MONTEVIDEO — I have since long been obsessed with the idea of excellence. What is it really? Is it a choice or a destination? Is it something anyone can achieve? Is it the same to be excellent as to be the best? Is it possible to transform a mediocre organization into one of bonafide excellence?

I think I've arrived at a point where it's worth organizing these questions toward some conclusions. This isn't a fully coherent package, nor is it a methodology, much less a How-To guide. There are many loose ends. But I have the impression that maybe it can be helpful to someone else obsessed with excellence.

In family discussions, in political gatherings, in the press, in our collective imagination, two preconceptions are often identified as immutable truths about quality and excellence. They are shallow but forceful opinions, unfounded but certain, false but incontestable. As a first step, let's attemtp to demystify them.

The first notion is that excellence demands more work. As in, an ordinary table is built in a couple of days, a decent table in a week, but an excellent table probably requires at least a month.

This type of reasoning is deeply rooted in social ideology at all levels. Quality is a direct result of hard work — the sweaty shirt, effort beyond reasonable limits.

A confused argument

This is a faulty argument, a case of confusion between correlation and causality. The reality is that a truly awful carpenter makes tables, a mediocre carpenter makes tables, and an excellent carpenter makes excellent tables, typically with the same supplies in the same amount of time and with the same restrictions. Excellence is not the result of the amount of effort or intensity of effort — not even the suffering that produces the effort, even if it reaches heroic levels.

Excellence is not about how much, but how.

The second common notion about excellence deals with control. Some people believe that work isn't performed well when the atmosphere is relaxed, when employees are unafraid. This idea is perpetuated as an explanation for poor performance.

But this claim doesn't withstand the slightest scrutiny. If individuals deliver better results the more they are controlled and imposed upon, excellence would be the rational result of terror. Of course, we can obtain results through coercion — legal, immoral and illegal coercion — but they are rarely excellent. They can lead to huge profits, even huge fortunes, for those who exert coercion, but there are few, if any, cases where institutionalized threats or tight controls as a strategy have resulted in excellence.

An advocate for this type of reasoning usually implies that it is for others, not for himself. Others are lazy, others are abusers. Perhaps this gives some currency to the old saying that the thief believes that everybody is like him.

But it's not just important to note that excellence doesn't derive from control. In fact, control in this context is a guarantee of mediocre results. We are not talking about industrial control or quality control. We are talking about control as an organizational model and as a strategy: Someone does, someone controls and somebody corrects — the holy trinity of guaranteed mediocrity.

The disadvantages of this type of reasoning are numerous:

• Why accept that something is less than it could be? If everything is done as well as possible within the resources and constraints at hand, what then would be necessary to control?

• Why don't the most knowledgeable people carry out the task? Possibly it's more time-consuming or more expensive, or creates problems of hierarchy, but in practice, failing to assign each task to whoever does it best is always a waste of resources.

• Why do something poorly and then have to correct when you could simply do it well from the start?

• Why institutionalize an extremely costly method? To do, revise and then edit is always more expensive than to just do.

If I can just have your attention for five more minutes... — Photo: Fabola

The need for control is generally a sign of trouble rather than an organizational virtue. Bureaucracy is nothing less than an institutionalized mechanism of control that manages mediocrity. In many cases, control is necessary and indispensable as a temporary palliative, but only valid if it's understood as an indication of being far from the mechanisms that produce excellent results.

Excellence comes from an extremely simple idea to make things right from the start.

From a strategic point of view, excellence is a core definition on which to rely when making decisions and implementing processes. In an excellent company, this constitutes the center of all strategies, which affects every other decision. From this view, excellence is not a destination, but a way of traveling.

The best and the excellent

Among the issues of excellence that leave me conflicted is the relationship between the best and the excellent. There are so many mediocre attempts to be "the best" that they immediately generate a sense of cautiousness against quick conclusions.

I'm unable to resolve the paradox. On the one hand, it's very common to find excellent organizations much more concerned with outdoing themselves than overcoming others. On the other hand, it's equally common to find absolutely mediocre organizations obsessed with the systematic comparison to those they perceive as behind or ahead of them.

It should be added that it's often better to be mediocre when competitors are also mediocre, because it means being less poor than others without the cost of being excellent.

Perhaps this could all be explained by saying that being the best is a state and excellence is a process, and they are therefore incomparable. They do, however, have a strong relationship, as excellence puts organizations in a unique position to be the best, unchallenged.

What experience has shown me over and over is that managers who make the most effort to be the best — whose companies have the biggest market share, are the best-selling and have the most business wins — are rarely part of excellent organizations. They are the ones abiding by the theory that it doesn't matter what others say about me, as long as they say it.

*Daniel Mordecki Pupko is director of the Uruguayan consulting services company Concrete.