The Pursuit Of Organizational Excellence

By Ian Snyder

Take a minute and think about your camp. Do you have an old, decrepit arts-and-crafts cabin? Maybe there’s a neglected sports shed filled with deflated soccer balls. How about a pothole-plagued main road? Does anyone else have a bald spot in their field?

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“But that’s how it’s always been! Not the craft cabin! We can’t change that old place! It’s tradition!”

“Tradition.” No other word in the dictionary has put a more effective stop to the development of camps. But at what point does tradition—complacency to the norm—become an obstacle to the improvement of an organization and an industry?

A Way Of Thinking
If you search “organizational excellence,” Google will quickly yield a dozen articles on Linkedin and other sources from a myriad of business coaches and “change agents” looking to convert new followers. Organizational excellence is a way of thinking, so describing these agents as missionaries would not be entirely incorrect. In order to pursue excellence, one must be dedicated to the task of all things excellent.

I describe organizational excellence to staff members as the underlying belief, motive, or goal in every aspect of an operation. When implementing a new camper check-in program, for instance, several questions come to mind:

  • Will this help us improve?

  • Will it help us move towards excellence?

  • Will it improve the experience enough that campers will note the ease of the check-in?

Ultimately, organizational excellence involves intentional and deliberate management. It requires constant self-evaluation and direct feedback, which is something most camp directors do well. What else do we do other than receive feedback and evaluation?

A wise volunteer prompted me to examine this concept. His habit, now instilled in me, changed the way I thought about my own camp operation. Upon their arrival, I want families and campers to feel welcome.

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As a camp, the staff made the decision to pursue excellence in everything we did and to work towards one mission. If something isn’t in line with the mission, we don’t do it. If it won’t help our goal in delivering an excellent program and service to customers, then we don’t do it. This has not always been easy, but it has paid off.

An Analysis
We began this process with a SWOT analysis—strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. From that, we discussed areas in need of improvement and strengths that needed to be further developed. We made goals and action plans. We empowered individuals to complete tasks and solve problems.

We focused on the following aspects of the operation:

  • Process. How do we _______ and how can we do it better?

  • Projects. How do we manage projects in a timely and effective way?

  • Staff development. How do we train staff members to pursue excellence and not settle for “good enough”?

  • Feedback and evaluation. How did we do? How can we improve? Why didn’t it work?

  • Engagement. How do we bring people in to help with our mission?

We began the journey with the first two items concurrently. We had a crippled infrastructure and ineffective, inefficient processes. These two items were judged as the most immediate and impactful areas for development.

Process
This task took us down to the core of the operation. We took a year to walk through each aspect of the experience, beginning with camper arrival and ending at departure. We looked at the way campers entered the camp. What did they see, smell, and feel? What was the experience in the first 60 seconds of arrival?

We used tools like feedback and evaluation to drive the development of new processes and acknowledged that change was needed. In many camps, “That’s the way we’ve always done it” is the house rule. We threw that out first, noting the value of the past but recognizing the need for change.

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Projects
Given the right audience, one of the many volunteers will launch into a brief presentation, outlining the method for developing project plans, starting with the problem and ending with the solution. The “in-between” is quite complex, as with all problem solving. Take your time and do things the right way the first time through.

This approach requires one to be self-reflective and acknowledge areas of strength and weakness. In the pursuit of excellence, you can’t undertake a project on a best guess. Find the guy who knows what he’s talking about.

While these solutions can be successful, we found that too often we operated in silos when working on projects.

  • “Well, Joe is working on that project.”

  • “I’m not too sure, but I think the best option would be X.”

  • “What do you mean, they need this cabin next week?”

Communication and collaboration were lacking all around. The intentional use of the fundamentals of problem solving provided a consistent approach.

Staff Development
If you’ve never been to a Chick-fil-A, I encourage you to go. Somehow this humble fast-food chain has managed to take a rag-tag group of high-school and college-age kids and teach them to be polite and customer-service oriented. My first experience left me speechless and forever won my loyalty. How does the company do it? Positive peer pressure.

A culture is established in which being customer-friendly and service-oriented is the norm, not the exception. The company sets an expectation level for staff members and does not waiver in meeting that goal. In an environment like that, those willing to meet expectations rise and the rest fall away.

We took this method and applied it to staff members. We told them, “This is our expectation. Meet it—like the rest of the staff members—or there will not be a position here for you.” More importantly, the positive peer pressure to be customer-oriented was stronger than the desire to dissent. Who doesn’t want to be on the winning team?

The pursuit of this aspect is still underway. It’s not easy to change a culture, but we know that with the right training, environment, and leadership, we will be the Chick-fil-A of camp staff members soon enough.

Feedback And Evaluation
It always amazes me that, when interacting with a dissatisfied customer, how quickly the situation can be de-escalated by simply acknowledging a shortcoming. It’s almost counterintuitive, but I’m sold on the approach.

“Did we meet your expectations?”

“No. “

“Tell me how I can work to meet those expectations in the future.”

On many occasions, a brilliant solution was brought forward that was born of a missed opportunity for excellence. A leader among the volunteers opened the flood gates on this part of the mission and, ultimately, it yielded the greatest results.

Indeed, it is scary to ask for feedback. It’s intimidating to put an operation and a camp on display for scrupulous evaluation. In the end, we found ourselves stronger on the other side of it, and more importantly, customers felt that they were heard. Whenever possible, our answer was “yes” because unless it’s illegal or dangerous, there should be no other reason for “no”… within reason!

Engagement
The pursuit of organizational excellence is a marathon. It cannot be done by one individual or a small group. It must be carried by the community. Excellence is only possible when everyone does his or her job.

The same wise volunteer who sold me on the idea of organizational excellence holds the New England Patriots up as the model for this idea—in all things related to the game, strategy, brand, operation, etc. If a player fails to meet expectations, he will be traded.

Staff members took a similar approach and borrowed the motto of the Patriots and their fans: “Do your job!” If everyone does their individual job at the same level of excellence, we all win. Whether it’s preparing dinner in the kitchen, running a program at the waterfront, or administering the front office, do your job and do it well! It only works if we all pull together!

Lessons Learned
I don’t pretend to be an expert on organizational excellence, but I do dedicate myself to its pursuit. Our organization is a few years into this new direction. Last year, we saw a nine-percent growth in participation and were able to bring 20 percent more of our own membership back home to the camp. The facilities are visually appealing, the program has depth and substance, the operation is more efficient, and customers are more satisfied.

We still have work to do, but we know where we are going and where we want to be. We won’t let complacency take hold of us again because we’re committed to the foundations and expectations we’ve set. Most importantly, our traditions are still intact … but they’re better. The old craft cabin is still around, but it has a new floor and a fresh coat of paint. We don’t make bird-feeder pine cones, but we do play with robots … and gimp, of course!

So, I invite you to walk through your own front gates as a camper or parent might. What do you see? How are you greeted? How does it make you feel? Can you do better?

Ian Snyder is the Outdoor Program Director for the Boy Scouts of America Mohegan Council in Worcester, Mass. Reach him at ian.snyder@scouting.org.