organizational development and change tools and techniques for consultants and others

Using mission statements to pursue a common vision

by David Zatz, Ph.D., Toolpack Consulting Senior Consultant

Many companies have spent a lot of time and money creating a mission statement, presumably to align employees around a common vision and organizational goals. Like most management fads, mission statements became very popular for a period because of some success stories. There are companies that have used mission statements, or similar documents, to great effect: the Johnson & Johnson Credo comes to mind as a great unifier for the federation of J&J companies.

But most mission statements seem to fail, becoming nothing more than a wall ornament.

For the most part, the reasons for failure are the same reasons why many organizations do not find great success in balanced scorecards, reengineering, job enrichment, empowerment, and a score of other fads that are highly effective for some, weak for others, pointless for others. Those reasons are:

The organizational mission statement should say why the company is in business (make the best widget? Make the most money off of widgets? Maximize shareholder value? Provide jobs to the community? Make the world safe for widgets?), how it intends to fulfill its primary function (make the best widgets through continuous improvement OR make the best widget through constant research and development), and, ideally, what its key values are.

A useful mission statement is very brief, understood by everyone, specific, and actionable in that you can use it to make decisions. A normal mission statement is vague and covers all the bases. But few companies can be the best in research and development (innovative product), quality, cost, AND marketing.

Most important, a good mission statement is the credo of the organization's leaders. If the leaders make decisions on a daily basis that reflect the vision and methods in the mission statement, others will eventually follow.

Making a concerted effort through training of new and existing employees, measurement via survey or interview, and willingness to adjust parts of the statement as needed will go a long way towards making a mission statement an effective tool. However, be warned that implementing and sticking to a mission and vision is a long term effort. Johnson & Johnson made its credo strong by working hard for decades; though it is ingrained in the culture, if the leaders of J&J were to ignore it for a few years, we suspect the J&J companies' cultures would lose their rudder and, with it, some of their unduring success.


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