The business book club: key lessons from Tom Peters’ In Search of Excellence

CEO of international safety culture consultancy RMS

Tom Peters is one of the most influential business writers of the past four decades. First published in 1982 In Search of Excellence, Peters’s debut work, has long been essential reading for the boardroom, business school, even the bedside table.

Based on a study of 43 of the US’s most successful corporations, the book explores new management methods – centred on employee empowerment, fostering innovation and decentralised control – and reveals the principles of good management that took those organisations to the top.

Excellence is defined as a work culture that empowers, values and motivates people

In my own book From Accidents to Zero I lamented the safety profession’s fascination with zero-accident targets, advocating instead the pursuit of “safety excellence”. Excellence, though, is subjective. To my mind it is about commitment, it goes beyond expectations. It is passion, pride, quality and competence manifested together. Above all, it is an expression of genuine care and respect for products and services and customers.

In Peters’s book, excellence is defined as a work culture that empowers, values and motivates people and whose output is innovative, rich and fresh, and financially successful. The book sets out eight principles to guide the way:

  • Bias for action: use the power of active decision making to empower people to drive forward.


  • Close to the customer: learn from the people served by the business (in safety this could be translated as learning from the workers themselves).


  • Autonomy and entrepreneurship: foster innovation and nurture “champions” in the business.


  • Productivity through people: treat workers as a source of good products and ideas.


  • Hands-on, value-driven: show commitment by being part of the action, guide the way through a set of beliefs that shape behaviour.


  • Stick to your knitting: “know what you do and do what you know”.


  • Simple form, lean staff: an acknowledgement that some of the best companies have minimal staff at the corporate centre.


  • Simultaneous loose-tight properties: build autonomy in shopfloor activities to allow workers to adapt behaviour in line with centralised values.


These principles are now 37 years old, but their applicability is still strong. In an interview to mark the book’s 20th anniversary he said that if he were to write In Search of Excellence again, he would not tamper with the principles, but would add capabilities concerning ideas, liberation and speed. Leap forward nearly 20 years and those additional three continue to resonate.

Peters was known for eschewing old management models due to his fear of corporations being run by “bean-counters”. He wanted to prove how crucial people are to business success. Three themes shine through this book:  people, customers and action. Now there are three headlines to add to your personal objectives for the year ahead.


CEO of international safety culture consultancy RMS 

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