What is “Execution Excellence” and Why it Matters in the 2020s

By Albert Durig
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In this fifth episode of the Conscious Conversations series, Albert Durig covers eleven questions about what “execution excellence” is and why it matters in the 2020s.

Albert is head of Execution Excellence at Axialent and has more than 30 years experience in helping leaders and their teams achieving their next level in terms of collaboration and productivity, and is an expert in leveraging strategic planning to build the desired organizational culture.

Below you can listen to the full conversation.

Or you can skip ahead to any of the questions.

What is Execution Excellence? What does it mean?

Why does Execution Excellence matter?

Is Execution Excellence a state you actually achieve?

Do you subscribe to the famous saying “The road to excellence is always under construction”? Why?

How does Execution Excellence create competitive advantage?

Can you share a success story from your own experience?

How have companies pursued Execution Excellence?

Are there specific challenges a company needs to face to need an Execution Excellence approach? Which are typical?

How has Execution Excellence evolved over the years?

Why are you so passionate about Execution Excellence?

What is the role of Conscious Business and the human dimension in Execution Excellence?

Transcription

Presenter: Welcome to the Conscious Conversation series. This is episode five, and today I’m speaking with Albert Durig, senior partner and head of execution excellence at Axialent. Albert has more than 30 years of experience in helping leaders and their teams achieving their next level in terms of collaboration and productivity. He’s an expert in leveraging strategic planning to build the desired organizational culture.
In today’s episode, we’ll talk about what Execution Excellence is and why it matters in the 2020s. So Albert, thank you for being with us today.

What is Execution Excellence? What does it mean?

Albert: Yes, yes. Well, that’s a great question, and thank you Ben, for having me here today. It’s a pleasure to be with Conscious Conversations today. What is Execution Excellence is THE question, it’s a concept that’s been around for quite a long time. You hear a lot of people in a lot of companies talk about Execution Excellence, and really what it comes down to is it refers to a commitment. It’s not so much a state that you achieve, or a thing, as much as it is a commitment to raise the level of productivity that you produce during execution.
So it means advancing the effectiveness of how people collaborate in teams to produce some outcome, some desired business outcome that you want. It’s about raising the standard by which people collaborate to execute and deliver a desired outcome, and to do so with increasing levels of quality and consistency. So it’s a commitment to raising productivity, quality, and consistency. That’s probably the best way to look at it.

Presenter: Why does Execution Excellence matter?

Albert: Well, effective execution and Execution Excellence matters because it’s ultimately about increasing productivity, and productivity is the measurement, if not the the most essential measurement of all business. And it’s what business has been pursuing since the beginning times of business. And that productivity increases, and impacts revenue and profit. So excellence in execution should result in higher value to customers, which in turn should be reflected in revenue, profit, and competitive advantage. If you are pursuing Execution Excellence and you’re increasing productivity, then you should also in turn be impacting revenue, profit, and your ability to compete.

Presenter: Is Execution Excellence a state you actually achieve?

Albert: It’s not really a single state, it’s not a thing that you achieve. It’s a commitment to increasing value through increasing your productivity and effectiveness. In this case, and particularly with collaboration. So as long as a team or a company is increasing their value through the way in which they coordinate action together and collaborate, then they’re going to be successfully pursuing excellence in execution. So if you’re able to achieve new goals for the execution of a project, and meet or exceed those goals, then you can say you have achieved a new level of Execution Excellence.
But that’s just in terms of that particular project. In general, it’s not a single state that you ever achieve. It’s a commitment to pursuing more effectiveness in your collaboration, better productivity, quality and consistency.

Presenter: Do you subscribe to the famous saying, “The road to excellence is always under construction.”? Why?

Albert: Yes, yes, absolutely. Because of what I just said. It’s not something that you ever ultimately achieve. So it is always under construction, always. And that’s because there’s no one final state to be achieved. I mean, as soon as you get to a new level of excellence in execution, then you set a new goal for yourself to improve on that level. And that makes the pursuit of Execution Excellence a never-ending journey. It’s about continuous improvement, and that in turn requires a commitment to learning and believing performance can always be taken to the next level and to new heights.
So whatever you improve on, then the bar moves to the next place in front of you and you have to pursue that. So yeah, I absolutely subscribe to that. The road to excellence is always under construction, for sure.

Presenter: How does Execution Excellence create competitive advantage?

Albert: Execution Excellence, and pursuing it, results in a team of people committed to ever increasing goals of performance, productivity, and effectiveness. So if you’re really doing it well, this team of people or this group of people is always seeking to improve. And so their mindset is growth-based. It’s not fixed. Their mindset is learning-based, not closed. Their mindset is result-based. So their commitment to continuous improvement results in a culture of collaboration that becomes a powerful asset that’s very difficult to copy in any short amount of time. Now there’s other types of competitive advantage such as technology, price, location, but those can be matched in short order quite easily by other companies.
However, Execution Excellence and being good at pursuing Execution Excellence, that takes a lot of time to achieve, and even more time to match by a competitor. And once competitors match, let’s say a competitor matches your level of execution excellence, your levels of productivity from your team, well, by definition your team has already moved ahead and gone to the next level. So you’re always a step ahead. If your pursuance of execution excellence is indeed a part of your culture, then it always maintains a competitive advantage over the competition in the marketplace.

Presenter: Can you share a success story from your past experiences?

Albert: Sure, sure. There’s many to choose from. I’ll give you an example of a major consulting firm that we work with. And just to begin here, I would say that in our Execution Excellence practice, we’re always tying the work that we do to some business problem. In our model in Axialent we talk about the IT dimension, the I dimension, the individual, the WE dimension, which is the collective, and that IT dimension, which is the task. And in Execution Excellence, it’s always tied and begins with a task in the IT dimension. Always.
So in this particular case, we had one of the world’s largest firms with the task of needing to redo their audit methodology, and redo their audit software that 75,000 of their employees used on a daily basis to create audits for their clients. The challenge for this company was not their knowledge of audit, because they themselves are auditors. The challenge for this company was the way they were structured, and they’re structured as a collection of member firms where every individual firm has its own owner. And what challenge that produces is that it’s very hard to essentially drive one solution from the center, because every company at the local level has its own owner and can choose or not to choose to participate.
So the only way to create a new methodology that everyone in the world uses, and that will make all of the regulators around the world and governments happy, is that all of the main countries of this firm build that audit methodology together and build that software together. And so that was their execution challenge. Their challenge wasn’t so much the knowledge of audit, their challenge was how to coordinate so many different groups of people that have different interests. So the challenge was very IT dimension-related, and we were brought in to work with these groups at a few different levels.
One, they had a global team that oversaw the development of all of this work. So this team was comprised of representatives from the top 10 countries around the world in their organization. They also had many, many different work streams that specialized in small pieces of the solution. And so this global work group had to oversee all of these many work streams. So we managed this not only from a project management perspective, in a traditional sense, but we also brought many of our Conscious Business skills to these groups, but also living Conscious Business as a member of the team on the inside. We would help these teams collaborate more effectively together, and instead of having conversations that were position-based only, which is what they would do in the past, it would be very difficult for them to come to any agreement because they’re coming from a place of their fixed positions.
So we had to change those conversations to be interest-based. So how could we have different countries with very different positions, and sometimes different interests, come together and have a meaningful conversation that develops a new audit methodology, for example. And the audit methodologies, just so you understand, is a document of 3,000 pages with thousands of decisions that need to be made. And each one of these has to be taken through this group of all these multiple countries. So, helping them communicate and collaborate much more effectively because Conscious Business helped their interpersonal skills in being able to relate and have conversations with one another.
But also we installed these attitudes of empowerment that didn’t really allow, once the mindsets are in place, don’t really allow anyone to blame anyone else. Everyone has to look for their contribution to the solution. So it really changed the way that they looked at themselves, and looked at working with one another. And as we coordinated all of that activity, we also were in charge of the project management. And that meant tracking all of this activity, the timelines, et cetera, et cetera.
And we were able to see that in doing so, we didn’t just manage a list of tasks and dates that had to be performed, but we were also able to get involved and help work streams negotiate with one another in order to come to solutions much more quickly than they would have in the past. We’re able to identify bottlenecks in the processes as they occurred, we were able to get ahead of those bottlenecks and go directly to the powers that be, and sometimes deal even with the politics in the organization, using our interpersonal communications and collaboration skills, to work directly with them. So we didn’t always have to teach them the skill, to the person we were working with, because we were embodying that skill at the same time.
In this particular example, we not only managed this three year project across many, many countries, we taught different teams how to become high-performing teams along the way, and we ourselves participated in the project as modelers of the behavior that then became part of their culture of collaboration.

Presenter: How have companies pursued Execution Excellence?

Albert: Execution Excellence really became a term you started to hear about probably in the 90s, and definitely in the first decade of the 2000s, and yet it’s something that companies have been pursuing for a long time. It’s just previously it was often referred to as just execution or productivity. And the way it’s been pursued in the past has often been through the use of technologies outside of the individual. So in order to make us more productive, we developed software that allows us to be much faster in our ability to calculate, to run large amounts of information. Communications being as fast as they are today allows people to be more productive, and get more done in a shorter amount of time.
So the short answer to how companies have pursued Execution Excellence is that they used external technologies, almost always, as the first way to attack productivity and to try and raise the challenge of increasing productivity.

Presenter: Is there a specific challenge or challenges a company needs to face to need an Execution Excellence approach? Which are typical?

Albert: Every company benefits from pursuing Execution Excellence, because every company should pursue improving its productivity. That’s just good business. Now, what kinds of challenges present themselves where Execution Excellence matters? You pretty much could say everything after the development of strategy. So what companies often do is they develop a strategy, a vision for the future, a strategy for the way they’re going to get there, and they have a plan, and then that plan has to be implemented, meaning people have to go to work to get things done, to bring that plan to life, to make it happen. That’s called execution. In the broadest sense to that answer is, everything after a strategy is set, a company can benefit from pursuing excellence in execution.
Some of the typical things that you see are any large-scale task that a company has that’s mission critical. So something, and it could be a small task and that matters too, but what tends to matter the most are tasks that are mission critical. So for example, implementing a new operating model company-wide, implementing a new organizational structure, implementing a new matrix structure are also typical. Implementing a new marketing rollout and marketing program, implementing a new product. Seeking to reach a new target audience that hasn’t been reached in the past. A merger and acquisition.
We know that the company that owns Louis Vuitton just purchased Tiffany for, I think, $16 billion. So now Louis Vuitton has to integrate Tiffany into its company. Now it’s going to keep the Tiffany brand separate. But how it brings Tiffany into the Louis Vuitton family is a huge project, and it’s mission critical because they spent $16 billion on it. They can’t fail. So how do you do something like that? That’s going to require that they pursue excellence in execution. Because if they don’t, and the project doesn’t go well, the amount of risk is enormous. So those are some classic examples of challenges.
There are always IT-dimension challenges, there are always task-based challenges, and I would say the more mission critical, meaning the more important they are to the life of the company, the more they require an Execution Excellence approach.

Presenter: How has Execution Excellence evolved over the years?

Albert: That’s similar to how companies have pursued Execution Excellence. I mean, the answer this question really requires that we understand the link between execution and productivity, and really productivity is a measurement of execution. So how well you execute, you could call that productivity. So productivity is how much of something, time, a product, a service, gets done from the time we spend doing it.
How many widgets are produced in an hour of a person’s time? The more the better. So we can follow the history of Execution Excellence by following a history of productivity. And if you look at this 200 years ago with the rise of the industrial revolution, the use of new mechanized machines and steam-powered machines is what they used to increase productivity. Before these machines in factories, you had everybody doing weaving by hand. You had people in the fields and farming, picking products by hand. Everything was done by hand. And now they were able to use the development of machines, and mechanized machines, and steam engines, to do the same work much faster on a larger scale. So now productivity went up. What one person could do by themselves, now with a machine they could produce much, much, much, much more.
Now, that was followed by the advent of the assembly line, which combined with those machines took productivity to a whole new level still, by harnessing the value of sequencing the assembly on a large scale. And with the introduction after that of electricity and factories, and machines becoming more efficient because now they were electric, not steam-powered, and then the introduction of the telephone and the telegraph, that added more productivity by increasing the speed at which information flowed. Then came computers, microchips, personal computers, software, and all of that added to the amount of work individuals and individual people could produce.
Now add to that the internet, social media, big data, data analytics, and more and more information is flowing, and more and more can be harnessed to further raise productivity. So here we sit now in 2019 and 2020, with all of this being used in behind us; electricity, communications, computers, social networks, big data, all of this data and analytics is being used by individuals that allow them to be infinitely more productive than any individual could be by themselves. And now what’s next is people are adding artificial intelligence and the power of machine thinking, which is going to take us far beyond what any human could ever achieve.
But there remains an important resource to be developed, and we call that the human dimension, because everything I’ve talked about is the technical dimension. Everything I’ve talked about is technology, that we’ve developed external to ourselves, that helps increase how much we can produce. But what we haven’t spent a lot of time on, and what we call the next frontier of productivity in Execution Excellence, is that human dimension. And that human dimension refers to the beliefs and behaviors that people have that, if they were developed in the right way, would improve the way that they collaborate together, and thus improve the productivity they derive by how they work together. So even though we’re going to have machines, computers, data analytics, artificial intelligence, we’re still going to have human beings, and human beings, at some level beyond those machines, are going to need to work together.
And that’s the human dimension part. So if we can improve the way people have their attitudes of empowerment, and their skills for interpersonal communications, then we can improve the productivity of how they work together. So it’s not only about technology, but it’s also about social and human interaction. We consider collaboration to be the next frontier of productivity. And it’s no wonder, really, when you think about it, why it’s taken so long for us to work on this human dimension. Why didn’t we work on the human dimension 100 years ago or 200 years ago? And it’s not that people did no work on the human dimension 100 or 200 years ago, but certainly not with the focus that they have today.
And one of the answers may be, and I find it interesting to contemplate, that maybe it was easier to develop technologies external to ourselves as a problem to solve, than it was for ourselves to look in the mirror and identify areas that we needed to improve about ourselves. That’s not so easy to do. And people shy away from looking at their own selves in this kind of way. So it was easier for them to go develop software, or whatever the case may be, than to say, my issue is how I interact with others and I need to make changes in my behavior and my beliefs in order to make a difference. And that’s where we are today.

Presenter: Why are you so passionate about Execution Excellence?

Albert: Well, I think for a number of reasons. It has a lot to do with, it’s the human part of business. It’s the humane part of business. It is humanity at work, and that’s what I find fascinating about it. Oftentimes work can become such a nonhuman kind of thing. It’s cold, it’s decision making, it’s not emotional. You don’t bring your whole self to work. You wear a mask at work, et cetera, et cetera.
When in reality, the value proposition of the human being at work beyond their brain, of course, which is great for creativity, innovation, et cetera, is their humanness. Is their humanity. So how we can leverage that humanity in the form of interaction and collaboration to make a difference in not only the quality of the work experience, but the productivity of work, which again is the most important measurement that all business seeks. Then that’s an amazing thing. It gives me hope that business and the human side, and humanity, will always be linked together, that it’s not a matter of replacing us by machines, or going to work with just the part of yourself that doesn’t have emotions, et cetera, et cetera. No, it’s about a much more holistic view of work where you bring the whole self to work. The rational, the emotional, every part of yourself, in such a way as to maximize the benefit you bring to productivity. That’s what turns me on. It’s the human side.

Presenter: You have already talked about the human dimension, and this question is what is the role of Conscious Business and the human dimension in Execution Excellence?

Albert: Yes, it is related, but I think I can give it a finer point here. And that is, we first want to understand that execution is always about an IT-dimension task. So it’s always about getting something external to us done. Yet we know that that doesn’t happen by itself. So Conscious Business is the platform that I subscribe to most, that I believe is best, for the development of the right attitudes and skills that people need to maximize their ability to interact and collaborate together. So, if execution excellence always starts with an IT-dimension problem, Conscious Business is what helps us develop the attitudes of individual empowerment, and the specific skills of interpersonal communications and relationships that we need for collaboration, so that we can make collaboration much more effective and therefore more productive.
And, of course, that’s all based on the human dimension. Now, attitudes of empowerment and interpersonal communication skills are not the only aspects of the human dimension, but they are significant in what the human dimension brings to business. Of course, we add to that things like emotional intelligence that also come together to increase the value of what we can do with the human dimension to impact an IT-based outcome. So Conscious Business specifically gives us the attitudes of empowerment, and the skills for interpersonal communications and relationship building that we need to do better collaboration.

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