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December 2013/January 2014


Bleeding Edge or Leading Edge?

December and January are typically a time of year when families spend more time together, enjoy a break from their fast-paced daily schedules, and maybe see a movie or two. Some families opt for the holiday cartoon or the teary-eyed romance. But some head straight for the latest horror movie. Those families are looking for the bloodiest—or, shall we say, “bleeding-edge”—movies.

What does this have to do with organizational performance or the Baldrige Criteria for Performance Excellence? Well, I recently read an article about bleeding-edge technology. As I contemplated the concept, it made me think about bleeding-edge technology versus leading-edge technology. And that brought to mind the leading edge of validated management practice, a descriptor we use to position the Baldrige Criteria. Independent of how my mind works, I think this provides an opportunity to clarify a phrase whose meaning is not always well understood.

Let’s start by exploring the bleeding edge! Techopedia defines bleeding-edge technology as “technology that has been released but is still not ready for the general public due to the fact that it has not been reliably tested.” Bleeding-edge technology is released so that flaws can be found and corrected prior to the technology’s large-scale use. Obviously, the pun is intentional; users of bleeding-edge technology are being put on notice that they could get hurt.

Bleeding edge implies significant risk, and one can generally assume that at that early stage there has been little or no validation of the technology, it could still succeed or fail, and it is uncertain whether it will be abandoned. Jump on board early, and you will later be seen as a genius or a fool; it might well be challenging to see where the pendulum will fall while the technology is still bleeding edge. Hence emulating the bleeding edge would be an inappropriate design concept for the Baldrige Criteria. Unless we kept betting right, we would rapidly lose all followers. And even if we always got it right, there would be a lot of rework by the adopters.

Some “techies” believe there is a progression from bleeding edge to cutting edge to leading edge. At the cutting edge, you still could get hurt, but the chances are greatly diminished. Like the bleeding edge, the cutting edge would be inappropriate for the Baldrige Criteria, which should guide all organizations to performance excellence. By the time you get to leading edge, you are ahead of the pack, taking some risk and dealing with a degree of uncertainty, but probably not in an unrecoverable way. However, this risk is not an intelligent risk if you are writing criteria that have to offer certainty in terms of a management framework.

Thus we position the Baldrige Criteria a little further downstream, at the “leading edge of validated management practice.” In the rest of this column, I will explore what we mean by this concept and how we develop the Baldrige Criteria to represent it.

What Is the Leading Edge of Validated Management Practice?

In its simplest interpretation, the leading edge of validated management practice is forefront management practice that has been proven to work in high-performing organizations. The practices have to be beyond the researchers’ latest theories or the output of their most recent research activities. Validated means that we have seen these practices (and their results) used by a Baldrige Award recipient or described with some repetition in the literature or in reports at conferences, although the practices might not yet have been formally organized into a body of knowledge.

Sometimes we observe pieces of a validated management practice in different places, but the pieces have not been assembled yet into a full picture. If we assemble the pieces and then go back to people who (sometimes unknowingly) contributed the pieces, we get confirmation that “Yes that is what we are doing.” Sometimes, it is followed by “We hadn’t organized it like you have yet, but that is the essence or purpose of this activity or new direction.”

I will illustrate with the example of the concept of work systems in the 2013–2014 Baldrige Criteria. I am not sure I ever read a complete treatise that concluded that work systems should be strategic and should be considered as part of strategic planning and that work processes are how an organization accomplishes its day-to-day operations. But as I read about issues organizations were currently focusing on strategically and key decisions they were making related to their “business” going forward, they were talking about work systems. We hadn’t been clear about this in the Baldrige Criteria because it was not clear in our minds, either. But suddenly, it seemed obvious. In this case, the concept had been in the Criteria and had been confusing to many people who also understood pieces of it. Seeing that work system decisions were part of an organization’s strategy and therefore should be a component of strategic planning suddenly crystallized for us a concept whose intent we had conceptually understood but could not previously translate clearly into the Baldrige Criteria language.

In this example, the pieces came from existing questions in the Baldrige Criteria and from our reading about strategic challenges that businesses were currently facing (in particular “re-shoring” and “in-sourcing” manufacturing facilities back to the United States). Seeing the larger strategic-planning issue of decisions about how work will be accomplished, whether suppliers or partners will be engaged, and what intellectual property risks are involved reveals work systems as an obvious strategic consideration. Decisions about work systems are at the heart of organizational sustainability in a globally competitive marketplace.

Why are strategic decisions about work systems a validated management practice? Because we were seeing this in practice in forefront businesses and seeing the early positive results, as well. As we generalized on the work systems concept, we saw that this is a significant challenge that all sectors face strategically on an ongoing basis.

How Do We Develop Criteria That Represent the Leading Edge of Validated Management Practice?

We start developing the revised Baldrige Criteria by synthesizing all the information gathered from conferences, reading the literature and discussions, and seeing what role-model organizations do. From this synthesis, we generate some first thoughts on potential themes for the next revision of the Criteria. If you look at the “Changes from the Last Criteria” section in the Criteria booklet, you can see that there typically are two or three themes to the Criteria changes. The next step in developing the Criteria is to gather information from Baldrige examiners, the Baldrige community, and the interested public at large. Input is sought at examiner training and through various requests for information, including a broad call through our Web site and e-mail distribution lists. In 2014, we plan on specific additional outreach to various communities to request information on the challenges that organizations or businesses in their community are facing and also any specific revisions they would like to see in the Criteria. This information will validate what we have synthesized or allow us to modify our thoughts.

As the themes for revision become clear, it has become a practice to focus on them in one or more Insights columns. This practice and transparency has two benefits. First, it results in additional research on the focus area as part of preparing the column; second, it exposes the program’s current thinking and encourages further input and refinement before the new Criteria are drafted.

The next step is creating a first draft of the revised Criteria. When an expert in the Baldrige community has been particularly influential in the thought process leading to a change theme, we will invite the person to contribute to the writing or to review language as the Criteria are being written. When there is someone outside the Baldrige community who is a thought leader in an area, we will either further explore their publications or contact them to discuss the potential revisions.

After the first draft is completed, a copy is sent to our Board of Overseers and our Panel of Judges (the two advisory bodies to the Baldrige Program), as well as to people whose comments have resulted in significant revisions to the Criteria. We have learned over the years how integrated a management system Baldrige is, so that a thematic change in one category of the Criteria generally results in changes in several other categories as well. The first draft is an opportunity to make sure that all the linkages were caught.

We usually receive some very rich comments on this first draft. While commenters might not agree with each other on the specific suggestions they make, they frequently hone in on the same area or set of Criteria questions. When this happens, it provides a clear signal to us that further clarity in that area is needed. Using this input, we then generate the final revision of the new Criteria, and the Criteria “go to press.”

How Do We Build Consensus and Maintain Independence?

A final thought on why we are the eventual arbiters of the leading edge of validated management practice. Since day one, the Baldrige Criteria have been “guru-independent,” meaning that the Criteria try to assimilate the best thinking of many visionaries, but not follow the personal philosophy of any specific person. The Criteria should be a distillation of the best that has been put into practice. Individual thinkers frequently focus on a piece of the whole system or look at the whole system from an intentional bias based on the area of most interest or importance to them.

The Baldrige Criteria writing process builds consensus in the information gathering and refinement stages through our inviting everyone to contribute ideas and then sifting through those ideas to seek a consensus of where the key needs or opportunities exist. The final decision on content must rest with the Baldrige Program, since we have been authorized by law to fulfill that function as the basis for selecting Presidential award recipients. That said, the primary use of the Baldrige Criteria will continue to be as a systems approach for all organizations to improve their performance and make sure that they are taking a holistic look at their organization as a living system. The Baldrige Criteria are an education vehicle to a much greater extent than they are an award vehicle. And the Baldrige Criteria would not be at the leading edge of validated management practice without the open information-gathering process we use.

One final topic of not only consensus but also unanimity is that we in the Baldrige Program wish each of you a happy, healthy, and insightful new year!
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Dr. Harry Hertz photo
Dr. Harry Hertz, Director Emeritus
Baldrige Performance Excellence Program

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