If your company isn't consistent, you're setting yourself up for failure. Here's why it's the most reliable path to success.

Commit to consistency for reliable success.alvarez/Getty Images
  • Michael Canic, PhD, is a consultant who heads strategic change initiatives with top CEOs and management teams, and was a former leader at FedEx.
  • The following is an excerpt from his new book, "Ruthless Consistency: How Committed Leaders Execute Strategy, Implement Change, and Build Organizations That Win."
  • In it, he explains how leaning on consistency is a reliable path to success, and companies that incorporate changes on a systematic level achieve more than those who superficially fix problems.
  • "The whole truly is greater than the sum of its parts" when it comes to crafting a plan — and aligns every decision and action with success.

"Create a culture of continuous quality improvement."

That was the mandate that came down from corporate. It was early in my career with FedEx where I had taken on a role with responsibility for district-level service quality. I was just one of many young professionals at the company who wanted to make their mark in this newly created position.

"Ruthless Consistency: How Committed Leaders Execute Strategy, Implement Change, and Build Organizations That Win," by Michael Canic.Michael Canic

FedEx already had a strong reputation for service quality.

It had set the industry standard for reliability — delivering overnight packages "absolutely, positively" on-time — but the competition was closing the gap. Driven to stay one step ahead, the company decided to create a culture of continuous quality improvement, a culture that would continually find ways to enhance service, compress cycle times, and reduce costs. Better. Faster. Cheaper.Advertisement

Many of my counterparts wanted to get a fast start.

Almost immediately they started pushing people through quality training and forming quality teams. The race to implement quality was obvious when they reported their progress each month on a global conference call. Everyone wanted to impress.

I took a different approach.

I knew that many organizations had gone down the same path, and while some had succeeded, most had failed. In fact, leading publications were touting headlines that suggested quality—known more commonly then as Total Quality Management, or TQM — was on its last legs: "TQM: More Than a Dying Fad?" (Fortune), "Is Quality Dead?" (Training magazine), "Totaled Quality Management" (Washington Post), "The Dark Side of Quality" (Quality Digest). Failure, apparently, was the norm. I wanted to know why. So instead of racing off to implement quality, I dove into the articles and case studies to understand what led to success and what led to failure.

Naturally, I had some preconceptions. All of them were wrong.
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The anatomy of success and failure

My first thought was that training was the key. Maybe the successful companies provided employees with more training than the unsuccessful ones. Maybe they delivered "just-in-time" training. Maybe they started by training top-level managers and then cascaded training down through the organization. All reasonable ideas … but none of them was the answer. Many companies provided quality training in a variety of ways, yet still failed.

Could it be resources?

Maybe the successful companies simply allocated more resources to their quality efforts. But that wasn't it either. Surprisingly, the companies that applied the most resources often experienced the greatest failures.

What about communications?

Maybe the secret was to communicate continually to employees the what, why, and how of continuous quality improvement. No, that wasn't it. I came across companies that implemented detailed communications plans … and still failed.Advertisement

Incentives and rewards?

Surely, aligning these with the desired behaviors and outcomes would lead to success. Nope. Measurement, tracking, and reporting? Same thing. And so it went with every management practice I examined. It all pointed to a conclusion I didn't like and didn't want to accept. That succeeding or failing with continuous quality improvement was simply a matter of chance.

I was at a dead end.

Isn't there anything an organization can do that reliably leads to success?

And then it hit me. No, there isn't anything. Any one thing. It's everything. Everything matters.Advertisement

Companies that successfully implemented continuous quality improvement made sure everything was aligned with success. Every decision. Every action. All the arrows were pointed in the right direction. Consistently.

The successful companies regularly communicated the purpose of continuous quality improvement, why it was important, and how it applied to each individual. They provided the necessary skills, resources, and authority. They developed metrics and goals. They tracked and reported progress. They aligned management compensation. They celebrated successes. And they had the courage to hold people accountable. Again, all the arrows were consistently pointed in the right direction. These companies understood that "tell 'em and train 'em" simply wasn't good enough. They knew that any critical factor misaligned could lead to failure.

And the companies that weren't successful? Every case of failure I came across could be traced to inconsistency. The unsuccessful companies formed quality improvement teams, but didn't give people the authority to make changes. They set goals, but didn't provide the resources to achieve them. They promoted quality, but as long as managers hit their financial targets, then quality didn't matter. Inconsistency.Advertisement

It was absolutely clear. The difference between success and failure was ruthless consistency.

It turns out that's true not just for continuous quality improvement; it's true for any strategic change initiative (SCI). Successful implementation requires more than just a pinch of training, a dash of resources, and a dollop of communications. It requires a systematic approach to aligning everything with the desired outcome. Everything matters. The whole truly is greater than the sum of its parts.

Think of it this way. It takes only one misaligned wheel to make your car undrivable, one misaligned vertebra in your back to incapacitate you. One misaligned element in any system can undermine everything.

Ruthless consistency is the key to implementing strategic change.Advertisement

Excerpt from "RUTHLESS CONSISTENCY: How Committed Leaders Execute Strategy, Implement Change, and Build Organizations That Win" by Michael Canic, p. 7-10 (McGraw Hill, September 2020).

Michael Canic.James Christianson
Michael Canic, PhD, is the author of "RUTHLESS CONSISTENCY: How Committed Leaders Execute Strategy, Implement Change and Build Organizations That Win" (September 1, 2020; McGraw Hill). He is also the president of Making Strategy Happen, a consultancy which helps committed leaders turn ambition into strategy, and strategy into reality. Previously, he managed the consulting division at The Atlanta Consulting Group and held a leadership role at FedEx. Michael earned a PhD in the psychology of human performance from the University of British Columbia.Advertisement

Currently, Michael leads strategic change initiatives in the corporate world, and spent the past 25 years consulting with CEOs and top management teams across North America. A former national championship winning coach, Michael is also a member of Marshall Goldsmith's global 100 Coaches project. He lives between Denver and Vancouver and has written over 400 posts for his blog.

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