Chief executives give great speeches on the importance of quality, leadership, teamwork, and employee participation. But in improving organization performance, as in golf, it’s the follow-through that makes the difference.

Consider the case of one Canadian company that had been “doing quality” for about two years. It followed the textbook perfectly. Trainers and facilitators delivered introductory workshops to the 1,500 employees. Enthusiasm and interest began to build as hundreds of suggestions poured in.

Work teams were formed with eager volunteers among employees, union leaders, and professional staff. The teams collected and analyzed data on the root causes of a wide number of problems.

All this led to a series of “small win” improvements that increased team momentum and enthusiasm.

But by the second year, all this activity wasn’t producing the results the organization needed. The teams realized the biggest problems lay with the organizational systems, processes, structure, and management procedures. And that’s where they hit the wall.

The improvement effort turned out to be a “bolt-on” to the side of the normal management practices. While managers gave their blessing (and often passionate lip service) to the effort, they didn’t embrace and lead it. The quality coordinator has since quit and most of the teams’ enthusiasm has turned to cynicism.

But some improvement efforts are thriving, and in those cases, there is evidence of strong executive leadership.

Canadian Airlines International Ltd. of Calgary, for example, has substantially increased customer satisfaction and cost effectiveness during the past two years. President Kevin Jenkins leads the effort through constant visits and consultations with pilots, mechanics, airport staff, flight crews, and administrative support staff. He regularly works at important customer-contact and support positions in full uniform. (Recently, he worked one day as a Vancouver gate agent for some of Canadian’s Asian flights.)

This hands-on experience helps him appreciate customer and employee perspectives and understand Canadian’s processes from the inside.

Mr. Jenkins focuses his management team on these processes through biweekly reviews of key service and quality performance indicators. Top managers hold daily conference calls reviewing Canadian’s “on-time performance,” in which Mr. Jenkins participates at least once a week.

There are also examples of executive leadership in the public sector. Pat Henderson, chief executive of Freeport Hospital in Kitchener, ON, is personally leading her institution to “do more with less.” She is working with the board of governors to restructure the hospital’s maze of committees around a strategic focus of meeting customer needs and improving quality of care while reducing costs.

In addition to their own training and planning sessions, Ms. Henderson and her managers lead cross-functional teams of physicians, nurses, and employees. Their job is to map, analyze, and improve the core processes and systems that pull together the work of frontline care givers and support staff.

Leading by example is also a theme at Canadian Tire Corp.’s petroleum division. To improve customer satisfaction, there is a policy that all customer complaints will be resolved within twenty-four hours at the gas bar. President Jim Ryan frequently shows the urgency of service recovery by personally calling unhappy customers in a bid to win them back.

To keep priorities straight, everyone at the Toronto home office, including Mr. Ryan, periodically spends a few days pumping gas. At Petroleum Management College, managers are given two to four weeks of training. Mr. Ryan kicks off every session by discussing the organization’s values and the importance of continuous customer service and quality improvement.

It’s been said that “children are natural mimics — they act like their parents despite all attempts to teach them good manners.” As with parenting, executives speak a louder sermon with their lives than their lips. Words — no matter how passionate — are not enough.