Stretch Goals Fuel the Furnace of Excellence

By R. Keith Mobley, Principal SME, Life Cycle Engineering

Recently I had a long discussion with a client about goals and how they impact work culture. It started when one of their executives made an adamant comment about his approach—he could decide what they were and then deploy them to the workforce. “They will follow them whether they like them or not,” was his closing remark.

This approach has never worked and never will, but too many organizations—or at least the senior leadership—do not recognize the real results of this approach. There are two things they fail to understand. First, human beings do not react well to anything that is created by others and then forced upon them. It is just not in our nature to blindly accept what we perceive to be arbitrary goals. While it is true that we—all human beings—need a challenge or goal that forces us to stretch to achieve, that challenge has to be something we believe to be reasonable and has value. Believe it or not, I learned this lesson from a mule named Clyde.

No really, my great-great grandfather Austin had a cotton farm in Winnsboro, SC and as penitence for my transgressions during the school year I helped on the farm during the summer. Well, as much as an eight year old can help. He had a very big mule named Clyde that was his pride and joy. I learned a lot in that first summer on the farm. The first thing was that I really did not want to work that hard. The second thing was how to help others achieve their full potential. When I was dropped off at the farm, my great-great grandmother was, as always, in the kitchen and she pointed me to the south field where grandpa and Clyde were preparing for a new crop. As I approached the field, the first thing I noticed was this huge mule with a carrot dangling in front of his nose—just out of reach. I found this hilarious. When I asked grandpa about the carrot, he quietly responded that he used the carrot to entice Clyde to pull the plow. Nothing more was said about the carrot until dinnertime. As we ate, grandpa shared with me what has governed my actions ever sense. He told me that mules are not very bright—he actually said stupid—but even as dumb as they are they will realize that no matter how hard they pull, the carrot will always be out of their reach. Once that realization occurs, they will sit down and refuse to pull the plow. In his words, you might as well shoot them because they will be worthless from then on. The lesson passed on by my grandpa (and Clyde) was to always let them get the carrot once in a while.

Like Clyde, all of us need realistic goals that force us to stretch—to use all of our abilities—to reach them. Morale and the sustainable performance level of your organization depend on how well everyone in the organization is stretched. If the goal’s too low, complacency sets in; when perceived to be unrealistic or unachievable, morale and performance sag to alarmingly low levels. My question to you is how one or a small group of executives, who are far removed from the factory floor, create stretch goals that the workforce will deem reasonable and embrace.

The second failure in logic is that goals can drive both positive and negative behavior. Goals that are established in the vacuum of the C-level too often drive the wrong behavior. One of the more serious problems faced by organizations is functional and individual goals that create fractionalization rather than seamless integration. In too many cases one function or individual must fail for another to win. This is the primary reason that functional silos exist and thrive.

Stretch goals must create an environment that pulls functions and people together into a highly focused, seamlessly integrated team. A shared vision and effective stretch goals are essential and when combined with standard work, visual management and true employee empowerment will assure sustainable, best-in-class performance—Reliability Excellence. This cannot be accomplished by continuing the traditional executive-developed, then deployed methods that were created at the beginning of the industrial revolution—over 100 years ago.

The world has changed and so has human behavior. Today’s employee, at any level in the organization, has much more to contribute to the organization’s success than did his ancestors of the last century, but their work ethic remains as strong. The truly best-in-class organizations recognize the value of each member of the team—no matter where in the hierarchy—and leverage that ability to create goals that create a focused team and stretch everyone, from the boardroom to the factory floor, to their full ability. And they do not forget Clyde’s lesson.

MOBLEY'S 36th LAW:
“Stretch goals fuel the furnace of excellence."

Thank you for taking the time to read this month’s letter. Hopefully, it has raised a few thoughts that will help you take the next step in your journey to excellence. I welcome your feedback and am happy to respond to specific questions. You can reach me at [email protected].

Best regards,
R. Keith Mobley
Principal, Life Cycle Engineering, Inc.


Keith Mobley has earned an international reputation as one of the premier consultants in the fields of plant performance optimization, reliability engineering, predictive maintenance, and effective management. He has more than 35 years of direct experience in corporate management, process design and troubleshooting. For the past 16 years, he has helped hundreds of clients worldwide achieve and sustain world-class performance. Keith can be reached at [email protected].

© Life Cycle Engineering

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