HarSixd 09-01-004

Six Disciplines Execution Revolution

Solving the One Business Problem that Makes Solving All Other Problems Easier


Gary Harpst

Six Disciplines Publishing, 2008, 196 pp., ISBN 978-0-9816411-0-2



Gary Harpst led Solomon Software for 20 years and invented the Six Disciples strategy methodology in an earlier book, Six Disciplines for Excellence.  In this book he applies the Six Disciplines to strategy and execution based on three premises, 1) that leaders are mostly focused on the wrong problem, 2) that solving the right problem makes solving all other problems easier, and 3) the pieces are falling together to help small businesses leapfrog in their ability to solve old problems.


"In this book, I'm suggesting that excellence is the enduring pursuit of balanced strategy and execution.  Strategy requires choosing what promises to make to all stakeholders and a roadmap for delivering on those promises.  Execution requires getting there, while overcoming unending surprises." (2)


"Planning and executing, while at the same time, managing the unknowns of the real world, is the biggest challenge in business.  Overcoming this challenge Is what we mean by solving the problem that will make solving all other problems easier." (3)


Chapter 1.  Business Excellence

Strategy is deciding what to do and execution is getting it done.  (8)

The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do, making good choices and good trade-offs. (9)  "While strategy is about combining best choices and similar activities, execution is all about continual improvement in those chosen activities." (9) 


A strong strategy provides a competitive advantage that usually leads to growth of sales which puts pressure on the company to deliver.  (10-11) The focus on production (execution) may require so much effort that the company does not invest enough to sustain its strategy advantages.  As sales decline the company focuses on costs and efficiency.  It tends to become reactive and operate in daily firefighting mode.  (14-15) 


Sustainable excellence requires an organization to learn to systematically increase its capability to execute faster than the rate at which its challenges grow.  (17) 


Chapter 2.  The Biggest Problem in Business

The foundational challenge is executing strategy while overcoming the inevitable surprises in business.  This is the biggest and toughest challenge in business. (24)


"It's better to have grade-B strategy and grade-A execution than the other way around." (30, quoting Michael Porter)  Execution is business' biggest challenge.  (31) 


Chapter 3.  Why Is It So Difficult?

We know what to do but we don't always do it.  (33)  Company leaders listed their greatest obstacles to strategy execution.  Here are a few of their top 12: (34)

•      Inability to overcome internal resistance to change

•      The strategy conflicts with the existing power structure

•      Unclear communication of responsibility and accountability

•      Poor or vague strategy

•      Lack of 'ownership' among key employees

•      Inability to generate 'buy-in' on critical steps

•      Lack of upper-management support


Trap:  We become preoccupied with what everyone else is doing, instead of focusing on what's going on inside our organizations." (36)


It is critical for organizations to continually work on increasing their capability to execute.  (41)


Chapter 4.  The Leapfrog Opportunity

A variety of productivity tools, including quality programs, process software, books, the internet community and the coaching industry, are becoming available, integrated, and affordable to small businesses, giving them the opportunity to "leapfrog" in execution progress. 


Companies are using a "scorecard," a strategic measurement-based management system that monitors key measures to show how well an organization is performing.  (55)


Chapter 5.  Requirements for a Next-Generation Program

Three major barriers to sustainable strategy execution: insufficient expertise, prohibitive economics, and simple human nature. (63)  Figuring out the right things to do isn't nearly as difficult as continuing to do them over the long term.  The challenge is narrowing the gap between knowing what needs to be done and actually doing it.  (70)  We must address this aspect of our human nature, our resistance to change. 


"Changing people's behavior: It's the most important challenge for businesses trying to compete in a turbulent world."  (72, quoting John Kotter)


"For an organization to achieve its potential, its workforce must understand the purpose of the organization, where it's headed, and have an appreciation for the role everyone has in helping it get there." (74)


Chapter 6.  The First Complete Strategy Execution Program

To maintain a balance between strategy and execution requires a program including four elements: (78-79)

•      A repeatable methodology to drive organizational learning and understanding

•      Accountability Coaching

•      An Execution System to engage everyone in real-time alignment

•      Community Learning to share and reinforce best practices

This is called an execution system.


The remainder of the book explains how this works within the Six Disciplines. 


Chapter 7.  A Repeatable Methodology

A methodology is a step-by-step approach.  Harpst's repeatable methodology is a six discipline approach (diagramed as a hexagon): Each of the following include several steps.  (95)

  1. Decide what's important
  2. Set Goals that lead
  3. Align systems
  4. Work the plan
  5. Innovate purposefully
  6. Step back   -  from here, go back to 1. 


The six disciplines are a series of cycles, annually, quarterly, weekly and daily. (95)


"The daily question to ask yourself is this: 'Are the activities you're working on aligned with what's important to the company?'" (98)


Chapter 8.  Accountability Coaching

"Accountability means being answerable to someone.  It's been my experience that just a little bit of 'answerabilty' on a regular basis can make a huge difference in whether people maintain their focus on their priorities." (105)  An essential tool is accountability coaching from outside the organization by someone who understands your company and its priorities. (106)  Focus on results, not activities. (107) 


"The coach reminds you of the commitments you've made to yourself and your organization, so that these efforts don't get swallowed up by the day-to-day fray of business life." (115)  


Chapter 9.  An Execution System

The execution system helps organizations get the right things done.  It requires identifying and addressing execution problems as early as possible.  The longer it takes the more expensive the fix. (121-23)


Five mistakes that cause execution failure:

•      Changes in requirements

•      Misunderstandings

•      Dependency on a factor outside my control

•      Bad estimates

•      Unavailability of resources needed.  (124-25)


Wasted or misaligned resources are a big problem. (125)


"The key is not to prioritize what's on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities." (130, quoting Stephen Covey)


A core practice for organizational alignment is a 15-30 minute status review meeting once a week.  (135)


"If you can't measure it, you can't manage it." (137)  Use leading rather than lagging measures.


Research has uncovered a huge number of "self-inflicted emailaholics." (139)


Chapter 10.  Community Learning

Community and learning have a high degree of synergy.  (141)  A company has several different communities such as the leadership team, department teams, leader-team member team, internet forums and blogs, etc.  Community learning results in sharing among or about peer groups, project management, team member development, benchmarks, business documentation, mainstream process, gradecards and measures, training, etc. 


Chapter 11.  Make Solving All Other Problems Easier

"A business that's growing rapidly is absolutely the most difficult circumstance under which to execute strategy.  An organization that learns a systematic way…is in a much better position." (159)  If it can execute its strategy and deal with day-to-day surprises, it will operate in a less stressful environment and increase its value."  (161)


Chapter 12.  An Enduring Pursuit

"The little things in life matter.  …doing the little things right for a long period of time has unfathomable power.  It takes effort, wisdom, and perseverance.  A lot of people understand this with their head, but not with their heart. … Building an organization that knows how to execute is based on how you do the little things….   They all matter.  And they are all compounding for good or for something else." (174)


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