An Extraordinary Case of Learning from Social Excellence

Social excellence occurs in a great conversation, marriage, team, or organization.  It is interaction that leads to experiences and outcomes that are far from the norm.  To learn from social excellence, one must recognize it, focus on it, and ponder how to create it.  This doesn’t happen often because most learning is a reaction to failure; very little learning comes from the purpose driven examination of social excellence.

When I am with executives I emphasize the importance of learning from social excellence. This unusual message is often met with resistance.  Recently, for example, I was with a group of executives from a large company in the automotive industry.  I was introducing the idea of social excellence and I was getting the usual reticence, when a man spoke up.  His name is David.  He has a senior position over 670 people in Mexico, in a facility which produces five billion dollars of value each year.  David is reliant on the quality of products delivered from suppliers all over the world.

David captured everyone’s attention by declaring that he believes in the creation of positive organizations and the process of leaning from excellence.  He shared a story of personal transformation that began in 2013.   His facility was experiencing serous difficulties in terms of producing quality products, and this gave rise to many other problematic outcomes.  David shared the following account.

“As a leadership team, we were pulling out our hair in frustration.  I can’t tell you how many times we were “lectured” and given “help” we did not need.  In the meantime, telling our people to pay greater attention to detail was taking us nowhere.  While this was occurring, I was invited to a ceremony where our company would deliver quality awards to our supplier base in Mexico. These award winners were suppliers who, for a complete year, met every schedule and delivered not a single defect.  Watching the plant managers receive their awards had a great impact on me.  They were people just like you and me, but they had been able to lead their organizations to do things we could not. I began to ask, what is there about these organizations, that I can’t see?  What do they have that we do not have? What allows them to deliver consistently with no excuses and with results that require no explanations?  If one hundred of our suppliers can do this why can’t we?”

At this point David was making a shift that few people make.  He was formulating questions about social excellence in the real world.  The moment he formulated the questions, he positioned himself to do something most executives do not do.  David was ready to learn from excellence.

Prior to 2014 David and his people were constantly visiting their bad suppliers.  Across these troubled organizations, there were consistent patterns; faulty control plans, failure to follow control plans, managers that hid from visitors – leaving low profile people to hear the negative feedback, a negative culture and general lack of leadership.  David was continually learning from failing systems, systems just like his own.  Such exposure can lead to the conclusion that social excellence is impossible.

In 2015 David and his people made an unusual decision about the annual supplier quality awards.  They decided to visit every award winning plant and deliver the deserved recognition.  David and one of his team members decided to visit the best of the best, the twenty companies that were always on schedule and who had zero defects over a three to four year period.

Please note how counter-intuitive or unconventional this decision is.  For a leadership team to visit one hundred plants is a huge investment.  Conventional thinking would never lead to such a decision.  Only a commitment to genuine learning combined with a focus on excellence would lead to such a decision.

Before they started their visits David already knew that these 20 companies had low turnover.  Soon he discovered why and it was not about technical processes.  All plants, good and bad, are trying to implement pretty much the same basic concepts of structure and process.  David made a big discovery.  In the 20 excellent companies the leaders were different.  They were “highly connected to their people, engaging, determined, vocal, and grounded.”  David gives illustrations from five companies.  Here are two of his examples.

In Matamoros the plant manager was a woman with a powerful voice, tone, and sense of expression.  She had a complementary and energetic message. Everyone quietly paid full attention to her words and she passed great energy to the people.  You could tell she was deeply connected to the people.  It was clear to me why the people in the plant delivered.  Then one of my colleagues told me, “You should get to know their tool shop.”  So we went.  The place was as clean as a hospital and very organized.  The guys were uniformed and each was clean. All of them had sharp eyes and you could tell they knew what they were doing. The processes and controls were stellar.

In Tijuana, we visited a supplier receiving the award for the fourth time.  As we arrived, all 1,000 personnel were in the parking lot sitting under tents.  I walked in next to the Plant Manager. As we did, all employees turned their heads to look at us, but in fact, they were looking at their manager. They wanted to catch his eye. As we walked in he greeted his people, asking and saying things about their families, constantly waving his hand on both sides, referring to some of them by their names (or nicknames).  He joked with some about the outcome of the football soccer match from the night before, and did many other such things.  I was impressed.  He was authentically connected to his people.  This supplier has an impressive record of 8 years in a row with no defective part delivered to David’s team.

The 100 visits had a big impact on David’s team.  They used what they learned about positive leadership and the creating of social excellence to examine and change themselves.  They began to consciously create a positive culture.  The outcomes were impressive.  The first year there was a 60% reduction in cost.  Year two brought another 60% improvement.  After six years there has been an overall improvement of 90%.  David pointed out that there were also other impacts.  Employees began to praise leadership for learning, changing and for eliminating crisis and stress.  Engagement and commitment increased.  Based on feedback from employees, an innovation council was formed and more new ideas were introduced.  In 2014 three new patents had been generated.  In 2016-2018, 120 patents were generated.

When David finished telling his story the others became very quiet.  Why?  David’s story matters.  Every manager’s career is based on the ability to improve collective performance.  Here was a case of dramatic improvement.  Yet David’s story also carries repulsion.  Every manager knows they have to manage risk.  David was offering a high risk, high reward strategy.  David was inviting the people in the room to move outside their conventional beliefs and risk becoming transformational leaders.  He was inviting them to learn how to learn from social excellence.  They were in deep thought, they were contemplating crossing a profoundly important threshold.


  • What does it mean to learn from social excellence, and why do so few people experience it?
  • In observing social excellence what did David learn that he could not have previously imagined?
  • In visiting all the award winners, the team was making a huge investment in learning form excellence, an investment in learning that most teams would resist making, was the investment worth it? How and why?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

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