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Review: Six Disciplines of Excellence by Gary Harpst

Six Disciplines for Excellence: Building Businesses that Learn, Lead and Last by author Gary Harpst is a book for small business leaders and entrepreneurs. It is a book that presents a system for organizing a small business for sustainability. Harpst claims that his The Six Disciplines Methodology “is the first methodology to distill and integrate what were designed as separate best practices into one cohesive whole.”

According to Harpst, the Six Disciplines that produce small business excellence are:
1. Deciding What is Important.
2. Set Goals that Lead.
3. Align Systems.
4. Work the Plan.
5. Innovate Purposefully.
6. Step Back.

The book is a basic outline of this approach to business organization. Harpst breaks down each discipline into a set of tasks organized into a system that works in a coordinated fashion. As a small business owner, where I am the only employee, the scope of the methodology is a beneficial look at what is involved in operating a small business.

The problem with the book is that it turns out to be a one-size-fits-all treatment of business organization. As a consultant who has a worked with a wide cross-section of small businesses, few of them fit into the picture he sets up. Yet, I know businesses that would have benefitted from Harpst system prior to their business closure

Harpst has tried to create a system and write a book that is less business talk and more practical advice. That is a noble venture that ultimately doesn’t fulfill the promise he offers. What a book of principles provides is a theoretical context for applying ideas in a wide variety of settings. By focusing on the technical aspects of the system, his approach comes across as ideal for a small to medium size manufacturer and not a small consulting business like mine. The book would be stronger with more development of the intellectual basis for his system.

In describing his approach makes the following point - “the problem for most of us isn’t knowing what to do, it’s doing it.” If this is so, then his methodology is not answering the question he raises here. If people know what they are doing, then they have a system in place. Could it be better, sure, but that isn’t the point he is making. The answer to Harpst's question is found in the human dimension, not in the technical domain of best practices.

What keeps most leaders from executing is not having a system, but their own personal maturity. Read Leadership and Self-Deception by The Arbinger Institute and The War of Art by Steven Pressfield to get a clearer picture of what keeps leaders from follow through with their plans.

Finally, for some small businesses, Harpst methodology will be a strategic advantage for them. Their businesses are complex enough that they require the kind of system that he outlines in his book. The key will be how the system can develop to adapt to the context of the business. Only then will the system serve to provide leaders the kind of ready information that provides a basis for effective decison-making.

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