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People-First Strategies for Excellence

Updated: Jan 26

While very often we hear companies claiming, “People are our greatest assets”, their improvement plans, initiatives and programs do not exhibit a corresponding emphasis on people, and we see people-first strategies lacking from the initial planning phase of these programs, till execution.

Conversely, it is demonstrated that excellent organizational cultures are built around humility, respect, trust, collaboration, innovation, and empowerment.

Dr. Stephen R. Covey, author of the best-selling book Seven Habits of Highly Effective People quoted “There are three constants in life . . . change, choice, and principles.” And this is very true, we live in a changing world, amplified by the pandemic in the past two years. Furthermore, we always have the choice of actions or lack of that, in this matter.

Let us examine a little more in-depth Stephen R. Covey last constant, Principles, and his definition of a principle being a natural law that is universally understood, timeless in its meaning, and self-evident. He taught that values govern actions, but principles govern the consequences of actions. For Covey “Principles always have natural consequences attached to them. There are positive consequences when we live in harmony with the principles. There are negative consequences when we ignore them.” So how do principles enable people alignment?

Known for being a New Way of thinking, the Shingo Model™ for Excellence is founded on ten (10) Guiding Principles. These Principles are the basis for building a sustainable culture of organizational excellence. The ten Guiding Principles are divided into three dimensions: Cultural Enablers, Continuous Improvement, and Enterprise Alignment. And they always govern the consequence of leadership and management behaviors.

For example, if a leader allows a culture to emerge where employees are thought of merely as an unfortunate cost burden or where the smartest people are the only ones who rise to the top, the consequence will be a workforce that is not fully engaged. Ideas for improvement will not be articulated and acted upon. People will feel unfulfilled in their work and turnover will be high. Labor costs will become excessively high, business systems will stagnate, and innovation will not be fast enough to compete in the rapidly changing business climate.

Contrariwise, when people understand principles for themselves, they become empowered to take personal initiative. Leaders should also design systems that will make it easier for people to do the right thing.

My focus in this article is on one of the two Principles of the Shingo Model™ Cultural Enablers Dimension “Respect every individual”. As their name indicates Cultural enablers focus on the foundation of an organization: its people.

The simple model I use to ensure “Respect every individual” is practiced, is the “Engage, Empower, Excel” model. So let me tell you more about each of these three elements.


Whether you are a company looking at digitization and automation of its processes, or a company still working in a more traditional fashion, it makes perfect sense to take a people-first approach, engaging your people in a more active role in identifying current challenges and solutions to overcome them, they are the one engaged in daily activities and know what the customer needs and wants are. Engage them also in your continuous improvement cycle, at all stages and all levels, trust their willingness and ability to do better which could lead the organization to achieve better outcomes. There are many ways and tools to do that, look at what fits your organization and culture. It gets people engaged and proactively involved in shaping the positive future of your organization.

So, as roles are evolving with the constant change, involving staff in building that new future is essential.


It is sometimes easier to engage employees, then empowering them. It is true!

Success of empowerment efforts is exhibited when people in the organization are encouraged to learn continuously, they feel free to experiment, fail, unlearn, and learn again. Mistakes and trials are allowed and serve to empower new thinking and decision-making. People empowerment as a next step to engagement is best practiced when it covers key areas for the organization as it fits its plans: continuous improvement, development of new tools, self-directed teams’ development etc. Proper governance for empowerment is needed and it helps establish a good infrastructure to support inclusive and efficient empowerment. There is no doubt that an empowered workforce will achieve better results. An empowered workforce will push the improvement agenda and support the organizations objectives.


To Excel, you first need to have the right people, with the right growth mindset that is focused on continuous learning and improvement. People Excellence comes from their competence and skills, from their ability to learn, adapt and adjust to new circumstances and changes in the business environment. But the most important of all is their alignment with the organization; without alignment, even the smartest and most talented individual will fail to add value and impact where needed. When we talk People Excellence, we talk about two main aspects:

- Ideal behavior exhibited as expected by the leaders and managers of the organization. It is critical to set the standard of what behavior is required to support the plans and delivery of high performance, and which aligns with the principles. This practice will allow each and everyone in the organization, and at every level, to understand the role they need to fulfil, the why behind it and the how to make that happen.

- Ideal results yielded, will result from an ideal behavior.

Talent development, continuously learning new techniques and tools, developing own Excellence routines and lastly building cohesive, synergetic, self-directed cross-functional teams, all can be enabled in organizations to boost Excellence. It is all about putting people first in the equation and designing systems and programs that take that into account. For those who know Design Thinking, they know that it is used now in some organization to map employees’ journey and involve them in creating meaningful change for them, the customers, and the organization.

People-first strategies are those initiatives that are human-centric, consider Engage, Empower and Excel as a methodology to get people to give their best and fulfil their potential.

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