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Take Another Look at the Value of Your Aim



In The New Economics, Dr. W. E. Deming writes, “A system must have an aim. Without an aim there is no system. The aim of a system must be clear to everyone in the system. The aim is a plan for the future. The aim is a value judgment.”

What are the characteristics of an “aim” in this context? How can the aim not only focus the system, but be the underpinning for its constancy of purpose? What principles govern the concept of an aim?

Many of us have spent time identifying our customers and their needs and listing the benefits of our products. But we seldom use that knowledge in the statement of our aim.

Often we state our strategies or method as our aim rather than customers, needs and benefits. I offer this article as further discussion of Deming’s statement that “without an aim there is no system”

For a system, the aim is the driving force, the primary reason for being. Since no system can be justified from within itself, the aim must be derived from something outside the organization. The aim connects the organization to society and the larger world. What difference will the organization make? How will the world be different because the organization exists? The questions to answer are what benefits will accrue for whom and at what cost?

Your business or organization intends to fulfill certain needs for certain people at a certain cost. People have needs for mobility, not automobiles, buses or airplanes. Children have a need for reading skills, not for certain curricula, textbooks or teaching techniques. People have needs for pain-free health and healthy bodies, not a particular procedure, medication or test. Shelter and food are needed, not particular social programs. It is important to understand that the needs people have are not the same as the methods of fulfilling them.

The methods will always be changing with development of new information, technology, new products and services. Experts in various fields will find better and different ways of meeting people’s needs. The Pony Express was only one way of providing fast communication. Today the fax, e-mail and the internet answer the same need. Can we even imagine the next clever solution to those needs? Therefore, a business or an organization exists to satisfy or ameliorate some human need at a cost worth the money to potential customers and also worth the loss of other opportunities. Filling in the blanks in this equation is to create an aim that is legitimate not only in driving a system but in linking meaningfully to the larger human context.

Defining your aim in terms of outcomes or benefits for certain needs or people is more far reaching then defining your aim in terms of your present products or services. Products and services are soon out or date. Such an aim, which is stated in terms of needs and customers, provides a far more constant horizon, hence, a better foundation for constancy of purpose and staying in business. If your aim had been an efficient, effective Pony Express, you would have been out of business soon.

Choosing an organizational aim is clearly a matter of clarifying values, particularly when choosing priorities among many options. For example, an aim big enough to pull an automotive company into the future would be mobility. This aim gets beyond the company’s current solution of fossil fuel-burning automobiles and can take into consideration new and unknown technological and environmental changes, such as diminished fossil fuels, pollution sensitivities, crowded highways, or decreased ability of customers to pay for current solutions. An examination of possible alternative futures is essential in setting and renewing your aim.

For the aim concept to work in this way, it is important that an aim never be defined in terms of activity or methods. It must always relate directly to how life is better for the customers/beneficiaries. The focus, therefore, is kept on customer benefits rather than on today’s system activity or even today’s physical products or services. The aim is concerned with what will be better for them, not on what is to be engaged in by us. The aim meets some needs for certain people at some cost. Once the aim is decided, the operational methods are created for accomplishing that aim. It is then management’s task to more finely determine and segment those customers, and their needs and benefits, but most pointedly to manage and continually create and improve processes and methods that work toward achieving those aims.

The aim connects the organizational system to the megasystem of which the organization is but a single unit. The aim can be considered a vision for the future, a picture of what difference is to be wrought in the megasystem. For Public Schools, the difference might be that future citizens have the intellectual and social skills for a workable society and personal success. For General Motors, the difference might be that people have mobility for commerce and personal life needs. These aims reveal the larger purpose for being in business.

Who makes the aim determination?

Since the overall aim precedes the organizational system and those who work in it, the aim arises with an outside referent. It is the role of the owners or trustees to determine the overall business of the organization — the aim. It is an obligation of leadership to sponsor and energize the determination of the aim, at least at the broadest level. The locus of this task could be in one person (such as an entrepreneur), or a group such as a board of directors or council.

Workers, for example, cannot be the original source of the aim, for how would one know what kind of workers to choose? Would one employ teachers, counselors, shoemakers or backhoe drivers to help determine the aim? Choice of one or the other would imply that some aim already exists, even if not explicit. While the aim starts at the top, there must evolve a sense of agreement that extends throughout the organization.

Because the leaders are the originating point for the aim does not mean that others in an organization play no role. They play two very important roles: first, their ideas and passions are included as the leaders work out their broad version of the aim. The board’s wisdom is informed by the diversity of many inputs. To omit workers’ inputs would be a waste of insights. Second, others have a direct role in further describing the aim in more detail the closer the work comes to the customer.

The aim can be described at differing levels of detail. A school board might decide the aim is an informed community of life-long learners and that basic intellectual and social skills are very important. Those statements are very broad leaving a very wide range of interpretation. Questions about whether reading skills, computational skills, democratic participation skills, knowledge of national history, and so forth, are necessary parts of that broader aim. Further, what are the relative priorities among these? What age groups should tackle which skills? This level of inquiry could be seen as further defining or refining what is meant by the first, broader statement. Of course, the board or CEO could delegate the more detailed definition to the next level of decision making. However, all those subsequent decisions must be consistent with that overall aim. The teacher in the classroom will then decide which individual students have what needs and go about meeting those specific needs. Remember, these specific decisions are to be consistent with the broader aim statements.

By observing the customers actually using their products or services, workers often have new insights about even more specific needs which the customer would never have identified. The new products and services arising from worker identification of specific needs have saved many organizations from extinction. For example, customers did not ask for an automatic focus and built-in flash on cameras. Worker-experts identified the needs for easy and quick access to a flash and focus (not having to quickly fiddle with the focus and not having to search or attach the flash for an immediate shot). These observations gave rise to new, more specific benefits in the form of assurance of clear pictures with less effort and time. This led to happier customers and, of course, an increase in business. In this case, workers played an important role in refining the definition of needs, benefits and customers for new products and service development all within the larger aim of the business.

In summary, In order for the workers to create a system to accomplish the aim, there first must be an aim stated clearly as to what benefits or needs of which people will be met. The nesting ideas or cascading definition of the organizational aim does leave a certain range of defining to others in the organization. Whatever level of detail is added by those closest to the work, those details must be consistent with the larger aim. Organizations work best when each level of work can participate in decision making within the boundaries of the larger aim. The relationship of each successive decision to the whole is evident. The aim as broadly stated is present in every instance of the aim as it is more narrowly defined throughout the organization. Each unit and person in the organization should be able to understand how his/her work is essential in accomplishing the overall aim. Hence constancy of purpose exists.

© 1993 Bailey Associates. All rights reserved. Revised 1996, 1997

Carolyn Bailey

Carolyn Bailey is an international consultant, who is recognized for her knowledge and expertise in both the quality theories of W. Edwards Deming and the policy governance principles of John B. Carver. Carolyn has integrated their ideas into a cohesive approach which permits boards of directors and management to achieve quality in their work and lead organizational effectiveness. She has been President and Vice President of IQPIC’s Board of Directors. She has received the confidence and appreciation of boards and councils across Canada and the U.S. Carolyn’s expertise with application of the policy governance model is considered unmatched.

Excerpts of the preliminary paper appear in Dr. W.E. Deming’s book, The New Economics For Industry, Government, and Education, 1993 MIT, Cambridge, MA. (Pages 52-53)

This article appeared in IMPROVE. Copyright 1997, Indy Quality Productivity and Involvement Council.


  • Our Board adopted a combination of policy governance and total quality management. Carolyn Bailey stimulated our creative juices and now carefully monitors our progress. In my 23 years as a trustee, I have never been so challenged, stretched or excited. Policy governance, transformation, continuous improvement, Strategic Planning, focus groups, round tables, partnerships, visioning -- WOW -- demanding -- yes -- but so rewarding. I feel less manipulated. I understand my community and my fellow board members better. I am more trusting, and therefore, more open to empowerment which I believe makes for a stronger, more effective system. I would recommend this process and Carolyn Bailey quickly.

    Pat Crossman,Former Vice-Chairman of School District #2
    Moncton, New Brunswick and President of the Canadian School Boards Association 1995

Bailey Marbaugh Consulting