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Should We Bother Applying for Industry Awards?

May 2, 2023
For some manufacturers, jumping through hoops to achieve outside recognition can be an integral part of the continuous improvement journey.

The two of us were recently discussing IndustryWeek’s Best Plants competition and just what motivates a management team to apply for this and other awards programs, like the Malcolm Baldrige Award for Quality and the Shingo Prize. All of these awards recognize organizations that have achieved strategic and operational excellence.  Only the best of the best receives such recognition. 

We wondered: Just what drives companies to jump through all of the hoops necessary to achieve such stardom? Is it because getting such an award is validation that you are “just that good”? Is it a measure of how far you have come and that your culture, associates, and—even more significantly—your customers deserve it because you have demonstrated Operational Excellence across all metrics typically used to measure plant operations?

Our view is that managers don’t apply for such awards for notoriety or “bragging rights.”  They do it because it’s one of the elements of the strategy to achieve and sustain excellence.

A Learning Experience

Ron worked for a CEO who had led a previous employer to win the Shingo Prize. That CEO was among the best senior leaders Ron has known. He had unimpeachable ethical standards, impeccable operational and financial skills, and a clear vision of excellence that he articulated often and well. Most important, perhaps, he was quick to delegate decisions down to the shop floor. He spent more time asking questions and listening than he did directing and telling. He regularly left his corner office to take part in kaizen events with operators and staff. Everyone knew him as a plain old-fashioned guy with a deep desire to be one step better tomorrow than yesterday.

A leader like this doesn’t apply for the Shingo Prize for the awards banquet and trophy.  He or she does it because they know that doing so is an effective element of their continuous improvement initiatives. They don’t apply because they are certain that they’ll win; they apply because they know that the organization will learn a lot about itself, even if it loses. Maybe, especially if it loses.

Leaders like Ron’s CEO get excited about applying for award programs because they know that it can help make their company become a well-oiled machine capable of running itself without their intervention on a daily basis. In applying to the award program, they inspire their people to try anything and everything, to risk failure without fear so as to learn from it, and to push the boundaries of growth beyond what their associates might be comfortable with.

Motivation, Not Trophies

Mind you, we’re not proposing that manufacturers who don’t apply for recognition programs won’t do well. Ron worked as a plant manager for another boss who challenged him to find a path to erase entirely the company’s order backlog. That backlog stood at more than 16 weeks. Further, Ron was to put the plant solidly on the path to measurably superior customer lead times and industry leading performance. These improvements would support the goal of increasing annual revenues from $28M to $100M.  Finally, Ron was to achieve all this in less than 12 months. 

 Our point is that recognition programs don’t provide only trophies for the winners. Rather, they can provide the motivation for improvement, just as Ron’s boss did in this case.

 There are, of course, any number of reasons why senior leaders might not apply to these sorts of recognition programs. Perhaps they just don’t know about them. Maybe they worry about the confidentiality of the information the applications require. We worry, though, that perhaps it’s because they can’t be bothered. 

 A Deeper Understanding

Granted, the applications take time and attention to complete and submit. But the completion of the application, in and of itself, leads to a deeper understanding of the strengths and needed improvements of your company.  Further, it’s actually a small investment toward tangible improvement.

True operational excellence doesn’t happen by accident. It is the product of visionary senior leaders who unleash the desire and capabilities of their people to achieve that level of excellence. Such leaders are quick to take advantage of anything that will help them and their colleagues realize their vision. The time and effort that it takes to apply to an awards program is seen as a small investment toward achieving excellence. 

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