Setting the Bar Isn’t Enough – Business Leaders Need to Consider How They Frame Expectations

Mark Komen, President

Kodyne, Inc.

Plymouth, MN

I’m sure we’ve all heard the expression, “setting the bar” when it comes to setting expectations and standards of performance.  I always think about the competitive pole vaulter who sets the bar level based on his/her highest jump and then anyone else looking to win the competition must successfully clear that height.  And of course it’s not enough to just meet that height but to exceed it to win the gold medal.

In the business world, we like to talk about setting the bar as well and we apply this concept to everything from sales goals to customer service levels, defect rates, on-time delivery percentages – about anything we can measure.  This presumably gives us targets to meet or exceed that will enable the organization to excel.

But something’s missing here.  In the pole vault competition, competitors must clear a minimum height in order to even stay in the meet.  If they can’t, they’re done for the day right there.  Organizational leaders should take the cue that it’s not enough to set one bar – they need to really set two bars: one that sets MINIMUM standards and one that sets HIGH BAR standards.  Here’s why.

Every organization is carried along by its day-to-day operations.  In order to get things done, we create things like functional organizational charts, reporting lines, process/procedure manuals, timelines, and job descriptions so that people know what they’re supposed to do to contribute to the organization’s ability to perform and fulfill its purpose.  Plus organizational guiding principles such as the vision, mission, and core values statements send messages about what the organization stands for.  Unfortunately the expressions, “Just do your job” or the more colloquial, “Get ‘er done” leave a lot of room for interpretation and that’s just what happens – people guess at what to do and what constitutes a level of “good enough.”

So what if my interpretation of “good enough” is insufficient for my organization to grow, meet its future commitments or even to keep its doors open?  What does “good enough” really mean?  What’s acceptable?  What’s really achievable under normal conditions?  Some examples:

Will 90% on-time delivery satisfy my customers?  How many would accept that?  Some might, others won’t.  What’s the cost impact to implement 95% or 98%?

How much testing do I need to do on my new product before I can ship it?  Do I test every single feature on every unit to guarantee no failures?  Is there an acceptable failure rate?

How often can I cut margins to win business?

How am I supposed to handle customer complaints?

How am I supposed to interact with other staff members?

By establishing minimum levels of performance, an organization is able to determine some baselines during typical business conditions.  This list might include:

  • Determining the financial break-even point
  • Determining capacity and staffing loads
  • Determining sales activity levels
  • Setting defect rates
  • Setting process variance levels
  • Setting email and voicemail reply expectations
  • Creating behavioral norms

There are many conditions where a higher standard of performance than minimum is needed (that higher bar).  These conditions may come on gradually or appear suddenly and might be driven by:

  • Increased competitive pressure
  • New technology or the threat of outdated technology
  • Changing customer expectations
  • Changing customer demographics
  • Changes in the legal or economic environment
  • New leadership

There’s usually a price to be paid for clearing that higher bar.  Addressing the items on the list above may require significant investments in capital equipment, employee training, marketing and promotion or software for example.  So to meet that higher bar, how prepared are you to make those investments?  Is it worth doing for the expected payback?  Will employees be given the resources and support to clear the high bar?  How much time do they have to get there?

Setting a high bar can be motivating to a staff that likes to be challenged.  The rewards can be immense.  That same bar can be daunting, even de-motivating, to a staff that isn’t prepared or properly equipped.  They may struggle and give up or persevere and eventually succeed.  So my recommendation is to set that high bar selectively.

In any case just don’t forget to set that other bar.  That one will keep you in the game.


Copyright 2009.  Kodyne, Inc.  All rights reserved worldwide