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  • Writer's pictureRebecca Helterbrand

Lessons from World-Class Companies

Updated: Apr 26, 2022

I had the absolute pleasure to spend my first decade of work right out of college at a large company with 6,000 employees in locations across the United States. The organization was on a journey to become world class, as evidenced by the framework of the Malcolm Baldrige Award for Performance Excellence.

The organization asked tough questions of itself and made sure to create methods to listen to the voice of the customer. And by customer, it was both the internal customer (the workforce) and the external customer. Solutions were deployed based on solid research and customer input, but the learning was just starting. Best practices were solidified and opportunities for improvement continually addressed. It was a comprehensive approach to a learning cycle. Some organizations call this PDCA – plan, do, check, act, while some call it PDSA – plan, do, study, act, while others just frame the cycles of learning as “continuous improvement.”

This first decade in the business world taught me so much that I have constantly tried to find ways to replicate the experience. The nonprofit ecosystem often has disadvantages as compared to the for-profit sector, yet our collective cause, our mission, and our values can drive incredible change that is desperately needed for the vulnerable populations we serve.

So, what do world-class companies do that is fundamentally better than other organizations? Well, to become a recipient of the Malcolm Baldrige Award, there are multiple areas the organization excels at, whether it is leadership, the workforce, strategy, customers, operations, knowledge management, and of course, outcomes/results are sustainable. Yet at their core, world-class companies actively understand that listening to the customer and molding/shaping services to the customer’s needs is key to success.

Voice of the customer has historically been achieved with surveys (online or paper-based), focus groups, and research. In the nonprofit world, we are striving to include the voice of our customer by incorporating populations we serve directly with seats on our boards and hiring in our staffing models. Directly inculcating the voice of those we serve in the design, development and deployment of our services is where the focus must lead. And it is not enough in the nonprofit world to simply listen – we must engage those we serve directly in the decision-making process.

The nonprofit community can elevate what is considered world-class as we fully integrate the voices of those we serve. A great example of a framework to consider is Design Justice Network Principles. There are ten principles in all to guide the work, and my favorite is:

We center the voices of those who are directly impacted by the outcomes of the design process.

I am sure that the reason Design Justice resonates so deeply with me is the fundamental learning about excellence I was privileged to gain knowledge about very early in my career. So, how do you incorporate the voice of the customer in your organization? More importantly, how do you center the customer’s voices in the decision-making process? Do you have a framework for doing so? Design Justice Principles and the framework for Malcolm Baldrige Performance Excellence are all online and can be accessed at no cost to start the process. You can start with those resources, and of course, lean into us at The Purpose Coalition with any questions or needs.

Yours in Service,

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