Although we can practice some things while we sleep, we don’t get good at any task over night. Rather, the getting good at any task typically happens over time, through a process of refinement or continuous improvement. Although we often like to cite “overnight successes” and those “geniuses” who appear to develop skills or achieve great success over night, for the most part we generally accept that success and skill attainment happens over time.
While the phrase continuous improvement is heavily used in business, particularly in the manufacturing context, largely thanks to the Japanese, continuous improvement plays a major role in our everyday lives and everyday pursuits. Take for instance the sport that I spend a good time of my day right now pursuing, skiing.
Although it is the case that I get better at skiing every time I strap on my skis, in the same way I get better at dictating to Dragon every time I do that, that element of continuous improvement, let’s call it practice, is only a small part of the overall process of continuous improvement. While practice is the most obvious form of continuous improvement, a process whereby we actually observe ourselves improving each time we do something, it is in effect the last phase of continuous improvement.
The first two phases of continuous improvement typically happen before we as individuals actually get involved. The first phase I’m just going to refer to as tools. The tools of continuous improvement are the equipment and, um, tools that are developed in order to pursue a specific task. In manufacturing this would be the assembly line – thank you Henry Ford – and in skiing it would be planks of wood that I’ll be strapping to my feet in about an hour. At this phase, continuous improvement is driven by human ingenuity and is evidenced in skiing by shorter, more powerful carving skis.
Sandwiched between tools and practice is what I’ll call technique. Along with the tools that are created to fulfill a task is the technique which is utilized in order to become exceptional at it. From boxing to making out, it is the case with almost everything in life that technique is everything. In skiing the techniques range from the pizza wedge that you first learn in order to stop yourself from hitting everything and everyone to full parallel skiing, the technique of skiing excellence.
The process of continuous improvement therefore is a process of development and refinement of tools and techniques as well as the continuous process of practice. Getting good at anything therefore, becoming truly exceptional at anything therefore, requires a process of continuous improvement at all three of those phases. Now take a moment and observe a task in your life that you have the goal to become exceptional at. What other tools, techniques, and practices can you improve in order to become exceptional?