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VINE VOICEon 19 July 2005
In Search of Excellence has been credited to have started the so-called management guru business. Written in 1982 it is the first book that aims to explain company success in a popularized way. Subsequent books on the subject are, for instance, Competitive Advantage (Porter, 1985) and, more recently, Good to Great (Collins, 2001). I gave the book three stars, but in that assessment I have tried to consider that the book is old and business knowledge has evolved ever since - yet the book is a seminal piece of work. If the book would have been written more recently, it probably would have given one or two stars to it.
Based on a major McKinsey study, In Search of Excellence identifies eight characteristics common for excellent companies: (1) a bias for action, (2) close to the customer, (3) autonomy and entrepreneurship, (4) productivity through people, (5) hands-on, value-driven, (6) stick to the knitting, (7) simple form, lean staff, and (8) simultaneous loose-tight properties. Personally, I don't find this set of characteristics very surprising or insightful - it would be difficult to imagine a financially excellently performing company that doesn't get things done, doesn't care about customers, is excessively bureaucratic and so forth. Moreover, some of these characteristics are at most directionally true such as "stick to the knitting" (consider e.g. GE - which btw. was part of the book's sample).
Nevertheless, In Search of Excellence provides interesting examples and a lot of good practical advice. I have to admit, though, that for me many of the examples were tedious reading as they represented often quite outdated issues. What I liked most in the book was the theory. Peters and Waterman have succeeded in picking up theory that mostly has stand the test of time. I would assume that for instance Henry Mintzberg and Karl Weick were much less known in 1982 as they are today. James March, Alfred Chandler and many others still are considered great management thinkers. My fancying for the theory is partly explained by that I in general agree with the author's that it is more often the soft issues that are important, not the hard issues.
The methodology used in the study is not particularly robust. An original convenience sample of 62 companies is analyzed on six different measures of financial excellence such as average return on equity between 1961 and 1980. In order to be "excellent", a company must be in the top half within its industry in four of the six measures. 43 companies met this criterion and the authors conducted interviews in them. Underperforming companies were not really included so the study doesn't tell are the identified characteristics unique to excellent companies (although the authors make a vague statement that underperforming companies were also analyzed, but they didn't focus on them). Also, for unclear reasons, companies that were perceived excellent but were not part of the initial sample, were included in the book's example, which is a little confusing (are those companies also excellent, and if yes, on what basis?).
Finally, a point I find very intriguing, is that in an article for FastCompany in 2001 ([...] Peters admitted that he and Waterman faked the data. This raises some interesting ethical questions: why does the new foreword of In Search of Excellence (written in 2003) not raise the issue? Why does McKinsey still embrace the book on its web page without mentioning that the data has been cooked? To me it seems to imply that an aspiration for truth is easily put aside in order to serve self-interested purposes.
So what is the "so what" of In Search of Excellence? Considering that the methodology is as weak as it is, it's hard to draw any far-fetched conclusions from the study. Neither does the book try to do that - it rather states that excellent companies seems to have these characteristics in common, and if you focus on them, maybe also your company will be excellent. Now considering that the data was cooked, the book doesn't really say even that, but rather provides a seemingly good narrative and dwells on some interesting ideas, while at the same time being short on intellectual rigor and ethics.
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on 14 August 2005
This book was, for a significant period, regarded as the classic in its field, which is why it made gradual entrance in the business-books limelight rather than being an instantaneous hit when it was first published about 20 years ago; rather, it was an ice-breaker.
The research behind the book was never supposed to amount to much as it played 2nd-fiddle to another research project at the Management Consulting firm the authors worked for: Mckinsey & Co. However, it emerged into what many have proclaimed as a classic. Yet with the test of time, its quality of research became ever more questionable for a number of reasons, primarily, as several of its 'excellent' firms diverged from a status of what can be regarded as 'excellent' firms.
An article with Fast Company magazine brought into the light the author's initial research steps, which was to first start off by essentially asking McKinsey partners 'Who's cool?' and 'Who is doing cool work?'; rather than, to base their research population of firms upon those that passed more brutal metrics based questions about what firms should have made their list. This amounted to, as co-author Peters puts in his own words: 'faking the data.' The fact that their proceeding quantitative analysis then eliminated GE (a firm that is now considered as the world's leading conglomerate firm and was recently ranked 1st by the Financial Times global 500 Companies - June 2005) from their initial list showed the shortcomings of using their 'raw insight', which Peters admits can be 'stupid', as opposed to " 'smart' tough-minded metrics".
In the final analysis, the authors can certainly be credited with the inception of posing and having a respectable attempt at attacking that nebulous and vexing question: what makes a top-performing firm? But as the ultimate judge, time has shown that their theories are not anywhere near as robust as first proclaimed!
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on 29 July 2003
Thomas J. Peters and Robert H. Waterman Jr. were consultants with McKinsey & Co. when this book was published in 1982. This book shot both authors into management guru-dom and is still one of the greatest management bestsellers ever. Both authors have written other books, but none have come close to this one.
In this book, the authors report on the findings from the excellent companies: "It will define what we mean by excellence. It is an attempt to generalize about what the excellent companies seem to be doing that the rest are not, and to buttress our observations on the excellent companies with sound social and economic theory." The authors' research started in 1977 when two internal task forces at McKinsey & Co. were set up to research a general concern with the problems of management effectiveness, and a particular concern with the nature of the relationship between strategy, structure, and management effectiveness. One of these task forces was to review thinking on strategy, the other was to review thinking on organizational effectiveness. Peters and Waterman were the leaders of the project on organizational effectiveness. Their research involved talking extensively with executives around the world and extensive literature reviews. Initially they worked mainly on the problem of expanding our diagnostic and remedial kit beyond the traditional tools for business problem solving, which then concentrated on strategy and structural approaches. This resulted in the now well-renowned 7-S framework (structure, strategy, systems, shared values, skills, style, and staff). "But there was still something missing. ... we were shore on practical design ideas, especially for the 'soft S's'." So the authors decided to look at management excellence itself. "We asserted that innovative companies not only are unusually good at producing commercially viable new widgets; innovative companies are especially adroit at continually responding to change of any sort in their environment." The authors labeled the companies that seemed to have achieved that kind of innovative performance as excellent companies.
The authors eventually chose 75 highly regarded companies, in which they conducted intense, structured interviews. Their project showed that the excellent companies were, above all, brilliant on the basics. The authors use eight chapters to discuss in detail the eight attributes that distinct excellent, innovative companies: 1. A bias for action, for getting on with it; 2. Close to the customer; 3. Autonomy and entrepreneurship; 4. Productivity through people; 5. Hands-on, value driven; 6. Stick to the knitting; 7. Simple form, lean staff; 8. Simultaneous loose-tight properties. None of these eight attributes are something special. In fact, they can even be called simple and predictable and the authors refer to them as "motherhoods". Most essential to each of these excellent companies is the intensity within them. This intensity is build on the strongly held beliefs of these companies.
Yes, I do like this book. I must admit that I had heard plenty about this book and had read several reviews before I actually started reading it. The biggest criticism I heard was that the example companies are not so excellent now. Perhaps true, but I do not think that this book is that much about the excellent companies themselves. I believe that it is much more about the attitude of the example companies, the positive culture. Highly recommended to business leaders, managers, and MBA-students. Read it sooner rather than later. The book is written in simple US-English, although it contains quite a heavy literature review.
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on 26 November 2000
IN SEARCH OF EXCELLENCE lays much of the groundwork for anyone interested in studying management. Tom Peters presents most of the concepts which have become almost by-laws of organizatonal behavior and managerial theory, and on which most of his subsequent work is based e.g. success through failure, innovation through entrepreneurship, management by walk about, customer and employee orientation. The best part of the book are the numerous fascinating anecdotes which Mr. Peters relates from his research into the practises of legendary companies and their leaders. At times, the book might seem outdated in its applicability to the current organizational structure, but it remains a seminal work in management excellence theory, and is a book for the ages.
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on 21 July 1999
Life (and business) are a lot more fun if we are excited and committed to what we are doing. This book reawakens our sense that organizations can be exciting and meaningful places to be, filled with the potential for great results and enormous impact. We all have been touched by an outstanding leader and inspired to do more. Most of us would have a hard time spelling out what those leaders do. This book is a very practical guide to being a good example and a source of daily inspiration. You can read other books to figure out what to inspire people to do specifically and so forth, but this one is unique. You may find that you do not "get" a particular recommendation. To deepen your understanding, I recommend that you read A PASSION FOR EXCELLENCE in those areas where you are unmoved or unclear. It is filled with examples on the same points as IN SEARCH OF EXCELLENCE. I also like the title. Finding excellence is a never-ending task for us all. If you want to read a terrific book on how successful companies differ from their less successful competitors, be sure to read BUILT TO LAST. It is also a great companion for IN SEARCH OF EXCELLENCE.
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on 20 January 2012
This is a fascinating account of the state of US' business in the early 1980s. It is slightly outdated but includes some interesting concepts. This book is a bit too long, with lots of repetitions and lacks structure. I loved the part on Karl Weick's chaotic action theory and also on P&G's one page memo's.

Overall what strikes me are theories against mergers, propagating simplicity and smallness and simple form. A classic book but of limited use in the 2010s.
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on 5 February 2003
Thomas J. Peters and Robert H. Waterman Jr. were consultants with McKinsey & Co. when this book was published in 1982. This book shot both authors into management guru-dom and is still one of the greatest management bestsellers ever. Both authors have written other books, but none have come close to this one.
In this book, the authors report on the findings from the excellent companies: "It will define what we mean by excellence. It is an attempt to generalize about what the excellent companies seem to be doing that the rest are not, and to buttress our observations on the excellent companies with sound social and economic theory." The authors' research started in 1977 when two internal task forces at McKinsey & Co. were set up to research a general concern with the problems of management effectiveness, and a particular concern with the nature of the relationship between strategy, structure, and management effectiveness. One of these task forces was to review thinking on strategy, the other was to review thinking on organizational effectiveness. Peters and Waterman were the leaders of the project on organizational effectiveness. Their research involved talking extensively with executives around the world and extensive literature reviews. Initially they worked mainly on the problem of expanding our diagnostic and remedial kit beyond the traditional tools for business problem solving, which then concentrated on strategy and structural approaches. This resulted in the now well-renowned 7-S framework (structure, strategy, systems, shared values, skills, style, and staff). "But there was still something missing. ... we were shore on practical design ideas, especially for the 'soft S's'." So the authors decided to look at management excellence itself. "We asserted that innovative companies not only are unusually good at producing commercially viable new widgets; innovative companies are especially adroit at continually responding to change of any sort in their environment." The authors labeled the companies that seemed to have achieved that kind of innovative performance as excellent companies.
The authors eventually chose 75 highly regarded companies, in which they conducted intense, structured interviews. Their project showed that the excellent companies were, above all, brilliant on the basics. The authors use eight chapters to discuss in detail the eight attributes that distinct excellent, innovative companies: 1. A bias for action, for getting on with it; 2. Close to the customer; 3. Autonomy and entrepreneurship; 4. Productivity through people; 5. Hands-on, value driven; 6. Stick to the knitting; 7. Simple form, lean staff; 8. Simultaneous loose-tight properties. None of these eight attributes are something special. In fact, they can even be called simple and predictable and the authors refer to them as "motherhoods". Most essential to each of these excellent companies is the intensity within them. This intensity is build on the strongly held beliefs of these companies.
Yes, I do like this book. I must admit that I had heard plenty about this book and had read several reviews before I actually started reading it. The biggest criticism I heard was that the example companies are not so excellent now. Perhaps true, but I do not think that this book is that much about the excellent companies themselves. I believe that it is much more about the attitude of the example companies, the positive culture. Highly recommended to business leaders, managers, and MBA-students. Read it sooner rather than later. The book is written in simple US-English, although it contains quite a heavy literature review.
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on 26 January 2003
Thomas J. Peters and Robert H. Waterman Jr. were consultants with McKinsey & Co. when this book was published in 1982. This book shot both authors into management guru-dom and is still one of the greatest management bestsellers ever. Both authors have written other books, but none have come close to this one.
In this book, the authors report on the findings from the excellent companies: "It will define what we mean by excellence. It is an attempt to generalize about what the excellent companies seem to be doing that the rest are not, and to buttress our observations on the excellent companies with sound social and economic theory." The authors' research started in 1977 when two internal task forces at McKinsey & Co. were set up to research a general concern with the problems of management effectiveness, and a particular concern with the nature of the relationship between strategy, structure, and management effectiveness. One of these task forces was to review thinking on strategy, the other was to review thinking on organizational effectiveness. Peters and Waterman were the leaders of the project on organizational effectiveness. Their research involved talking extensively with executives around the world and extensive literature reviews. Initially they worked mainly on the problem of expanding our diagnostic and remedial kit beyond the traditional tools for business problem solving, which then concentrated on strategy and structural approaches. This resulted in the now well-renowned 7-S framework (structure, strategy, systems, shared values, skills, style, and staff). "But there was still something missing. ... we were shore on practical design ideas, especially for the 'soft S's'." So the authors decided to look at management excellence itself. "We asserted that innovative companies not only are unusually good at producing commercially viable new widgets; innovative companies are especially adroit at continually responding to change of any sort in their environment." The authors labeled the companies that seemed to have achieved that kind of innovative performance as excellent companies.
The authors eventually chose 75 highly regarded companies, in which they conducted intense, structured interviews. Their project showed that the excellent companies were, above all, brilliant on the basics. The authors use eight chapters to discuss in detail the eight attributes that distinct excellent, innovative companies: 1. A bias for action, for getting on with it; 2. Close to the customer; 3. Autonomy and entrepreneurship; 4. Productivity through people; 5. Hands-on, value driven; 6. Stick to the knitting; 7. Simple form, lean staff; 8. Simultaneous loose-tight properties. None of these eight attributes are something special. In fact, they can even be called simple and predictable and the authors refer to them as "motherhoods". Most essential to each of these excellent companies is the intensity within them. This intensity is build on the strongly held beliefs of these companies.
Yes, I do like this book. I must admit that I had heard plenty about this book and had read several reviews before I actually started reading it. The biggest criticism I heard was that the example companies are not so excellent now. Perhaps true, but I do not think that this book is that much about the excellent companies themselves. I believe that it is much more about the attitude of the example companies, the positive culture. Highly recommended to business leaders, managers, and MBA-students. Read it sooner rather than later. The book is written in business US-English, although it contains quite a heavy literature review.
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Great in its day but a little dated now - Don't get me wrong, I still enjoy wearing hi-waistband, parallel jeans and platform shoes but don't think many of the lessons in this book have aged as well. Still, Tom Peters is a living legend and its the kind of stuff you can read anywhere (Bath, Beach, Bed) - Just don't expect to get too excited with it. 'In Search Of Competence' is a similar type read but with an Irish Twist.
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VINE VOICEon 5 February 2004
I'm a Tom Peters fan but would not recommend this - I'm sure it was relevant in its day but don't consider it very relevant today. Read "Re-Imagine" instead.
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