One-Minute Excellence

Tom Peters

One-minute excellence. I can sense the curling of your lips. While such a moniker makes me shudder, too, there’s a gem in there waiting to be discovered.

How do you go on an effective diet? How do you stop smoking? How do you stop drinking?

In short, you do it and it’s done. Then you work like hell for the rest of your life to stay on the weight-loss, cigarette-less, or booze-free wagon.

A while back, I came across a line attributed to IBM founder Thomas Watson. If you want to achieve excellence, he said, you can get there today. As of this second, quit doing less-than-excellent stuff.

The idea is profound.

Suppose you’re a waiter and, for your own future’s sake (forget the clowns who run the restaurant), you decide to set a matchless standard for service. How? You do it. Now.

Sure you’ll be clumsy at first. You’ll get a lot wrong. You’ll need to read up, listen to audio tapes, take classes, tune in to on-line electronic chat rooms, visit other restaurants to collect clues. And you’ll need to keep doing such things to maintain your edge (as an opera singer or professional athlete does) until the day you hang up your corkscrew.

Nonetheless, you can become excellent in a nanosecond, starting with your first guest tonight. Simply picture yourself even if it’s a very fuzzy picture, as the greatest waiter ever—and start acting accordingly. Put yourself in the lights on Broadway, as a galaxy-class waiter; then perform your script with derring-do.

Does it sound wild? Silly? Maybe, but it isn’t. For the first 99.9 percent of getting from here to there is the determination to do it, and not to compromise, no matter what sort of roadblocks those around you (including peers) erect.

The last 99.9 percent (I know it adds up to more than 100 percent—that’s life) is working like the devil to (1) keep your dobber up amid inevitable storms, (2) learn something new every day, and (3) practice that something, awkward or not, every day, come hell or high water.

What holds for the waiter holds for the chief executive of the six- or 16,000-person firm. (And for the supervisor with four employees in the insurance brokerage.)

How long does it take you, as boss, to achieve world-class quality? Less than a nanosecond to attain it, a lifetime of passionate pursuit to maintain it.

Once the fire is lit, assume you’ve arrived—and never, ever look back or do anything, no matter how trivial, that’s inconsistent with your new-found quality persona.

Suppose you commit to new heights in quality or service here and now. In your own mind, you’re an instant Nordstrom (retail) or Motorola (manufacturing). But your next task, dratted real world, is to go through your boring in-basket.

What an opportunity! So you don’t know much about Nordstrom or Motorola (yet!); nonetheless, respond to the first item in your in-basket as you imagine a Nordstrom or Motorola exec would.

A memo from a front-line worker complaining about a silly roadblock to improvement? A request to change office-supply vendors? An irate note from a customer or distributor? “Nordstrom” it. “Motorola” it. Act out, in a small way, your Nordstrom-Motorola fantasy of matchless quality.

Sure, if you keep it up for even a few hours, peers and subordinates and bosses will start looking at you oddly. Which is exactly the point. And your first tiny victory. You, Ms. Planet-class Quality, are living a new life. It’s their misfortune that they haven’t figured it out yet.

Does all this amount to a quarter-baked pep talk better fit for a revival tent? Hardly. (And if you don’t believe me, ask a friend in Alcoholics Anonymous, perhaps the most effective change program on earth today. You see, the deeper point is that you’ll either change in a nanosecond—or never. It’s true with booze, smokes, fat, and world-class quality. The determined shift of mindset is an all-or-nothing deal.

Fact is, I’m fed up to my eyebrows with execs (and folks of every other rank) who talk about how 1-o-n-g it takes to achieve change. Pure, unadulterated rubbish. It takes forever to maintain change (“one day at a time”—AA); it takes but a flash to achieve change of even the most dramatic sort.

One morning, in Houston, almost five years ago, I was a non-exerciser. For a series of not very profound reasons, I went out at 5 a.m. and took my first, bumbling speed walk. Eleven minutes later (OK, quite a few nanoseconds), I was hooked. Every day I fret that I’ll renege. It’s a lifetime’s pursuit, which causes pain some days (e.g., as I write, it’s unseasonably cold, rainy, and getting late). But as of that morning, I was a no-baloney, world-class, rudely dogmatic exerciser.

It is that simple. Honest.

(C) 1993 TPG Communications.

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