“Better Makes Us Best”–The power of a simple idea

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A friend glanced at the dust jacket of my book. Looking a little perplexed, he hesitated a bit before reading the title aloud. “Better Makes Us Best”… interesting he said and asked, “what does it mean?”

It was a pretty good question. I know you can’t be “better” and “best” simultaneously. One quality would seem to negate the other. So I suppose the title poses something of a riddle.

“Better Makes Us Best” was our company philosophy. It was a working slogan that appeared in our quarterly and annual reports. It’s been foremost on my mind since I founded J.P. Industries (JPI) many years ago. JPI became a Fortune 500 industrial corporation.

And this is what it means!

When we do our jobs a little better today than we did yesterday, together we grow and prosper and become the best we can be.

Now, this may sound too simplistic, if I neglect to tell you we use a few basic human tools to perform better and better each day. So, what more does this involve?

It is a commitment to setting goals.

It is a practice of sharing information and helping one another.

It is a habit of talking, listening, reacting and responding … without thinking about job titles, corporate ladders and boxes on an organization chart.

It is an atmosphere in which all employees are encouraged to feel positive about themselves and proud of their work.

And believe it or not … it works.

Certainly, we all want to be “the best” is part of our American culture to compete and win top honors whether in sports, academics, music, science, technology, manufacturing or anything else.

But reality sets in. Try as we might, we can’t be the best in a competitive field without practice … without a focused effort…. without getting in the habit of improving a little bit every day.

Very few of us can become the best golfer, father, mother, factory worker, accountant or any other profession at any given moment. We have a lot of competition from others who also want to be the best.

But with practice all of us can become better. And we can feel terrific about performing the very best we can, that’s been true of human nature from the beginning of time.

I’m sure many of you have heard of Demosthenes, the great Greek orator. He knew his thoughts could not become widely known until he could overcome a stuttering problem.

So that’s exactly what he did. He went to the sea coast alone and talked to the waves. He did this repeatedly.  It took some time, but Demosthenes made good, clear speech a habit. He even turned it into a profession,

Hard work and practice was the essence of our company’s philosophy, “Better Makes Us Best.” it’s nothing new. Applied with patience and encouragement, I believe it has everything to do with our company’s success.

The book contains several stories about winners … how they overcame adversity to succeed in their work. The book was first distributed to our 7,000 employees for free. So I imagine some of these stories were inspiring and motivating.

One story, though, has a different angle, like most of the others it’s a true story … one I heard from an industrial consultant. It’s my favorite and I’m going to share it with you now.

A man in southern Italy bought a hog farm. But he knew very little about the details of its daily operation.

He became very concerned when half of his piglets were dying the first few weeks after birth. If this continued, he feared, his farming business would be in jeopardy.

But it did continue. And the man was panic-stricken.

So he called in specialists who analyzed the feed, the soil, the air and water. Veterinarians took tissue samples. They found nothing to explain the problem.

But one day, an old farm hand walked into the owner’s office. He had overalls on and appeared uncomfortably nervous, even though he worked at the farm for several years. He wanted to tell the new owner something.

But he wasn’t used to talking directly with the man at the top, and he didn’t want to take the blame for what he had to reveal.

“It’s about those piglets,” he said, “the ones that are dying.  Well, I know why they’re dying. We used to move the piglets away from the sows at night. Then a few months ago, my boss told us not to bother doing that. Said they were orders from his boss. It didn’t make any sense to us/ the farm hand explained.

The owner was puzzled. “What’s that got to do with our problem?” he asked.

“Everything, said the old man.”At night, the sows roll over on the little fellows and they can’t get any air. They suffocate to death”.

With that, the owner solved the mystery of the dying piglets. And maybe he would have unraveled it sooner if two things hadn’t kept the farm hand coming forward.

One, he was afraid of violating what he felt were orders to stay away from the owner’s office. And two, he feared getting blamed for the problem,

When you stop to think about it, this story tells us what can go wrong in a setting that tends to discourage free flow of information.

One guy changes a system that is working well. Another guy worries about losing the farm, still another frets about losing his job. Meanwhile, innocent creatures lose their lives. It’s a bad scenario . . .  harmful and unproductive . . . because nobody is winning,

Sadly, the farm owner didn’t review all the possible explanations to his problem. That’s because he didn’t think to ask all the people who work for him. That bedeviled “chain of command” imposed a barrier that hindered progress.

Or maybe it was an attitude — a prevailing belief ~ that only an “expert” can solve a problem whose solution is not immediately apparent. After all, what could an old guy in bib overalls possibly know about dead piglets?  Well . . . we now know the answer to that.

The point is, Mr. Hog-farm owner almost lost it all because he was not in touch with the people who had much to gain from solving the problem. I refer to his own workers, all of his workers.

Every chief executive officer is responsible for the overall performance of the company he or she heads. But only in the last decade have American CEO’s made “quality circles” a productive part of that responsibility.

It’s a beginning … but it doesn’t go far enough to end the obstacles to free flow of information. Tradition dies very hard.

I’ll give you a couple of examples:

Frankly, I am utterly amazed at the titles of certain corporate programs that are designed to enhance workers’ attitudes.

Consider this one; “maximizing employee skill potential through systematic attainment of quantifiable and incremental periodic performance attainment levels.”

I didn’t start learning English until I was 20 years old and preparing for graduate studies at MIT.  But I’ll bet there are many others in who find the above program’s title just as troubling as I do.

Why not call it “getting more out of your job by having goals” and be done with it.  At least, it’s simple, direct and easy to understand.

I am also astonished by the thick manuals and elaborate video programs some companies use to explain their objectives. Some even hold workshops to show employees how to fill out forms to quantify those objectives.

Believe me, after reading manuals, watching videos, going to workshops and filling out forms, I know most workers at J.P. Industries would have lost their zest and enthusiasm.

In good conscience, I could not encourage workers to enjoy challenges and explore their capabilities while boring them with manuals and forms.

I could not ask them to be creative and resourceful while telling them only what management’s objectives are. That’s no fun. And it’s not fair employees should have their own objectives … within the framework of their jobs, of course.

Each and every worker is unique. Each one is able to contribute in a positive and productive way. In my book, I tell the worker to set goals … and not to get discouraged if performance falls short of those goals.

Just review them every day … and try to find ways to improve. If the goals are too ambitious or too lax, adjust them. In time, good performance becomes a habit.

Sometimes, I think this idea is so simple it just hasn’t caught on in our culture.  Meanwhile, government productivity experts anj1 scholars are busy analyzing theories and effects of this management technique versus that.

That’s fine, I suppose. We can never know enough about the dynamics of the workplace. One thing is certain, though: each and every worker needs to feel valued … and responsible … and important.

Setting and meeting goals worked very well at the company.  Employees know they get better by trying and performing better.  Better is as better does.  It’s a powerfully simple idea.

And the best part about this practice is that it doesn’t confine itself to the office or factory. This is what a manager at J.P. industries wrote to me:

“Better Makes Us Best” is a philosophy that I will not only use in my daily job, but in my personal life with my family. I believe that if children adopt this attitude of continuing their efforts and striving to be better, they will achieve their own personal best no matter what they are participating in.

Well put.  Here is a conscientious and dedicated person who has found a surge of new purpose by going back to the basics. Both people and companies need to have a healthy way of growing.

A few words now about communications … that I consider the lifeblood of any company.

Rapid change means we all have to know more things faster than ever before. Accuracy and promptness in sharing information is very important.

At J.P. Industries we made a distinction between sharing information and making decisions.

We encouraged all workers to ask questions of anyone in the organization. We appreciate curious minds. There’s no such thing as a dumb question.  Especially one that has a direct bearing on that person’s ability to get the job done. We know that good ideas come from all our employees.

My door was always open. And if I saw my top executives too often at headquarters, I know they were not doing their jobs. I wanted them out there in one of our 30 plants.

And while we freely and openly shared information, we discouraged our employees from making major decisions based on that information.

Our decision-making was formal and structured ~ the only thing that is, I might add. Still, it relied heavily on people at every level of the organization.  After all, one knows all the answers. Together, we move ahead smoothly,

In 1968 a witty book entitled Management & Machiavelli made headlines for weeks. The author, Anthony Jay, asserted that every business is a political organization. Therefore, Machiavelli’s 16th-century rules for princes and rulers fully applied to corporate executives.

This wasn’t entirely new and insightful. Peter Drucker was writing about the organization of power in business as early as 1950,

But “Machiavellianism” — the principle of grabbing power at whatever cost — has survived. I recently read about it in a fairly new college textbook on organizational behavior and management.

On various methods of getting and keeping power, the textbook refers to no fewer than 13 kinds of political games.

There are games to resist authority, games to counter resistance to authority.  Games to build power bases and to start organizational change.  Games to blow the whistle on a perceived injustice.

It all seems a terrible waste of valuable time and energy. Still, there are plenty of executives and managers who thrive on gamesmanship and politics, distracting them from the very reasons they’re in business. not the least of these reasons, of course, is to produce high-quality goods and services at competitive prices.

In the realm of politics, I happen to like what the late president Theodore Roosevelt said at the turn of the century. This is how he put it:

“The most practical kind of politics is the policy of decency”.

It’s the only policy.  Without it, J.P. industries could not have taken so many small struggling companies and turned them around.

Workers had to accept change, even though some resisted it.

They had to know we were all striving for the same things.

They had to understand that each and every job they performed was vitally important — to our customers, our shareholders, other workers … and most of all to themselves.

I do my best work when I set goals. That’s true of everybody. I have an enormous sense of accomplishment when I reach my goals. That’s true of everybody, too.

The constructive working environment nourishes personal growth and responsibility. Sharing knowledge and ideas is supremely important.

The corporate culture that rids itself of the usual reasons for fear – power games that build empires and change or eliminate jobs – commands respect and loyalty.  There is no substitute for productive enterprise.

The employee who sees opportunities – not obstacles – in the path of progress is psychologically healthy. What every company needs are positive thinkers and doers.

That’s what “better makes us best” has done for JPIndustries, Inc. It could do the same for yours.

2 thoughts on ““Better Makes Us Best”–The power of a simple idea”

  1. Really inspiring motto and post. Great thoughts for guiding personal and professional life! Thank you Dr. John!

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