Goal! Why It Should Be Big, Hairy and Audacious

Jeff Cole

There are goals, there are stretch goals and then there are BHAGs – Big Hairy Audacious Goals! This month, columnist Jeff Cole looks into the BHAG phenomenon and how it can help in driving change.

How long do you think it takes to build a 1200 square foot ranch home from the ground up? U.S. average: six months. What if we got the best builder in town, several hundred workers and they all focused just on you? Anyone watching Extreme Makeover: Home Addition knows it can be done in several days. But what if the goal was 4 hours? That’s right – four hours. Not a prefab home hoisted in place by a crane, but going from a dirt lot and a stack of wood to a home ready to move into – concrete, landscaping, cabinets, plumbing, electrical, drywall, paint and carpets all in place – in 4 hours.

Sound like a big hairy and audacious goal? It was. But two teams competed in San Diego in the late 1980’s to accomplish just such a feat. They didn’t make it. Actually they completed the house in 2 hours and 45 minutes. If you don’t believe me, see for yourself. As of this writing an eight minute video documentary is available on YouTube.

By the way – I did a follow-up and if my information is correct, the four houses referenced in the video are still standing, have had multiple owners, and did not experience any quality problems beyond those of a traditionally-built home.

There are goals and then there are BHAGs - Big, Hairy, Audacious Goals. A BHAG is a goal, so big, so hairy, and so audacious it doesn’t seem possible. You have no idea how you would accomplish it. It definitely forces you to do things differently. What I love about the video is at the beginning, announcer Mark Larson says "You’re not going to get there just by hammering faster".

As a general leadership principle, you never know what you will get from an empowered team. BHAGs make them swing beyond the fences. Ask for a 2-fold reduction in defects and your team will likely hand you just that. Ask for a 10-fold reduction in defects (which may seem impossible) and you may be surprised with the results you get.

Say we are consulting with a hotel – their check-in process is taking 5 minutes and they’d like to reduce it to 4 minutes. No problem. We can launch a DMAIC or Lean effort and carve out a 20% cycle-time reduction. But what if we had a BHAG of a 5 second check-in process? There’s no way to follow the existing traditional process and get those results. It requires more of a DMADV approach – blow up the old process and start with a blank piece of paper. We’d have to do things differently. (BTW – one solution: Ever rented a car where you are on the preferred list? Step off the shuttle and see your name in lights with the space number – keys and contract in the car. What if you walk into our hotel, see your name in lights with your room number and your credit card is your room key? The moment you unlock the room your info is captured and you are checked in…)

What if you wanted to reduce your drive to work from 30 minutes to 30 seconds? You could move and "live above the store", or as many have done – redefine where the store is and work virtual. The walk from your kitchen to your office is your new commute!

Six Sigma has always been about driving cultural change in an organization. Leaders can accelerate the change by setting BHAG objectives and (maybe most importantly) creating a safe environment for teams to pursue those BHAGs. That last point is a big deal in many organizations. Author Jim Collins referenced setting good BHAGS as one attribute of great companies in his book "Good to Great". It’s one thing to set them, another to go after them.

I once ran Customer Loyalty for a Fortune 500 company and that involved customer surveys. Our survey vendor would conduct phone surveys globally and 30-40 days later we would get the results. I challenged them to a BHAG of Zero Cycle Time. In other words we would get the results the moment they had them. They had no idea how to accomplish this but much to their credit, they figured something out and reduced the cycle time from over 30 days down around three. We were very pleased with the results, but likely would not have made that extensive of an improvement as quickly without the aid of a BHAG.

What's your BHAG for this year?