religiously sends out at least 100 thank you notes to employees every month; each is spontaneous, but he disciplines himself to keep score.

4. Small is much more important than big. Momentum is the product of lots of small wins, not a few big ones. This is the ball we keep dropping. Giving out the handful of $1,000 awards for big wins is easy. Ferreting out and then celebrating the little tries, successful or not, is tougher to do—but much more important. Small wins
are momentum.

5. God (as always) is in the details. Townsend initiated a program at Paul Revere to give a free cafeteria lunch to randomly selected employees—if they were wearing their Quality Has Value pins the day their names were drawn. (Wearing the pins, he felt, was a sign of momentum.) Women were badly underrepresented among the winners. Why? The pin, fine for men, would puncture a woman’s silk blouse or dress. Pin redesign was the answer. Quality program momentum hinges at least as much on unearthing such “minor” problems as on statistical-process-control training.

6. Momentum quarterback. I’m all in favor of quality VPs. But the momentum program needs a powerful quarterback, too. This “soft stuff”—worrying about pin design—doesn’t happen by accident. It needs an energetic, respected champion.

7. Plan it! If there is no written Momentum Plan (that’s what I urge you to call it), then there won’t be much momentum generated. The risk of making the process too bureaucratic is far less than the failure to “operationalize” momentum in a hard-nosed way.

8. Quality may be free (as guru Phil Crosby tells us), but momentum isn’t. Domino’s program costs a small fortune—cash and time devoted to preliminary and final competitions. Be prepared to cough up some bucks if you’re serious.

9. Attitude, as usual, reveals all. Roger Milliken, a quiet soul, gets a genuine kick out of his firm’s sharing rallies. So do Don Vlcek at Domino’s, Roger Hale at Tennant. If the top dogs won’t participate regularly, and can’t bring themselves to get enthusiastic about a little victory by a little team in a little operation far away from home, you’ve got a real problem.

Taken together, which they must be, these nine elements will move you a long way toward “hardening” momentum—the single most important missing link in most ho-hum quality programs.

(C) 1990 TPG Communications.

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