advice/perspective on jobs, work and management

60 SEC BOOK REVIEW: In Search of Excellence (by Tom Peters and Robert Waterman)

In Search of Excellence (1982) can be criticized for the same reason that a lot of books on successful business management can:

Many of the companies it holds up as exemplars just aren’t very successful anymore.

In the case of ISOE, some of those organizations simply went out of business (Raychem, TRW). Others were bought out (Maytag, Digital Equipment) or have since declared bankruptcy (Eastman-Kodak, K-Mart). And still more aren’t the giants in their respective industries that they used to be (Texas Instruments, Atari), have changed so radically as to be virtually unrecognizable (IBM), or experienced spectacular falls from grace (Exxon, Boeing).[1]

Tom Peters and Robert Waterman acknowledge this frequent complaint in the preface to the 20th anniversary edition of their text:

“Our main detractors point to the decline of some of the companies we featured.”

But this is to miss the broader point, they argue, which is “to learn from those who’d had a long run of success.”[2]

Hmm…so at best a company can only hope to be temporarily “excellent”? Or maybe there’s such a thing as too long of a run of success??

Perhaps the question most in need of answering, though, is the following:

Given that some companies were able to sustain their success (ie. McDonalds, Merck, 3M), while many others could not, what did the former do—or do differently—than the latter?

Twenty years on, Peters and Waterman seem uninterested in tackling this important question. Instead, they’re content to stand behind what they wrote…at least “until something clearly better comes along.”

My advice for them, however?

You should’ve kept searching.



[1] Five years after its publication, 29 of the 62 companies surveyed for ISOE had already begun to experience decline, according to one financial analyst. See: Clayman, Michelle. 1987. “In Search of Excellence: The investor’s viewpoint.” Financial Analysts Journal, May-June: p. 54-63.

[2] ISOE’s primary selection criteria for the companies surveyed was “long-term success” as defined in terms of wealth creation, growth, sales, and return on capital over the twenty year period from 1961 to 1980 (p. 22).

[ 1 Comment ]

  1. Bill Tarlov

    Never read the book but it is funny they’re invested in trying to defend their assumptions and conclusions when the economy has experienced such significant change in the last 20 years. Even beyond that, though, their measures of “excellence” are all big-picture shareholder-oriented metrics.

    When a company’s focus is pleasing the stock market, fundamental problems at the employee or manufacturing or reputational or supply chain levels can be simmering under the surface and not immediately show up in quarterly sales or earnings.

    Not showing any interest in revisiting their earlier work to understand the common denominators behind why some of their excellent co’s are still thriving while others are nearly forgotten suggests that Peters & Waterman are merely ‘decent’ evaluators of what distinguishes durable, adaptive companies from those unable to adjust their business model & approach to changing conditions


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