"The signature of mediocrity is chronic inconsistency."

This is what really hit me when I listened to Dan Pink's "Office Hours" interview with Jim Collins:

The signature of mediocrity is not an unwillingness to change. The signature of mediocrity is chronic inconsistency.

This was a finding from Collins's research for his latest book, Great By Choice -- mediocre companies have no consistency in leadership, in mission, in management style, or in philosophy. They drift with the prevailing tides, unwilling (or unable) to chart a determined course.

Collins believes that great companies adhere to "SMaC" -- Specific, Methodical, and Consistent -- guidelines for their business. A SMaC recipe is a

set of durable operating practices that create a replicable and consistent success formula; it is clear and concrete, enabling the entire enterprise to unify and organize its efforts, giving clear guidance regarding what to do and what not to do.

Southwest Airlines has 10 such principles -- fly only 737s, no flight segment over two hours, stay out of food service, and stay passenger focused – no freight or mail, etc. Whereas tactics may change with the situation, SMaC practices can last for decades.

Chronic inconsistency in improvement efforts dooms companies to mediocrity as well. I've seen companies go from quality circles to TPM to business process reengineering to Six Sigma in an effort to improve quality, lower costs, and increase employee engagement. Eventually, employees become cynical, deriding each new effort as the management "flavor of the month." And they're not wrong, given that each new approach usually discredits the previous approach.

There is no magic formula for organizational greatness. But it's clear to me that consistency in improvement methods is just as important as consistency in organizational guidelines. That, I think, is one of the beauties of lean. The focus on continuous improvement and creating a community of scientists devoted to the pursuit of perfection (even while recognizing that perfection is unattainable) creates a consistency that other methods don't. Lean is a "SMaC" approach towards improvement. It's not flashy, but it provides a clear route towards organizational excellence.