In this Real Life Work podcast, I share my personal profound Baldrige paradigm shift relative to the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award.

My Personal Profound Baldrige Paradigm Shift

By Kevin McManus, Kaizen Coach and Facilitator

In this episode of the Real Life Work podcast, I share learnings from my personal profound Baldrige paradigm shift. No longer is the lens of a Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award Examiner dominant in my mind when I share the Award criteria. Now, the lens of a micro-business owner guides my learning and application.

I held off on posting these thoughts, but then Aaron Rodgers began all of his darkness retreat talk. For the past three years, I have lived in 95% isolation.

This has largely been by choice – go with the best safeguards, right? Only one other person has regularly been around me. We can discuss all of the potential ‘shift in sanity’ stuff later.

Just let Aaron know that if he does do the darkness thing, he should expect a profound performance paradigm shift or two like I received.

My Personal Profound Pandemic-Induced Baldrige Paradigm Shift

In March 2020, I unknowingly began the third phase of my work career. For more than 15 years prior, I would spend over 100 days per year in airplanes and airports.

When you count training days, I spent many more nights in hotels than I did in my own bed. Now, I have 100 days a year ‘extra.’ What I learned from the effective use of my regained time has been both insightful and life direction changing.

Prior to entry into that second ‘Travel Phase’ of my work career, I lived a more normal life. I had no more than two or three plane trips a year. All of my road trips typically ended up back at home by the end of the day.

I worked for five different organizations in five different locations. Each experience brought its own learnings and career shifts.

However, none of them compared to what making this third life / career shift has both required and returned to me. I learned a lot during my years on the road, but I am happy to be living at home again.

What is most interesting is where it all goes from here.

A Little Personal Progress Update Before We Begin

Right now, I simply want to keep learning and helping others improve. For example, I regularly post audio / video support content for my main seven workbooks on my Great Systems YouTube channel.

The next step is to offer each course in an ‘on demand’ format, complete with team exercises and competency tests. My goal is for all of this to occur in 2024.

My research and new content focus on cognitive ergonomics and organizational ergonomics. How to improve personal / team metacognition maps and the use of digitalization to minimize daily errors provide the focus for my cognitive ergo work.

My org ergo work focuses on how to create NextGen Leader Standard Work job designs that support and drive operational excellence in organizations of any size.

Most importantly, I want to focus on what matters. Keep it simple, value added, and cost effective.

Practice effective minimalism in work systems design. This is where my most profound personal performance paradigm shift occurred. All too often, we overcomplicate operational excellence.

Now, I view the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award criteria a lot differently.

'My Personal Profound Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award Paradigm Shift' Real Life Work Podcast hosted by Kevin McManus of Great Systems

My Personal Profound Baldrige Paradigm Shift

For twenty years, during the first two phases of my work career, I served in multiple capacities as an Examiner for the United States Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award (MBNQA).

During those two decades, if you had asked me how to pursue operational excellence, I would have directed you to the Baldrige criteria Framework. If you would have asked for my help in assessing your OPEX readiness, I would have utilized a Baldrige criteria-based assessment approach.

I still believe passionately in Baldrige to this day. Today, my recommendations as an engaged advocate for operational excellence are quite different. I served as a Judge during the last three years of my national Baldrige service.

As a Judge, one has the chance to see all site visit-level applications. This amounts to around ten applications a year, on average. During a three-year term, a Judge might view thirty different maps for operational excellence.

The resultant patterns one can see across such a set of applications are remarkable. Pathways to excellence have been worn into the world of work landscape. Just study and compare the application summaries!

New Recommendations for the Pursuit of Operational Excellence

Given these facts, I now coach my customers differently. To start, I suggest they review the recipient application summaries.

Then, I direct them to explore small ‘application summary cohorts’ of Baldrige recipients most like themselves. Finally, we compare how these similar organizations use common design blueprints, workflows, and tools to pursue their mission, vision, values, and strategies.

To most of my smaller organization customers, there are simply too many questions in the criteria. I find that even the smaller question set in the Baldrige Excellence Builder is too much for some.

To solve this dilemma, I approach it from the inside out. Suppose that I only had to answer 50 questions, including those in the Organizational Profile. Which ones should I select to answer?

The Organizational Profile contains around 20 questions ANY organization, regardless of size, be able should answer. Why is my opinion so strong here?

Without consensus answers to questions of strategy, customer and staff focus, and workplace values, a lack of alignment in daily work efforts is bound to occur.

Next, we look at the foundational blueprints and workflows that most high-performance workplaces use. As with the Profile questions, the completion of these worksheets provides alignment and clarity.

The Cognitive Impact of Baldrige Content

When most humans see either the Baldrige criteria or a Baldrige application for the first time, they typically have the same reaction – one of overwhelm.

So much work and refinement, over so many years, has led to quite an exquisite, well-defined product, assessment tool, and OPEX planning guide. However, all most people see are all of the questions, so much data, and too many big words.

The slimmed down Baldrige Excellence Builder versions of the Criteria that exist help tremendously in this area. Still, most people don’t talk or listen to speech at a Grade Ten level, or higher, as a rule.

Critical thinking and complex concepts can create at least momentary confusion in one’s mind, and adults cringe at confusion. Plus, the ‘I already have so much other work to do’ argument does fit these days.

In short, the content may not attract many readers or elicit pleasant feelings in the average person. However, it is value added.

We need to use the filters of both minimalism and essentialism here, through the lens of a small business owner’s eyes, to better define the steppingstones that lie on one’s pathway to excellence.

Cognition, Complexity, and Counting Questions

Let me take you through a simple example. The 2023-24 Baldrige Framework for Excellence (the new criteria) just came out.

I had heard rumor of a simpler design, so I jumped to Item 3.2 Customer Engagement to give it a look. Remember, my Baldrige Examiner perceptual filter is no longer dominant.

What did I see? Did the new format impress me?

I could see the ‘newness’, but there are simply – still – too many questions!! “How many questions for this one Process Item?” you might ask. That is where it truly became interesting.

One cannot simply count the questions marks for Item 3.2 and arrive at the correct numerical answer. Five questions are presented as two sets of bullet points.

Technically, there are only two question marks. How many triangles are inside the big triangle? As you can see, complexity can trigger confusion.

For this one Item, I count 14 questions, but many of them are compound questions. The Item’s overarching Basic Requirements question is the first question.

Five of the fourteen are Overall Requirements questions. Most of my customers would not even notice this point. What they see is just too many questions and too many words.

CHECK OUT my ‘Five Ways You Can Use the Baldrige Award Criteria to Measure Operational Excellence’ post

Five Ways You Can Use the Baldrige Award Criteria to Measure Operational Excellence

How Many of These Questions Do I Have to Answer?

Three years of isolation and reflection played a major role in shifting my operational excellence strategies. However, the regular application of the criteria to my own small business, in a focused manner, provides even greater returns.

I had always looked at my sole proprietorship through a Baldrige lens. Remember however, that lens had a ‘criteria design bias’ in its application. A sequence of categories, with Items and questions within those categories, exists to be followed … right?

Try to visualize the 50-page application creation process through two sets of eyes. First, imagine you are a small business owner. The typical first reaction my small business customers have to the criteria is two-fold.

First, they ask ‘How many of these questions do I have to answer?’ Then, they simply say “I don’t have time for this right now.”

Which got me thinking … What does it take to sustain operational excellence? How many of these questions do I have to answer?

To receive some form of recognition, we must be able to sustain above average results in key areas of importance. That cannot be faked.

In turn, most applications use 20 or so pages to present roughly 75 different results across the five results areas.

My Personal Profound Baldrige Paradigm Shift Makes the Small Biz Owner Dominant

The first thirty pages of the application is where the perspective shift needs to occur. That is where people have to describe HOW their work systems are designed and executed to achieve certain goals. Most people do not see work this way.

Most people struggle to even list the work processes they own. People look at work in terms of how they spend their time each day.

To be fair, the questions are broken into progressively more detailed groups. Experienced Examiners get this. People who look at the criteria for the first time do not.

The short answer is this – you don’t have to answer all of the questions. This should be seen as a relief to leaders, but we need to find a way to communicate this different way of looking at the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award criteria.

You don’t even have to answer all of the overall requirements in order to be recognized. Overall requirement questions span the gap between the basically nebulous basic requirement questions and the ‘only an Examiner can love them’, textbook-like multiple requirement questions.

Four or more strengths for an Item is good, since Examiners only need to identify ‘around six’ of the TOP strengths AND opportunities for improvement.

Changing How We See, Use, and Explain the Baldrige Criteria Framework

So, where did all of those thoughts leave me perspective-wise? Focus on the vital few, not the trivial many.

There is a logical, and linear, progression leaders follow as they put the criteria in place. To run any size organization well, there are some basic work systems that must be in place.

Additionally, because we work in such a dynamic environment, consistent refinement over time is a must to obtain even above average, let alone great, results.

Digitalization will help force us into a much more integrated work world. However, leaders still must choose when to begin that tech journey.

They must decide when to say goodbye to the silos and hello to the value stream. Plus, digitalization will help clarify where leader standard time is being spent.

This is where my greatest epiphany occurred. Leaders do most of the day-to-day, Baldrige-type work. If their job designs do not include time for such efforts, little progress is made.

Plus, leaders fail to develop the daily work habits that lead to great work system results. Fortunately, past recipients have given us great blueprints for how to do this. We just never viewed certain graphics as blueprints, workflows, and models for excellence.

A Super Source for Best Practice Blueprints, Workflows, and Tools

For example, take the ‘Leader Communication’ blueprint that one can find in almost any national-level Baldrige application. One can say the same for the ‘Customer Listening Post’ and ‘Community Support’ tables that are common in applications. Both blueprints define what people already do at work.

In all, there are roughly 25 blueprints and workflows that are common to most high-performance organizations. As a set, they help define how leaders should spend their daily work time to support operational excellence strategies.

The power comes when a senior leader team, or a site, reach ontological CONSENSUS on each tools content.

I almost picked this up years ago. In 2006, when I wrote my ‘How to Create a High-Performance Work Culture’ book, I identified 30 different approaches that I found common to site-visit level MBNQA applicants.

However, my Examiner perspective kept me from seeing these approaches as anything but that. The connection to one’s daily job was not clearly evident. In March 2020 however, my primary focus became ‘small business owner’.

Over time, organizations have refined these tools as they learn from each other and share best practices. However, you still need a Baldrige Examiner degree to connect them to the daily work habits all staff have and live.

Plus, we still have that ‘no time in my job for improvement stuff’ dilemma to deal with. This all coalesced into my new, NextGen Leader Standard Work-based, perspective.

Blocking Out the Unnecessary Puts the Goal Within Reach

Keep in mind that this is not about how to do the least amount of work possible and gain Baldrige recognition. To attempt to do so is unethical (to Examiners). More importantly, it is a waste of time.

You cannot fake (1) sustained evidence of excellence (2) against relevant benchmarks in (3) all areas of importance. I want to give the thirty million US small and self-employed business owners a logical and effective path to sustained operational excellence.

There are cases where multiple requirement-level system features must be a part of how the organization does work. For example, do you work in a competitive, tech-driven environment? If so, your planning systems better be a bit more dynamic, customer-centric, and agile than the norm.

In such cases, more of the questions for a given Item come into play. However, one well-designed approach can answer multiple questions.

Your organization’s key factors determine which questions matter most. This is where the irony lies.

I struggle to see how any organization can be effective if they don’t explicitly define the different elements that make up the Organizational Profile. And yet, so many operate with missions that exist only in the minds of a few leaders.

My Personal Profound Baldrige Paradigm Shift – a Simple Small Org Start Point

Remember, I now live this all through the perspective of a small business owner. Years of small business work experience helped me become a MBNQA Examiner.

Many of my early site visits and applications came from organizations with fewer than 500 people. That is the operational excellence improvement world I prefer. Plus, I believe that today’s technology gives smaller organizations competitive leverage relative to work system deployment and integration.

So, where do we start? Which questions do we tackle after we complete our Profile?

For starters, don’t count the twelve holistic Basic Requirement questions on the Process side of the criteria. They represent givens. Instead, complete the Organizational Profile.

Then, identify, and begin with, 4-5 Overall Requirement (bold) questions for your organization. Do this for each of the 12 Process Items.

Reference your cohort recipient application summaries on the NIST MBNQA site for examples from organizations like yours.

Also, I am happy to send you a four-stage ‘Pathway to Excellence’ map with a little more detail if this perspective interests you. All you have to do is ask. You can email me at

A Personally More Focused Path to Sustained Daily Job Excellence

As usual, I will test this new perspective out on my own business before I advocate it to others on a larger scale than this article. Such validation is necessary.

As a sole proprietor who does most of his own work, I have little time for work system elements that don’t add value.

I could take the time to design the work system bells and whistles necessary to answer almost all of the criteria questions. However, a law of diminishing return exists, much like one might find in Juran’s Optimum Quality Cost Function.

Now, I use roughly fifty key blueprints, workflows, and tools to help people build healthy workplaces.

I want to build and share a simpler, more focused path to excellence. Plus, I want to give it a smaller workplace flavor.

My ideal customers are more like those you see on Bar Rescue or Restaurant: Impossible. When it comes to work systems, these folks are lucky if they have anything formal in place.

And yet, they often have moments when they provide excellent service or products to their customers. How great could they be with some simple, easy to use blueprints, workflows, and tools for excellence in hand?