Even in tough times, Brian Lassiter's message to businesses remains the same: Never skimp on quality.

Lassiter, president of the Performance Excellence Network, works with a wide range of groups to find ways to make their operations and products more effective. Through assessments, workshops and monthly forums, firms ranging from large corporations to schools are able to evaluate themselves and find ways to improve their quality.

The group, formerly called the Minnesota Council for Quality, is celebrating its 25th anniversary and is also expanding its network to North and South Dakota. (Hence the name change.)

Lassiter, who was elected president of the network in 2001, sat down with the Star Tribune to discuss the network's vision and goals.

Q How did the recession affect the focus of the network? Is your mission more relevant now than ever before?

A Absolutely. What we've experienced the last few years has only served to validate that. Quality is never going away. In fact, the bar continues to get raised. If you're not constantly improving and moving forward, you're definitely slipping backwards .... And leaders are realizing that you have to focus on the basics. You have to focus on what drives customer satisfaction and what makes your employees happy. That's what we're all about.

Q What are some of the services you offer area groups?

A Our (award) programs are comprehensive, thorough evaluations that delve into leadership systems and strategic planning process, customer focus areas, workforce focus areas, operations, and the data organizations use.

Q Did fewer organizations seek out your services during the economic downturn, or did more of them come your way for advice? A A little bit of both. We held our own during the recession. Our membership was stable, but the demand for a lot of our services did go up.

Q How is the network funded?

A About 40 to 45 percent comes from our membership. We serve about 300 members: mainly organizations, and some individuals. Another 40 to 45 percent comes from fee-based services like assessments, training and workshops. The rest comes from grants.

Q What's the most common organizational flaw you encounter during your assessments?

A Organizations often have good ways of doing things that aren't consistently deployed across the system. ... Another one is that most organizations, at least early in their journey, don't have fact-based evaluation and improvement in place. And this, I think, is the root of all things quality.

Q As you've become more involved with nonprofit groups and public institutions, how have you had to tweak your assessment programs?

A Every organization has leaders, employees, and maybe not customers, but some sort of stake holder. And every organization has data and a planning process, or should at least. The concepts apply and the best practices can be transferred. ... A vital need we serve is connecting those dots for organizations, making leaders feel part of a larger network that's willing to share best practices and learn from each other.

Q Going forward, what's your vision for the network?

A I hope to have a much larger presence than we have today. There's 115,000 businesses in Minnesota. Our market share is pretty small, so we've got a lot of work to do. It would please me to no end, not just to be bigger, but to have much greater impact for the state and for the region.

Also, we're a part of a national effort with the Baldrige Performance Excellence Program and other state programs to make the United States more competitive. ... So if you were to check back with me in two to five years, our work, while still focused on Minnesota and the Dakotas, will be far more integrated with what we're trying to do nationally.

Walker Moskop • 612-673-4265