No matter your position at your company, have you ever asked yourself, “What are the key elements that drive outstanding performance?” Certainly, having good products and processes are among those important elements but that’s only two legs of a three-legged stool and without that third leg the stool will topple.

While I’m a strong believer that good products and processes are key elements to success, it has been my experience that there is a deeper and more fundamental aspect that leads an organization to outstanding performance. Over time, I’ve come to believe that the core element is having people who truly care about what they are doing and the products or services of which they are responsible.

Essentially, having people who truly care about what they are doing is just as important as good products and processes. History has recorded many examples of companies with good processes and products, but their employees didn’t care enough to do their very best. The people just complied with rules and procedures contained within their quality system so, ultimately, everyone, including the customers, suffered. 

Over the years, I’ve visited many companies who only had a few of their quality system elements documented, yet there was a caring culture throughout the organization. They consistently produced good product on time, every time, because their workers cared about what they were doing. They understood the negative impact of doing less than their best.

Caring isn’t a new concept. The late Dr. W. Edwards Deming called it “pride in workmanship” (See Deming’s Point 12 of his 14 Points for Management). In one of his workshops I attended just before his passing, Deming asked managers, “Do you let your workers have pride in workmanship, or does your environment strip that inherent desire away from them?” Many companies still have difficulty creating an environment in which people have pride in workmanship or sustain a culture where people really care about what they are doing. For these companies, the culture is counterproductive and seems doomed to mediocrity.

The principle issue in having people who truly care about what they do is the environment that allows and encourages them to care. This environment is a management responsibility which begins during the ‘hire-in’ process. Certainly, actual skills are important as the person needs to be able to properly perform tasks associated with the job; however, hiring people who will care about the work being done and the products produced is more critical. If skills are lacking, people can be trained for those needed skills but people who don’t care will likely never achieve the expected level. They are like the proverbial rotten apple which can spoil the barrel.

It’s not unusual for companies to hire a person who seems to be a good fit, a person who has decent skills and a good attitude, only later to discover that this person just doesn’t seem to care, even though they are working in a positive environment and surrounded by people who do.

The person is just not a good fit to this environment because they don’t care enough about what they’re doing or the products they are helping to make.

In these situations, companies should not have a hard time replacing people who don’t seem to care. They will likely be much happier elsewhere. Actually, this is doing the person a favor as it gives them a chance to excel somewhere else. 

Through the years, I’ve visited many organizations. In doing so I’m not impressed by the number of plaques hanging on their walls. To find out how an organization really feels about quality and customer service, I talk with their employees which more accurately reveals if they care about what they’re doing.

If their employees really do care, it is so tangible it can be felt and detected in many ways. There’s a foundation of caring permeating throughout the organization. However, if people don’t care, it really doesn’t matter what kind of products or system they have or how many plaques are hanging on the walls, they will never achieve the level of performance needed for all to succeed.

Caring lays a solid foundation from which to build a good system for performance excellence. This foundation, however, must be built, nurtured and sustained from the very top. If a foundation of caring is not present, those at the top must work to change the culture, starting in the corner office.