The Normalization of Excellence. Sounds cool – what is it?

By Tony Kern - July 17th , 2018

 Normalization of Excellence

Gotta tell you, I was thrilled when I first heard that the Bombardier Safety Standdown was adopting a concept from one of my books as the theme for 2018. Then I started to worry.

We all love cool sounding themes and slogans. They tend to simplify a complicated world. When it comes to something as serious as safety – simplification is not always the best option. So here is a simple slogan I have built my writing career around – Words mean things. Far too often, we assume that words like airmanship, discipline, professionalism, and excellence are commonly understood in our industry.

When we say “normalized excellence” people nod and think “I want some of that,” without really knowing what it means or what it might take to get it.

Let’s look at the root words for this year’s Standdown theme. First, normal – that one might be tough for aviation professionals, for whom constant change is their normal. But by and large, we all comprehend that “normal” is the routine way we do things, our default performance standard.

Excellence is a little tougher, maybe a lot tougher. Webster’s Dictionary defines it as the quality of being outstanding or extremely good. Hmmm…. OK … I have a couple of questions about that.

The first is, compared to what?  Am I “outstanding or extremely good” if I compare myself to the best in my field? Or the worst? Or my potential? Or my last best performance? Or some externally defined standard of so-called excellence?  By what measure do we claim excellence? There are a whole lot of people out there who claim excellence who cannot answer that question, rendering the term itself meaningless. Without a common frame of reference, it’s a throw away word. Nice to hear, but irrelevant.

The second question is who makes this subjective call on “outstandingness” and “extreme goodness?” And what qualifications do they need to make it? There are lots of studies that show people are notoriously poor judges of their own performance. And everyone around us is probably too polite or frightened of an HR complaint to point out our weaknesses or performance issues, especially if we are meeting minimum standards. And then there is the whole reputation issue. If others are claiming excellence and we don’t, what does that mean to our personal or brand reputation? We can’t have an excellence claim gap! That just won’t do. I’m excellent – you’re excellent – and we are all dumber and more apathetic for having made the claim and believing it.

Therein lies the heart of what this year’s Safety Standdown is about. We are going to take this seemingly well understood term and wring it out. By the time we are finished, Webster will have a new definition and we all will have a clear picture of what it means and what it takes.

In the meantime, here’s my two cents worth, which is actually worth $1.48 on the open market. I’m not sure that excellence can be normalized without first being radicalized – brought to the top of our consciousness to elicit a change in our behavior. When it becomes normalized, the risk is that we no longer push the envelope of our potential. We get comfortable again.  It’s been often said that safety is a chronic feeling of unease. Perhaps excellence needs to haunt us in the same way: always sought – never fully realized.