In Continuous Improvement, Cultural Transformation, Evidence-Based Leadership, Execution, Leader Development Institutes, Leadership Development, Leadership Fundamentals


The American Society for Quality defines organizational excellence as “systematic efforts to establish a framework of standards and processes intended to engage all employees to deliver value in the products and services that fulfill customer requirements.”

To answer this question, we’ve developed a five-stage model to help leaders and teams visualize their excellence journey. The Improvement Maturity Model acts as a roadmap to give organizations a process to attain a culture of excellence. For high-performing organizations, this pursuit of excellence is never-ending. Organizations, employees and customers are facing constant change. The products and services that fulfill a customer’s requirements today are different than what customers will seek in just a short time. Likewise, organizations that are considered excellent today could fall behind if we don’t keep our foot on the pedal.

To manage the pace of constant change calls for our teams to constantly improve and innovate. Sustaining excellence requires that we be never satisfied with the status quo. Whether it’s one part of the work or an entire system, we want it to be the best it can be. A prominent figure behind the philosophy of management and business leadership, Peter Drucker once said:

“We now accept the fact that learning is a lifelong process of keeping abreast of change. And the most pressing task is to teach people how to learn.”

Organizations achieve excellence when leaders create the right goals, with the right accountability and continuously develop people through cycles. Using the improvement maturity model we focus on the right combination of culture and strategy to sustain excellence.


As we use the maturity model to guide us, we recognize this is a simplification of a complex journey. Although the model appears to be a linear progression, the phases are in fact continuous. The maturity model evolves as we gather results and experience change within and around our organization. Rather than view the phases as easier to harder, it’s helpful to reflect on the organizational flywheel.


The Nine Principles® for Organizational Excellence are the guiding concepts of evidence-based leadership. When applied with fidelity these principles combine culture and strategy to sustain excellence. These principles set the behaviors and expectations required to create a culture of high-performing individuals aligned to the vision.


What matters most to the team? What does success look like? A pillar is a big picture area we want to focus on. Pillars align to the mission and vision of the organization. Common pillars we see in school systems include student success, service or finance. Pillars help us to communicate the goals and metrics used to measure our success.


People want to do worthwhile work that makes a difference. We also want to feel appreciation and value for our contributions. Employees are motivated when they understand how what they do matters. Purpose is embedded within the culture of excellent organizations. Everyone’s vision aligns to the outcomes they help create to benefit another. Leaders who commit to communicating the organization’s purpose as often as sales goals and profits have more highly engaged and satisfied employees. Gallup’s findings conclude that even a moderate improvement in employee connection to purpose would reduce turnover and increase profitability.

Progression through the maturity model indicates the flywheel is beginning to spin faster and faster. As the organization commits to cycles of improvement, the team’s momentum builds. This is how we mature within our excellence journey.


People, leaders and teams change. That’s why the right combination of culture and strategy is critical to maintaining momentum. Also, it can be especially useful for training and onboarding new employees. We can use this model to reflect changes in our people, culture and processes throughout our excellence journey. Rather than each phase overall, some teams may find it helpful to rate themselves based on each characteristic within the model. Within a phase, an organization will likely find both strengths and opportunities for improvement.


The core purpose of this phase in the model is listening. We learn the most when we gather feedback from those closest to the work. To improve, we collect feedback on our own performance, where others need support and from external audiences. By listening and engaging in self-reflection, leaders can set strategic aims and begin to guide teams in the right direction.

We’ve likely identified both gaps in our processes and performance gaps within the people on our teams through listening. As leads set strategic aims and guide teams, we also prioritize leader development to build the capacity of people. An organization is merely a group of people working towards the same goal. Without improving the capacity of the people, we can’t improve our organizations. From the very beginning, we start training people on core tactics and leadership fundamentals building their skills and confidence.


Here we see a combination of culture and strategy at work again. Part of this phase deals with values and behaviors, while the other is entwined in strategy and data. If we want to be an excellent organization, employees need a clear understanding of what that is and how they will get there. It’s not enough to say we will provide amazing service. It isn’t fair to be unclear with people about our expectations for their behavior. Organizations that achieve excellence define core values and the associated behaviors that demonstrate those values in action.

These standards of practice let people know what to expect and what is expected of them. In addition, leaders develop a strategic direction and measures aligned to strategic priorities. This alignment provides a clear focus so people know what matters most. As we align our people, processes and systems, we encourage ongoing development to increase individual and systemic capacity. We monitor and communicate progress using a scorecard tool focused on the measures that matter most.


Our momentum continues to build as we start to see the results of core values and strategic direction to align behavior and priorities. We can continue building on those core values in this phase of the model. We do this through the alignment of our feedback, hiring and onboarding processes. As we clarify our priorities to achieve excellence, we can build department scorecards and align individual actions to our important measures. Leaders continuously engage in self-reflection and facilitate ongoing coaching conversations with employees.

Now that strategic priorities are aligned throughout the organization, it’s important to think about sharing that information and data transparently. How will we continue to cascade communication? At what points should we stop and celebrate progress? Frequent, transparent communication keeps people committed, motivated and aligned. As a result, people become owners, rather than bringing problems to their manager, they start to bring solutions.


At this phase, we have several fundamentals in place. We’ve fostered an improvement mindset within the individuals on our teams. People have aligned values, behaviors and goals to focus on. From here, we can begin to prioritize specialized teams for system learning and improvement cycles. Using 45–90-day cycles we gather information, define success, possible root causes and determine success measures. We continuously monitor our progress and lean on the data to determine our next steps.

Again, it’s important to keep people motivated by pausing to celebrate progress and reflect on the learning. This allows us time to refine our next cycle based on data and feedback. Here we can also continue to manage and refine individual performance and priorities. What individual responsibilities are the most beneficial to the organization? What skills can people continue to develop to help the organization achieve excellence?


Learning is a lifelong process. Part of becoming an excellent organization is hardwiring routine reflection on learning and progress. Through improvement cycles, we learn what works and refine what doesn’t. We can adapt to unexpected changes and continuously identify gaps in attaining our strategic priorities. Our work is focused on progress toward the measures that matter and future stakeholder needs.

Here, we are focusing on improving and sustaining every characteristic of the maturity model. We align development to continuous learning and the strategic aims of the organization. Communication is clear and focused on priorities. The processes are in place that enables people to do their best work aligned to their goals. We monitor and track performance to demonstrate evidence of sustained individual and organizational excellence.

Where an organization falls on the model is fluid. Sustaining excellence only happens when we continuously analyze our current status and our future aims. Start your journey to excellence by determining where your team is within each stage. Then, select one to two areas to begin to hardwire.

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