Insights from an innovator of customer-focused excellence

February 24, 2014 by nick.halley
Originally posted by Christine Schaefer on Blogrige: The official Baldrige blog

Dr. John Timmerman

Dr. John Timmerman

We could all learn a lot from Dr. John Timmerman, senior strategist of customer experience and innovation at Gallup. In his former work as corporate vice president of quality and operations at The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company, Timmerman helped build ground-breaking practices that strengthened the customer focus of the luxury-brand service organization, which earned two Baldrige Awards in the 1990s.

In a recent article in Gallup Business Journal, Timmerman points out that innovation, rather than merely incremental improvement, is a necessity for organizations facing rapid change in their strategic situations today. In a subsequent interview for this blog, Timmerman first distinguished “little i innovation” (of processes and products) from “big I innovation” (of the organization’s business model). “Business-model innovation leverages the entire workforce, with everyone in the organization having a role in innovating and moving the organization forward,” he pointed out. “For that kind of innovation, Baldrige [the Criteria for Performance Excellence] provides the best-known framework to help an organization.”

Following are more excerpts from the interview.


How do you see the role of the Baldrige framework (the Criteria for Performance Excellence) in supporting innovation?

To transform an organizational structure there are two different ways of thinking that are interrelated. We can get everyone to be involved in innovating in all of their areas as an ongoing part of their role and responsibility. We can also innovate the business model. And then those two things can also be part of one and the same—in other words, if you’re incorporating innovation as part of your cultural fabric, you can do that while you’re using business-model innovation at the very highest level.

If a senior leadership group wants to innovate their business model, Baldrige offers an already well-defined framework. [Baldrige] Award recipients provide the best practices for an organization to consider because they are already vetted through the Baldrige examination process.

In the Gallup Business Journal interview, you make the case that quality is still relevant, stating, “I believe you can have quality—zero defects—without innovation, but you can’t have innovation without quality processes, the systematic and repeatable methods to foster speed and agility.” How might you recommend making the case to business executives to invest in resources related to improving quality and achieving excellence?   

When people see the term quality, they think of controlling defects and risk mitigation. That’s one side of the definition, having a repeatable process to identify and eliminate defects like Six Sigma. But quality is also about having repeatable processes to foster transformation, innovation, and rapid improvement cycles in an organization. And I think it’s a problem that executives sometimes don’t see the other half of the coin or definition. So when the term quality comes up, I think they default to defect mitigation, which is a repeatable process, but not the repeatable processes in fostering performance excellence and improvement.

When I look back at Ritz-Carlton, I see that one of the biggest benefits of going on a [Baldrige] journey is that we identified the gaps through the performance excellence framework and then we went out and studied other organizations and saw what their best practices were, which fed our improvement strategies, not just to close the gaps but to become much more competitive.

I don’t see as many organizations doing that kind of structured benchmarking today as I have in the past. I think they’re trying to glean stuff as everything in the world is moving so fast. So they bring somebody in, a thought leader that already knows the answer, or get it through some knowledge resource. And that’s good, but it may not give you the deeper insights you need. It’s one thing to read the Toyota production process; it’s something very different to go to Toyota and see how it’s applied, because then you get the cultural context.

And what the Baldrige process allows you to receive when you listen to the [award] recipients is the cultural context, so that you know how to fit in the best practice within the organization. The brilliance of Baldrige is that it puts organizations on a stage where they share not just best practices but also the organizational profile, the cultural context of how practices fit in—not just the good idea but how the good idea fits in within the organization. As a Gallup scientist, I believe that you need to guard against committing an FAE (fundamental attribution error) in trying to apply a good tool to the wrong context. I encourage organizations to complete the Baldrige profile assessment because it gives them the context to assess the appropriateness of best practices for their business model.

At the Baldrige Program’s annual Quest for Excellence® conference years ago, you shared leading customer-focused practices at the Ritz-Carlton at the time. Tell us about the evolution in the concept of customer focus during your career.

Personalization has always been out there, but The Ritz-Carlton was one of the first companies to build a platform to do it across multiple sites. The Ritz-Carlton approach was to first create a customer-centric culture, training employees to study what customers are using to understand their preferences. Second, we wanted to be able to delight customers by surprising them versus being merely being preference order-takers. Each facility has a guest relations manager that provides leadership and training to engage employees in identifying, collecting, and delivering guest preferences.

What are some new developments in the area of customer focus (category 3 in the Baldrige Criteria) by high-performing organizations today?

The good news is that we’re continuing to make improvements in big data and analytics. That gives us what I call these mega constructs of customer profiles, or psychographics. So I can tell you what all the Chinese 19-year-old males want when they come into a restaurant or when they go buy a car, because I’ve got all this data pulled together from disparate sources. The problem with that though is that it’s a construct so it’s kind of like in The Matrix. And when you really want to dial into customer personalization, you’ll start to see the cat walk by you two to three times like in The Matrix movie; the construct doesn’t always work [at the individual customer level]. The good thing that’s happening is that we’re starting to get a better big-data analytic understanding of what customers want by cohort, by geography, by buying patterns, and so forth. But that has to be balanced with an understanding of what customers want at an individual level. So the companies that are going to be really successful in the future will understand leading trends, those constructs, but they’re still going to be able to leverage big data—that is, leverage global information resources, R=G—and design it to [the level of] n=1.


Baldrige provides the holistic framework to assess all the dimensions of an organization required for driving excellence.

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