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Lessons from the Road: Know Thyself, Improve Thyself

July 23, 2019
It is difficult to appreciate what you’re asking of others if you haven’t experienced it yourself.

While I intend to continue contributing online occasionally, this is my final Lessons from the Road column for IndustryWeek’s print edition. I have written this column for eight years. I have enjoyed interacting with readers, and I hope the column has provided value for you. Writing this column has helped me clarify my own thinking on critical topics for lean success.

Which leads me to my final topic: self-improvement. When I signed copies of my book, I would often add, “Lean begins with you!” I believe that improving an organization begins with self-improvement. It is difficult to appreciate what you’re asking of others if you haven’t experienced it yourself. Here are some areas to build your self-improvement engine.

1. Seek out feedback. It is difficult to improve yourself unless you know yourself. But doing this on your own is both difficult and unnecessary. When you are fully focused on your task (be it physical, technical, managerial, etc.), it is very difficult to simultaneously clearly observe.

Invite someone in to observe you, with the purpose of giving you helpful feedback. Interview your internal customers to give you feedback about the quality of your output. Collect data that informs your personal work process. For example, when I would have a full day in the office, I would sometimes plan out the entire day down to the minute. This wasn’t for planning purposes; this was a test to see how well I understood my own work. I would then track my work, down to the minute, and make a comparison. I learned, for example, that I spent more time on email than I expected, and really big tasks never took as long as I expected.

2. Get actionable input. Making improvements and key decisions does not have to be done alone. So seek help. You could hire a coach, either through your company or on your own. I hear too often that people struggle to improve because the company won’t pay for them to get coached. Some of the most successful people I know paid for a coach themselves, before they reached the kind of success where that was an easier choice. They looked at their careers the way an entrepreneur looks at their company: willing to invest for long-term gains.

When I was a young professional, I established a “Personal Advisory Board.” It was like a board of advisors for a company, but for my professional career. It was made up of people I highly respected, who were willing to give input and advice. But by making it a formal board, the expectations were more clear and forced both sides to be a little more active than a casual mentor relationship. Both the people and process provided useful input for me as I made tough decisions.

3. Learn through experimentation. A key to learning and improvement is testing ideas. Notice I didn’t say testing “good” ideas, but testing ideas. Just because you spend more time thinking about an idea or process doesn’t mean that you’ve made it better. You simply don’t know if you’ve made it better. We can all be convinced of the superiority of our ideas, or for some people, the pointlessness of our ideas. But we don’t know for certain until we try and test something. If you’re not sure, give it a shot and see how it works. If you are sure, test it with a critical lens for what you’re missing.

4. Set learning goals. Each year, I pick an aspect of my personal or professional life to improve. This could be anything from becoming a better personal speaker to a better soccer coach. I feel anything worth doing is worth doing well, and there are resources out there to help you do it well. A true lean thinker pursues excellence in everything they do, and that includes leveraging available opportunities to learn. Your learning will be much more purposeful and effective if you set clear goals.

Mahatma Gandhi once said ““Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.” That is a great motto for anyone.

Jamie Flinchbaugh is a lean advisor, speaker, and author. In addition to co-founding the Lean Learning Center, he has helped build nearly 20 companies as either a co-founder, board member, advisor, or angel investor.

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