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Seven Life Lessons of Chaos

John Briggs & David Peat

©2002 - 2010
Access to Excellence Co Ltd.
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`July 1012

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Business Excellence

Challenge of Change

The management of organisations in a complex and changing world presents a major challenge. Making sense of conflicting priorities, allocating limited resources, understanding the impact of the organisations actions, comparing performance with competitors and responding to customer needs are just some of the issues management have to address. Balancing the effort of the organisation to address these and the many other issues and challenges faced can be a daunting task.

Small wonder then that for many organisations there is no time to adopt a systematic approach to the challenge. The issues of the day are addressed as they occur and priorities are identified as the biggest fires for these Ďfire-fighterí organisations.

Some organisations seek solutions that avoid the complexity described above. They search for the solution, the initiative that will provide the answer and magically transform their performance and create success.

In this section we will explain Business Excellence offers an effective alternative. It enables organisations to understand the complexities of the conflicting demands placed on them and to learn how to continuously improve the utilisation and focus of all of their resources to achieve better and better results.

Why Business Excellence?

Donít be put off by the name. Itís not about chasing awards to fill the trophy cabinet, or logos for your letterhead. Nor is it a theoretical or academic exercise divorced from the real work of the organisation. Business Excellence is all about making your organisation perform better; produce better profits; achieve success; deliver its aims. Itís about delivering real bottom line improvements in performance to private and public sector organisations.

Well thatís what it can be; what it should be; a set of principles and tools that can be used to improve any organisation, but as is the case with any tool it can also be misused and its value diminished or lost.


Achieving Success

The difference between the effective and ineffective use of Business Excellence lies more with the way in which the approach is used than the approach itself. The important factor for success is the mindset of the user of Business Excellence, and key to helping set the correct mindset is a clear understanding of how Business Excellence can be used for improvement.

So in looking at what Business Excellence is, whilst many will simply describe the tool, it is also important to share this real understanding of the principles on which it works and thereby how it may be used to maximum effect.

Later I provide some further thoughts on the mindset, when we look at the advanced use of Business Excellence towards the end of this description. First let us review some of the background and ideas of Business Excellence.

The achievement of effective and sustained change can be viewed as a journey. Letís take our own short journey to understand what we believe Business Excellence really is.


The origins of Business Excellence lie in work which addressed the questions ĎWhy are some organisations excellent whilst others arenít?í - ĎWhat is it that sets excellent organisations apart?í

The answer may be something of a surprise - The conclusions drawn from this work was that the excellence of organisations can not be attributed to a common set of actions performed by excellent organisations - there is no set of actions that excellent organisations do that explain their excellence!

Whilst this may at first appear as a surprise and a disappointment we perhaps ought not be surprised that there is no one magic solution to the challenges of all organisations.
Large organisations inevitably will succeed through different approaches to those adopted by small organisations. Service organisations  may equally have different solutions to manufacturing organisations. Public sector organisations may have different mechanisms to those of private sector organisations. What these organisations do to achieve the same end of excellence will inevitably be different. (Of course this does not dent the enthusiasm of the sellers of initiatives that claim theirs provides the ultimate solution! )

Shared Beliefs

What was discovered was that excellent organisations shared a common set of beliefs. These beliefs captured a shared set of fundamental concepts that excellent organisations held to be true and committed themselves to be guided by. This set of eight beliefs were common to all of the excellent organisations.

Fundamental Concepts FigureManagement by Processes and Facts: Excellent organisations  believe they perform best when they understand the interactions of their activities and plan decisions and changes based on reliable measures taken from within the organisation and from all stakeholders.People Development and Involvement: Excellent organisations believe they get the best from their people by  encouraging involvement through shared values and trust.Continuous Learning, Innovation and Improvement: Excellent organisations believe they perform best when knowledge is managed and shared in a culture of improvement and innovation.Leadership and Constancy of Purpose: Excellent organisations believe their leaders must create clarity of the aims of the organisation and an environment in which people can excel to maximise their contribution to achievement of these aims.Public Responsibility: Excellent organisations believe  that for their long term success they must anticipate and exceed the expectations of the communities in which they  are involved.Partnership Development: Excellent organisations believe that they work best when they have win-win partnerships built on trust and sharing.Results Orientation: Excellent organisations believe that it is important to ensure a balanced approach to satisfying the needs of all of the organisations stakeholders. This includes employees, customers and society as well as those with a financial interest on the organisation.Customer Focus: Excellent organisations believe that it is the organisation's customers who decide whether or not the organisation has achieved success. There is thus the need for a clear understanding of, and focus on, customer needs.These beliefs form the foundation on which Business Excellence has been built.

So crucial are these fundamental concepts that any organisation that does not share a commitment to all of them will find that Business Excellence runs at odds to the organisations aims and beliefs. Consequently the organisation is unlikely to benefit from the use of Business Excellence.

A good start point for any organisation is to review these fundamental concepts, illustrated in the diagram on the left, to check that they align with your own and your organisationís beliefs.


Shared Questions

In addition to a shared set of beliefs what was also discovered was that excellent organisations, rather than being linked by doing the same things, instead were linked by the fact that they asked the same questions of themselves.

They shared a common set of questions that they knew that they must answer and keep answering over and again as their organisations progressed. These questions identify the key issues that have to be addressed and which in turn identify the key actions required to ensure movement towards excellence.

The quest for excellence is therefore not the implementation of the fixed set of actions for excellence, but the pursuit of answers to the questions of excellence.

Key Feature: Business Excellence is an approach to addressing the searching, probing, challenging questions of excellence.

(Unfortunately this is a point that is missed by many who claim to have adopted Business Excellence. Rather than answering questions to seek to identify their own answers they take the easier but ultimately doomed approach of simply adopting someone elseís answers.)

Business Excellence ModelHow the organisation designs, manages and improves its processes in order to support achievement of its aims and fully satisfy and deliver increasing value to customers and other stakeholders.What the organisation is achieving in relation to its planned performance. The organisations key performance outcomes and key performance indicators.How leaders develop and facilitate the development of the organisations aims. How leaders facilitate their achievement via appropriate actions and behaviours and are personally involved in improvementsHow the organisation achieves its aims by developing a clear strategy focused on the needs of all stakeholders  through relevant policies, plans, objectives, targets and processesHow the organisation plans and manages its external partnerships and internal resources in order to support achievement of its aims through the effective operation of its processes.What the organisation is achieving in relation to its people. The perception measures of the organisations people and people performance indicators.What the organisation is achieving in relation to its external customers. Customer perception measures and the organisation's customer performance indicators.What the organisation is achieving in relation to local, national and international society as appropriate. Society perception measures and performance indicatorsEnablers: Questions concerning all of the activities of the organisation. Enabler questions begin with 'How'.Results: Questions concerning all of the outcomes from the organisations activities. Results questions begin with 'What'.Innovation and learning driven by the feedback of outcomes to review and modify Enablers for improvementEnablers: Questions concerning all of the activities of the organisation. Enabler questions begin with 'How'.Results: Questions concerning all of the outcomes of the organisations activities. Results questions begin with 'What'.How the organisation manages, develops and releases the capabilities and potential of its people and teams. How the planned activities of its people support achievement of the organisation's aims.The set of questions that excellent organisations ask themselves were wide and varied and covered every aspect of the things they did. In addition they covered all aspects of what they achieved in every aspect of their performance.

By asking these questions, excellent organisations had developed the means to focus their management time and attention in just the right areas that had a significant impact on the performance of the organisation.

Their management focus was therefore directed at arriving at answers to these questions. Improving these answers was their vehicle to continuously improving performance.

To help understanding and application of the questions they are gathered into groups within a structure of nine criteria, five for the actions of the organisation and four for the results. It is by this structure of nine criteria that Business Excellence and the Business Excellence Model are best known.

Within each of the criteria there are further subdivisions or sub-criteria that group the questions into logical sets.

Continuous Improvement

On their own, the questions are just a list of questions. The means to apply and assess the responses to these questions reveals the second key element of the origins of Business Continuous Improvement ProcessDo: Doing what we believe will move us towards achieving our aims.Check: How will we understand our performance? How will we know if we are being successful? Our measurements and targets.How do we improve our plans to benefit from what we have learned?Plans form the basis of what we will do.To understand what we have achieved we will need measures.We need to understand what the results are telling us.Plan: Where do we need to be? Where do we need to move to?; Our vision and aims.Act: How will we interpret the results to understand what works, what doesn't and how to improve?Excellence..

Attributed to Demming and others Plan, Do, Check, Act (PDCA) is the quintessential encapsulation of continuous improvement thinking.

This simple (to describe at least) process is the natural way that most of us intuitively learn.

If we think of the way we behave; without realising it we apply plan, do, check, act many times each day.

For example, imagine you want to achieve something (plan), you set out to achieve it (do), you find that some parts worked whilst others didnít (check), you learn and decide what to do differently next time to ensure you are more successful. 

Whether applied to the trivial task of reaching the pen that has just rolled under the desk, or the more involved tasks of choosing our summer vacation, we intuitively appear to follow this process with greater or lesser degrees of rigour. Itís really not rocket science.

In organisations however the application of plan, do, check, act proves much more difficult and we may find ourselves working or dealing with organisations that regularly exhibit a lack of evidence of this approach; a lack of ability to learn and improve even the most obvious of problems.

This simple idea of plan, do, check, act is a very powerful mechanism for generating improvement and it is built upon and cleverly intertwined within the development of Business Excellence in a number of ways. This embeds the PDCA process within Business Excellence and thereby within the operation of organisations who correctly adopt the principles of excellence.


The questions contained in the Business Excellence model capture the key questions that excellent organisations have determined must be addressed and answered if they are to effectively manage and improve their organisation.

Indeed in a constantly changing world it isnít enough to answer these questions, they RADAR ProcessDeployment: The systematic implementation of the planned approaches.Assessment: The monitoring and collection of results data through which the outcome of the deployment can be determinedThe transfer of the plan into scheduled and  implemented actionsThe setting up of appropriate monitoring and measures to understandthe effectiveness of the deployed actions.The identification of key changes which will be incorporated in revised plans.Results: The targets intended to be achieved - the aims described as measurable targets. And the actual results achieved by the organisation.Approach: The planing and development of approaches which have been identified as appropriate to deliver the organisation desired results.Review: The analysis of assessment data to identify, prioritise, plan and introduce appropriate improvements. Collation of assessment data to provide a insightful picture of the organisation's performance.RADAR Processmust be repeatedly asked and re-answered over and again as the organisation moves on and its circumstances change.

You might consider that these are the questions that excellent organisations agonise over until the early hours of the morning; the key points of the conscience of excellent organisations. They are a powerful set of prompts for an organisation, but on their own lack penetration and could be seen as little more than a checklist.

What gives them real teeth is the way in which they are applied to an organisation. Based on Plan, do, check, act, RADAR provides the mechanism by which each of the questions is directed at the organisation to challenge and generate real understanding and through this identify current performance and critically what changes will yield improvements.

RADAR challenges the organisation to describe, for each of the questions in the model

  • how it developed its approach in a sound and integrated way.
  • how the approach is deployed in a systematic and thorough way
  • how the approach and deployment are assessed to provide measurements
  • how reviews of the measurements create learning and improvement
  • how the results provide targets for performance and demonstrate the effectiveness of the organisationís work.
  • Correctly used this amplifies the impact of the questions and provides the basis for an extremely challenging assessment of an organisation.

    Assessing an Organisation

    The process of conducting the evaluation of an organisation involves the structured application of the questions as described above, with analysis of the responses, feed back and the identification of improvement.

    It can be seen that this is simply another continuous improvement loop.

  • The Business Excellence Model Assessment ProcessApproach: Prepare information describing the response of the organisation to each of the key questions for excellence. For example background material, preparation of results, collection of data etc.Deployment: Conduct the assessment - using an appropriate assessment tool provide a structured response which addresses the approach, deployment, assessment and review aspects of each of the key questions for excellence.Assessment: The evaluation of the responses to identify the organisations strengths and opportunities for improvement. These are captured as feedback to the organisation.Results: Specifies the aims and targets for the assessment and measures the impact of the overall process on the organisation's performance.Review: Analysis and interpretation of the feedback to determine the areas to which change will be applied to achieve the maximum impact on the organisation's performance.questions are used to question and determine the organisations answers in the deployment step.
  • This may be achieved by any of a wide range of Business Excellence tools ranging from a simple matrix of questions, to a thorough external assessment including a site visit.

    The precise selection of tools to be used is based on the current maturity of the organisation as this will determine the organisations ability to make use of the output It will also depend on, for example, available time and resources and critically what the organisationís aims for the assessment are.

  • Prior to the assessment, the organisation may have collected and prepared information in the approach step that will help in answering the questions.
  • The assessment step is the analysis of the organisationís responses to the questions and the creation of feedback.
  • In the review step the organisation can analyse and prioritise the feedback from the assessment which will have determined both the organisationís strengths and its opportunities for improvement, and thus identify the key improvements that it will implement.
  • The result step sets the targets for each stage of the assessment and determines the impact of the assessment process on improving the organisationís performance.

    Advanced Understanding

    The Journey to Excellence.

    Changing an organisation doesnít happen overnight. It takes time to understand what needs changing; to build changes into the plans; to learn how to make the changes work and to see the benefits.

    A good way to think of change is as a journey. As we move along this journey we will gain knowledge, experience and capabilities. We will both be able to do more as we progress and understand more. In reality an organisation that is successful in creating continuous improvement is an organisation that has changed and is changing. As it progresses along its journey these changes will grow in their impact and the organisation will reach points where it is barely recognisable as the same organisation that embarked on the journey.

    A great power of Business Excellence is that it can help an organisation throughout the steps of the journey, throughout this transition. Unlike many tools which have a fixed shape; a fixed purpose and an appropriateness to one particular step of the journey, Business Excellence can change its contribution as the journey progresses.

    'With a hammer in my hands .... all my problems look like nails'.Think of it this way. A standard tool, letís say a hammer, has a fixed shape and defines the shape required of your hand as you hold it. In contrast to this think of Business Excellence more as a piece of plasticine or clay that will mould itself to the shape of your hand and become the tool that you create.

    This makes it a little more challenging to describe Business Excellence in concise terms, but much more importantly it places a responsibility on the user to understand what Business Excellence is capable of and what they require of it at their point on their journey.

    If you only understand hammers, if you are only able to see Business Excellence as a hammer, a hammer is all you will get. As you progress on your journey and your knowledge grows, what you can achieve with Business Excellence will grow also, but only if you let it.

    Organisations that are able to remodel Business Excellence as they progress will be able to explore its immense power to create change throughout their journey - these are the explorers.

    Organisations that are inflexible and can only see it in the way they first encounter it will derive much less benefit and will discard it as they feel they have outgrown its use - these are the day-trippers who will move on to replace Business Excellence with their next initiative.

    For explorers, as their journey progresses Business Excellence will reshape and mould itself to be a powerful companion on their journey. Business Excellence, however, will not have changed. What has changed is their understanding of how it can be used to help create change.


    Help on Your Journey to Excellence

    Here we have briefly described some of the key features of Business Excellence and hinted at its advanced use by explorer organisations to create dramatic change.

    If you would like to learn more about the real nature of Business Excellence and how it can be implemented effectively you may find The Explorerís Guide to Business Excellence of great value or if you prefer contact us directly.
    Please visit the
    Our Approach page for more information about how we work, or the Contact Us page to register an interest in The Explorerís Guide or to get in touch with us.

    At Access to Excellence we can provide support to organisations in the deployment of all aspects of Business Excellence. We believe that we are uniquely placed to provide this support in the following key ways.

  • Rare amongst the many organisations that aim to provide support in the use of Business Excellence, we have many years of real practical experience in both the assessment of organisations and the use of Business Excellence to create dramatic transformation of an organisation. Steve Unwin led the work within BAE SYSTEMS that led the Business Excellence element of the transformation of BAe from the brink of bankruptcy to becoming the worlds second largest aerospace and defence business.EFQM Documents Contributed to by Steve Unwin.  'Eight Essentials of Excellence: The Fundamental Concepts and Their Benefits', 'Assessing for Excellence: A Practical Guide for Self-Assessment'
  • We have an in depth knowledge of the Business Excellence Model having participated as a member of the EFQM teams that developed the latest version of the model in 1999. Steveís contribution is credited in two of the EFQM Model Documents.
  • Uniquely Access to Excellence have pioneered the development of Business Excellence ideas and the advancement of understanding of Business Excellence. Through the development of the explorer approach we are able to transform Business Excellence from being a very promising initiative for improvement, to a real sustainable approach to realising dramatic transformation of an organisationís performance.
  • Our balanced business approach to leading edge development of Business Excellence ideas and tools, allied to a willingness to share these developments underpins our aim to work in partnership with organisations who want to explore excellence. We aim to transfer the capability to exploit Business Excellence into the organisations we work with, allowing them to learn and deploy the tools whilst we work in partnership to develop the next steps forwards.
  • We are keen to work with organisations to help their exploration of performance improvement.

    The first step in working with organisations is an open discussion in which we will understand the organisationís needs and aims and aim to identify whether and how we may be able to work together on improvements. Please contact us if you would like further information.