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Our research on the success of top performing companies confirms the adage that “God is in the details.” Every company puts on its best effort when it is negotiating and executing a large order from its most important customer, when it is making a large capital purchase, when it is negotiating a large bank loan, or recruiting an executive to head up a critical activity. But the real test of a company’s quality and efficiency is not shown here. It is shown rather in the way the company handles the hundreds of small, routine, apparently insignificant acts that make up the bulk of our daily activities. The secret of non-stop profitable growth is to do the small things perfectly.
Getting the details just right is easier said than done. For the very act of achieving perfection attracts an incursion of opportunities and expansion of activities that multiplies the demand on a company’s people and systems, making perfection all the more difficult. Perfection stimulates growth, growth increases the demand for perfection.
Why make so much out of small, insignificant acts? After all, isn’t it the big customer, the big sale, the big product innovation that make all the difference? That may appear true at casual glance, but when you examine the big conquests in retrospect you will discover that in almost every case it is very small matters that contributed to the very big difference in outcome.
A small soft drink bottler, unknown outside of a few rural districts in the state where it operated, aspired to elevate its organization for higher achievement. It engaged a consultant to professionalize the family-managed business. The consultant read an advertisement by Cadbury’s seeking partners for its bottling and distribution in South India and proposed to his clients that they apply. None of them could conceive that they had any chance of being selected by Cadburys. Physically, the consultant drafted a simple, straightforward thoughtful letter, taking immense pains to ensure that every sentence was factual, clearly stated and without even the slightest error. Spiritually, the consultant consecrated every word, thought and emotion in the letter to express the highest truth and inspiration of which he was capable. To his and his clients’ utter surprise, they received a positive reply from Cadburys and were eventually selected as partners. A few months later, the consultant found the courage to ask the Cadburys executive why he had selected their company when so many larger, more qualified companies were eager to join with them. The executive replied, “I decided on you after reading your very first letter.” That is the power of perfection in the details.
A small delay in answering the phone or replying to a letter, a document that carries no date, a sentence that is ambiguous because of one missing word, a brief delay in preparing a Profit & Loss statement for the bank, omission of a single small step in planning to implement a large project, a misspelled name or casual comment that offends its owner, a loose bolt or a speck of dust, – these and millions of other details can make the difference for an individual or a company between boom and bust.
Every major breakthrough is made up of countless details, many of them apparently insignificant, which can make the difference between huge success and total failure. A scientist at the American multinational 3M, which is renowned for its constant innovation, accidentally discovered a variety of glue that had adhesive qualities, but failed to form strong permanent bonds between paper and other objects. Instead of discarding it as a useless error, he looked for possible applications. The result was the Post It! note, which soon became a multibillion dollar product for 3M.
We easily understand the importance of small details when something goes wrong. A surgeon performs a new type of miraculous life-saving surgery, but the patient expires because a clamp was left inside his body. A few tiny ceramic tiles falling off during reentry lead to the explosion of a multi-billion dollar American space shuttle and tragic loss of life. Failure to follow standard practice in cleaning chemical tanks results in a Bhopal catastrophe with thousands of victims.
What we do not so easily appreciate is that the contribution that small details can make to boost our present performance and propel us to greater heights. Professional athletes know a tiny change in training, diet, equipment or tactics can make the difference between a world champion and an also-ran. The higher a company rises, the greater the perfection needed to remain where it is. So too, the greater the organization a company achieves, the higher the level to which it naturally rises.
Perfection in the details is not just a sound management principle of an efficiency expert. It is an expression of a profound spiritual truth. The world is a manifestation of the Spirit gradually evolving and revealing more of its latent capacities. Spirit is the essence of perfection. The expression of perfection is the manifestation of Spirit in life. Wherever there is Perfection, the power of the Spirit expresses in life as superb health, lightening speed of events or exponential expansion.
Conventional wisdom asserts that perfection can only be achieved by arduous effort over extended periods of time by those with long experience. While often true, this truth conceals a greater truth. Those that genuinely aspire for perfection from the start will find the results that normally come only after arduous labour and long experience coming to them in the beginning. What matters is not the length of time one strives for perfection but the intensity of the aspiration for it.
Achieving perfection in a company’s routine activities means eliminating errors, inaccuracies, omissions, and delays of all descriptions. It means writing accounts accurately and closing the books on time every month. It includes responding to inquiries quickly and politely, generating purchase orders and invoices within errors, making exact payments and collecting receivables on time, following quality and maintenance procedures to a ‘T’ and a similar perfection in countless other small matters.
Practically, the details of any business activity are so many and the interrelationships between activities so complex that effort and determination alone are not sufficient to achieve perfection. The very effort for perfection has to be organized and systematic. The most effective approach is to develop written standard operating procedures (SOPs) detailing each and every step of each and every routine activity, including feedback loops, decision-points and reporting.
Obviously the quality and effectiveness of the SOPs will depend on the knowledge and experience of those who produce them. Only one who has performed an act perfectly will have the complete knowledge required to write perfect procedures for the act. This was the approach adopted by J. Williard Marriott and his wife to grow their mom and pop company from a single roadside drive-in restaurant into one of the largest, most profitable food service and hotel companies in the world, the Marriott Corporation. First they did the work themselves until they were able to do it perfectly. Then they wrote down the procedures and taught others how to follow and monitor them.
Marriott’s company grew exponentially for decades. Any company can launch itself on a trajectory of exponential growth by this method, provided the aspiration for perfection is intense and the commitment to achieve it is unwavering.
This article was originally published in | Consecration Magazine, Vol.1, Issue 6, Jan-Feb 2005, pg.9,