Keystone Habits of Elite Organizations

They are to so simple; we overlook them. In our technical sophistication, we often ignore the simple routines that make for elite level performance. Yet we are all creatures of habits and routines. Charles Duhigg, in his book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business discovered the power of simple routines. He calls them “keystone habits.”

Designing Keystone Habits of Excellence

In their book titled Evolutionary Theory of Economic Change, Richard Nelson and Sidney Winter, both of Yale University concluded ten years of research, with this statement, “In our evolutionary [organizational] theory, these routines play the role that genes play in biological evolutionary theory. They are a persistent feature of the organism [or enterprise] and determine its possible behavior.”

  • I found in my study of high-performing organizations that they design their routines rather than let them evolve. For example:
  • A manufacturing organization makes Lean/kaizen a daily affair and trains every worker to conduct their own kaizen.
  • An award-winning hospital makes standard Lean work for every leader and manager and requires that the results be publicly reported on every Friday afternoon.
  • The U.S. Marine Corp requires the highest-ranking officer to eat last in the cafeteria.
  • A Native American healthcare organization requires Personal Development Plans for every leader and manager, not as a focus of discipline or “growth,” but to connect everyone to strategy, mission, and vision, and
  • An elementary school principal engages her neighborhood, and every fall before school starts, 75-100 volunteers prepare the school for students.

Focus on Simple Habits of Excellence

Organizations that consistently perform at the highest levels make routines of excellence. When they do, they create a performance-based culture that is the norm rather than the exception. I like what Admiral William H. McRaven, put it. “If you want to change the world, start off by making your bed.” Keystone habits do not have to be complex. The simpler they are, the better.