A Habit of Excellence:
Change Keystone Habits for Big Results

As a leader, how can you achieve big changes in your organization? Here’s an example of how focusing on one small habit can bring big results. I’m reading The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg, who writes about some amazing examples of “keystone habits.”

In 1987, Alcoa faced challenges. One of the largest companies on earth and a pioneer in aluminum smelting, management unwisely tried to expand into new products lines. Competitors were stealing customers and profits away. So most investors were relieved when new leadership was announced.

But they were skeptical when Paul H. O’Neill, former Secretary of Treasury, took the helm. Besides being a government bureaucrat, Wall Street was taken aback when he announced his first strategic plan: worker safety.

“I want to talk to you about worker safety,” he said. “Every year, numerous Alcoa workers are injured so badly they miss a day of work. Our safety record is better than the general American workforce, especially considering that our employees work with metals at 1500 degrees and machines that can rip a man’s arm off. But it’s not good enough. I intend to make Alcoa the safest company in America. I intend to go for zero injuries.”

O’Neill hadn’t said anything about profits or taxes or government regulations. “If you want to understand how Alcoa is doing, you need to look at our workplace safety figures. If we bring our injury rates down… it will be because the individuals at this company have agreed to become part of something important: They’ve devoted themselves to creating a habit of excellence. Safety will be an indicator that we’re making progress in changing our habits across the entire institution. That’s how we should be judged.”

Within a year of O’Neill’s speech, Alcoa’s profits hit a record high. By the time O’Neill retired in 2000, the company’s annual net income was five times larger than before he arrived and its market capitalization had risen by $27 billion.

That growth occurred while Alcoa became one of the safest companies in the world. O’Neill made one of the largest stodgiest and most potentially dangerous companies into a profit machine by attacking one habit that was key. Other changes followed in a trickle down fashion.

In an interview, O’Neill reported, “I knew I had to transform Alcoa. But you can’t order people to change. That’s not how the brain works. So I decided I was going to start by focusing on one thing. If I could start disrupting the habits around one thing, it would spread throughout the entire company.”

Some habits have the power to start a chain reaction as they move through an organization. Keystone habits are those that identify key priorities that can be leveraged throughout all areas of work.

You don’t have to get every single thing right, just a few significant ones. When you get people to change the key habits that matter the most, they start to shift and dislodge other patterns.

What do you think about this? What one thing could you point out as a keystone habit in your organization?

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