The Difference Between Success And Failure: Less Than 10%


SCV Drumline
I'm in the Boston area this weekend to enjoy one of my favorite things: the Drum Corps International (DCI) Championships.  The semifinals competition is tonight at Gillette Stadium; finals happen tomorrow.  The corps most likely to win, much to my chagrin, is The Cadets, a corps from Bergen County, NJ.  They've been winning shows much of this summer and look like the corps to beat.  Unfortunately, my favorite corps (and one I marched in waaaay back), the Santa Clara Vanguard, is likely to place around eighth or ninth place, which is much less competitive than the Vanguard usually is (they often place in the top three or four, and have won the DCI championship six times).  The funny thing is, the Vanguard will likely be thrashed by The Cadets this year, but the difference in scores will be less then ten points out of a hundred, less than ten percent.

(okay, before I go on, I just gotta include a link to some crazy drumline warmups, to give you an idea of what a top percussion line eats for breakfast.  Go here and listen.  If that doesn't mess up your head enough, try this one.

This is not uncommon in many areas; in professional sports, a winning margin of less than ten percent, when done consistently, is often interpreted as dominating.  And you don't even have to win all the time in order to dominate your competition.  Tiger Woods doesn't win every golf tournament he enters (in 2005 so far, he has only won 4 out of the 14 tournaments he has entered, and only been in the top 10 finishers in 8 of those tournaments), but he's the most dominant golfer in the men's sport (he made over $6M in winnings so far this year).
My question is: how can one be so dominant with such a narrow margin of victory over time, or even with a relatively low winning percentage?
My answer: the question is a distraction, the thing to learn from these examples is that you can be highly successful by improving just a little bit.  If you can improve yourself operationally only ten percent, you can see huge improvements in results.

Starbucks works on shaving seconds (literally seconds) from the time it takes to process each customer.  One thing they do to shave a little time is to shorten the time taken for credit card payments; they don't bother with the long validation cycle if your purchase is less then $20.  It saves less than a minute per customer, but those savings pile up, reduce the size of lines, and therefore make each shop more appealing to customers, which helps them grow their customer base.
I think about this a lot at Sun, worrying that people think we need to make huge changes in order to become robustly successful again.  But I don't think that's true.  If everybody (or not even everybody, but a decent portion of Sun's population) did a few things better each week, we can be a much better company.

It's easy to do, too, although takes discipline.  For example, if you're in a meeting and it's clear that somebody needs to take some action, make sure it's clear who d takes the action, and then instead of waiting six days (the day before next week's meeting) to begin working on getting that action done, do it now, or the next day.  Chances are, the reason you took that action in a group meeting is because somebody else is dependent on your completion of that action.  The sooner you can get it done, the sooner you unblock somebody else from continuing that work, and the sooner your project gets done, which probably means either saving money (resolving a customer issue, maybe) or making new money (shipping product).
We don't need to be worrying about strategy; execution is what makes the difference between success and failure more often than not.  Do one thing each week more quickly than you would.  Cut one meeting from its full hour to 45 minutes by being more crisp about how you conduct yourself in the meeting and asking others to stop rambling and get to the point.  You've just saved the company 15 minutes times however many people were in that meeting, giving you all time to do something else productive for that 15 minutes.

Okay, enough ranting about small performance improvements resulting in huge results.  Here is a video to give you a small taste of what drum corps looks like.  Keep in mind that it's from a long time ago, and the activity has advanced a great deal since then.  Scroll to the middle of the page to see it.  You'll need a Flash plugin to view the video, but you don't need to be running Windows; I watched it just fine on my Java Desktop System notebook computer.

Comments:

thanks.....i have enjoyed your post...

Posted by Coimbatore on November 30, 2008 at 05:54 PM PST #

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The views expressed on this blog are my own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Oracle. What more do you need to know, really?

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