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The Three-Legged Stool:

Building Stronger Organizations

Change and competition are winds that affect all organizations. Global markets and information technology are spurring the need for more capable organizations and the best organizations increasingly recognize the need to have well-organized, timely and meaningful data on core processes. The essential core processes and the related data can be readily viewed through a simple metaphor. 

A way to understand organizations is to think of a three-legged stool. The seat of the stool is the organization and it rests on three legs. One leg is leadership. Leadership consists of the vision that originally created the organization and the leadership that maintains the organization today. A second leg is external data. What are the goals and activities of the organization? What does it require from the environment and what does it provide to secure its continued existence? How do customers of the organization view the organization? Who are the competitors and what are their characteristics? The third leg is internal data. What are the motivations and commitments of the people that work in the organization? How creative are they? How thorough do they perform their tasks? Do they innovate? Are they dedicated? How well are the resources of time, money, people and opportunity used?

Leadership can be measured by how well it, leadership, uses opportunities, how sound its strategies are, and how well it can inspire followers. Leaders are made, not born and leadership can be developed through teaching and coaching, meeting challenges and getting feedback from efforts. Outstanding organizations are led by unusually capable people and the best organizations have clear strategies for leadership succession, continuous efforts to develop leadership and opportunities for leadership for every member of the organization.

External Data
Even rudimentary organizations have some means of obtaining external data about goal achievement and resource availability. A small business like a child’s lemonade stand will tally up a day’s sales and can determine at what price the market will set for a glass of lemonade. Customers will provide information on the desired coldness, tartness and sweetness. A more thoughtful lemonade business will get information upon what hours of the day the business is best and how cold the lemonade needs to be. It will also learn that some weather is better for sales than others and that the season is important. Large organizations devote extensive resources to gather external data. There will be information on opportunities, challenges, labor availability, competitors, communication and transportation resources and how customers view products and services.
Internal Data
In recent years organizations have become much more aware of the benefits that accrue to gathering and using internal data of employee opinions. A good leader is always in touch with how followers feel and much of leadership consists of mobilizing opinions and motivating others. As organizations grow large, the ability of leadership to maintain constant knowledge of employees’ opinions and to be aware of changes over time becomes difficult. A sound response to this dilemma has, as in the case of external data, been the use of standard quantitative tools to gather the data and maintain the information in a database. It is thus available for close study and permits watchful scrutiny of changes over time. 

A Strategy for Continuous Improvement
In the best organizations, efforts are continuous to improve, challenge and develop leadership are continuous. Continuous thought is given to developing leadership skills in all members of the organization and decisions are based upon high levels of data rather than simple hunches or intuition. Indeed, the most successful organizations are like the cockpit of a modern aircraft. Pilot and co-pilot represent leadership. Leadership knows why it is there and has training and skills for the task at hand. Tools and indicators such as maps, radar, radio communications with traffic controllers and radio tracking devices are the external data. 

Modern aircraft are never “flown by the seat of the pants,” but rather are continuously immersed in a web of data that tells the pilots where the plane is, where other planes are and the distance and time to destination. Internal data are the various instruments that provide the pilots with information on how the plane is functioning. What is the rate of burn of the fuel? What it the engine temperature and various fluid pressures? What are the settings of the airplane’s control surfaces such as the wing and tail flaps? What is the internal cabin temperature and air pressure? Cabin personnel regularly communicate with the flight deck on any conditions they observe in the plane. Leadership consists of knowing what the goal is, (the plane’s destination, good customer service, safe flying, etc.) and then continuously using, continuously, external and internal data to get the plane to the destination in the most effective and efficient manner. 

The Survey of Organizational Excellence works to provide tools to develop all three legs of the stool for an organization. A theoretically based leadership model is provided through the Survey to identify and train leaders in the organization. It is a five-week intensive program that combines theoretical information with skill building efforts to help each participant identify leadership strengths and weaknesses and develop activities to improve leadership. Part of the process is a 360-degree assessment to provide a data orientation to leadership development.

The Survey provides general and specialized tools to assist organizations in collecting customer satisfaction data as a major source of external data. Two modalities are available: Internet-based data collection and optically scanned forms. Like the collection of internal data, permanent data stores are maintained for an organization to permit comparisons over time and benchmarking with similar organizations.

Another set of tools is our instruments to collect and assemble, in the most meaningful fashion, internal data. Data are collected via optically scanned instruments and through the Internet. Data are returned in a few days to the organization. The Survey reduces the questionnaire data into a number of core concepts that helps leadership and all members of the organization identify problems and then start improvement steps. Survey data are maintained in data storage for participating organizations and can be assessed for comparative purposes over time. Comparative data with similar organizations, the bench marking process, is available and provides a frame of reference for understanding an organization’s data.

Building The Soundest Organizations Through Using Data
The soundest organizations strive to increase the degree to which decisions are based upon data rather than by hunches or “seat of the pants.” Leadership improves when tools are available to assess leaders’ strengths and weaknesses and methods provided to improve leadership (statement needs clarification). Employees become more dedicated and creative when there is a process to collect employee attitudes and a means to use the data to address weaknesses. Customer satisfaction occurs when an organization makes a full commitment to acquiring customer information and establishes procedures to use the data to improve products and services.

The Notebook
The following material in this notebook is organized in terms of the three kinds of organizational development tools provided by the Survey of Organizational Excellence. Part I are includes tools to assess and improve Leadership. Part II are includes tools to assess and improve the collection of external data, customer satisfaction. Part III are includes tools to assess and improve the collection and use of internal data, employee perceptions.