The practical pursuit of excellence

The practical pursuit of excellence

Long before the continuous improvement movement, before Kanban and Lean Six Sigma, the ancient Greeks prized excellence and thought deeply about how to achieve it.

It was Aristotle, for example, wrote: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.” While Aristotle was discussing the individual achievement of areté (a word that meant both “excellence” and “virtue” to the Athenians), his insight applies to other endeavors as well. To achieve excellence, make it a habit.

Of course, that is easier said than done. But the lessons of the quality movement of the past several decades has taught us that a focus on incremental improvements can dramatically improve the quality of whatever we produce or create. So the habit we need to encourage is that of consistently striving for improvements. That, in turn, should lead to excellence. I keep that notion in mind whenever we talk about quality in the courses, learning resources, and simulations that we develop at MindEdge.

What does that mean in practical terms? Consider the video we produce for our learning content. To improve its quality, we’re on our third video camera. We’ve now upgraded to a digital camera, and a high-end microphone, to ensure more consistency in what a learner experiences when they watch one of our videos. We are moving to new offices in 2012 where we’ll have a dedicated studio where we can better control lighting.

In some cases, we find that emerging technology enables this process of improvement. We’re making greater use of jQuery, a library of functions that makes writing JavaScript code even easier and lets us tap into lots of pre-built graphical functions and animation. Our technical team is also looking at ways we can begin to employ HTML5, the latest revision of the language for structuring and presenting content for Internet browsers.

In our internal quality discussions, we stress that achieving excellence is a journey where the destination is always just over the horizon. We know we aren’t going to achieve perfection, but we can strive for near perfection. When we fall short, we look at ways we can tighten up how we are doing things.

One advantage of creating digital products—which is what our learning resources are—is that we can make changes quickly. When we hear from a learner that something isn’t working for them (a concept that needs further explanation, or an exercise that doesn’t engage) we look to address that weak-point through rapid revision.

I think of this as the practical pursuit of excellence. There’s nothing theoretical about it. We want students to have the best possible learning experience, and we can measure our progress toward that goal by their feedback and their performance.

I like to think that Aristotle would approve.


Jefferson Flanders is president of MindEdge. He has taught at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University, Babson College, and Boston University.

Copyright © 2011 Jefferson Flanders