What really separates world class-performers from everybody else? Studying hard, getting good grades and then getting a good job. If one gets good grades and has studied in a college of repute, one must be talented. And so, that one can lead to excellence and become world-class. Sounds familiar? If this is true, then why are so many companies struggling to excel? Stories like those of Toyota and Mysore Kirloskar tell us what world-class excellence really is, even during market recession. Many believe that people’s talents are what turn them into world-class performers (as individuals or as teams). In fact, talent has nothing to do with performance. What then really separates world-class performers from everybody else?
Jeffery Liker once wrote a post on how Toyota experimented with sending a person for higher studies to Harvard Business School as an experiment to see what he can then contribute to the company. After his Harvard study, he found out he could not use the learning in Toyota, whose systems, procedures, discipline, thinking were highly evolved. He eventually left the company out of frustration. This story that Jeffery narrates, tells us college degrees and talent have nothing to do with world-class performance; talent is overrated. The back bone to Toyota’s excellence is built, not on individual talent or excellence, but on deliberate practice of everyone’s daily routines, learning and training. Toyota recruits ordinary people and turns them into world-class performers through training and challenging employees to grow, while many companies recruit those from the best of colleges, who end up delivering average or poor results.
Unparalleled greatness or mediocrity
With standards rapidly rising in virtually every industry, it is important to understand where great performance comes from. In order to get ahead of competition, it is essential to know how to refine skills in the best possible way. The first step in that process is to abandon the belief that greatness is something people are either born with or comes with college degrees.
What determines extraordinary achievement?
Most people spend the bulk of their waking time at work, performing work without being world-class at it. For example, if an individual is a hard-working person, he/she may not rank among the very best at a job, even if they have been crunching eight hours or more a day, for the past twenty years. So, if we devote most of our wake time to our jobs, why are most of us not amazing at what we do?
The reason is that extraordinary achievement is not determined by just experience. Many people do not improve at their work even after many years of experience; in fact, some actually get worse with time. The graveyard of lean failures is littered with companies who have refused to engage in the right practice due to being stuck in old ways of thinking and habits. Their uncompetitive behaviour leads to their failure. Great achievement seldom comes just from inborn talent or college degrees. Great sportspersons, dancers, artists, yoga gurus or musicians do not start with any prequalification for success; the secret to their success lies in the discipline of their daily routine – their dedicated, deliberate, passionate, committed and persistent daily practice. And in their ability to change and move away from what does not lead to world-class performance.
Intelligence and performance
Our education system has taught us to give credence to intelligence. So, who is an ‘intelligent’ person? Is it someone who can solve complex math problems, someone with many college degrees or someone good at synthesising information? There are different ways of being intelligent; the popular technique used for measuring general intelligence is the Intelligence Quotient (IQ) test.
People generally believe that a high IQ score correlates with greater success in life. But does it really account for great performance? The average performance of employees increases with the complexity of their jobs — when assigned with more complex jobs, people upscale themselves to do it better and become good at it through adaptation and practice. This has nothing to do with IQ scores or anybody's judgement of the employee’s intelligence.
Let us also look at the conclusions of some research studies. Sales heads believe that a more intelligent salesman will procure more orders. But when intelligence was measured against actual sales results, it was found that there was no correlation, thus making intelligence useless as a predictor of sales performance. In the world of horse racing, handicappers with a low IQ were found to make better predictions than those with a high IQ. In chess, where people often associate greatness with genius-level IQs, it was found that grandmasters have below-average IQs. And most great innovators have spent years in preparation and practice before making a breakthrough. Thus, world-class performance is independent of or has different components other than just intelligence.
Archimedes realised, after settling into his bath, that he could measure the volume of an irregular object by measuring how much water it displaces. Examples like this give us the notion that creative ideas can ostensibly strike us out of the blue or as Dr Schuller writes, ‘great ideas come when God gives them to you’. Yet, researchers say that creative breakthroughs almost never appear out of nowhere; rather, they come most readily to those who already practice and exhibit mastery in their field.
Documented studies show that it takes about ten years of rigorous, dedicated, persistent and consistent practice to be able to produce anything noteworthy. Researchers find that this ten-year rule holds good for outstanding performance in many domains. Tiger Woods, recently, during his preparation for the European Masters in Ireland, would wake up and go to practice in Florida at 0300 hours in the morning to set his body clock in tune with Ireland time. Strong intent is necessary to inculcate the habit of making what may seem a dislikable change into core strength for excellence.
We all know the saying ‘practice makes perfect’. If we want to improve at something, then we have to practice regularly – whether we are working on a sport of our interest or trying to implement lean manufacturing. There is a powerful correlation between the time spent practising and increased performance. Practice is the only differentiating factor between world-class and pathetic performance. When I tell people that in my early years of lean implementation, I spent 12-16 hours every day working on the Gemba (workplace) to embed lean thinking and practices, many look at me in disbelief. I had to practise lean implementation and ensure others practised it, too. I had virtually taken a sabbatical from my family for a cause that was important at that time. Great success comes with great sacrifice.
Deliberate practice means identifying the essential ingredients for improvement in one’s daily routine and then sharply focusing one’s efforts on those areas, practicing those activities extensively and getting continuous feedback in order to improve.
This is best demonstrated by Toyota, where all the employees relentlessly follow the philosophy, principles, training, routines and behaviour as required by the Toyota Production System, resulting in Toyota becoming a world-class company. The rest of the world has been trying to emulate Toyota for many decades now. The company’s talent is developed through deliberate practice in relentless pursuit of perfection.
Perceive, know and remember
Watching extraordinary performers like acrobats, magicians or ballerinas, one may get the feeling that they are superhuman in order to be able to perform such feats. They are not superhumans, but the feeling is true. It is their deliberate practice that exemplifies great performers and makes them different from others in many ways. Chess masters, too, beat computers because of many years of deliberate practice and remembering moves.
Deliberate practice helps to perceive more relevant information in any field of expertise and absorb and remember vast amounts of knowledge. Like developing expertise on Just-In-Time (JIT) techniques, practicing Jidoka and remembering to recall the right problem-solving tool or technique to achieve the target condition. Continuous improvement (CI) requires the habit of deliberate practice to keep improving continuously and not making CI a onetime goal which many companies seem to have done. Deliberate practice can bring about positive changes in the mind and body.
Have you ever wondered why the theory of relativity was not conceived by a college physics student? Or why people win recognition for their work with a Nobel Prize at a later age? Because it takes longer to master growing knowledge and reach a point where discoveries can be made.
When we talk about ‘great achievements’ in the realm of physics, we usually mean new discoveries. To be able to make new discoveries, one first needs to have an understanding of all the existing laws and theories (akin to philosophy and the principles of lean thinking and lean manufacturing). In other words, one needs a lot of knowledge. Similarly, the leadership can succeed with lean transformation once they have acquired sound knowledge and understanding of the concepts of lean manufacturing and developed belief, not through just power points or reading books, but by practising the routines. Only then will they be able to produce groundbreaking achievements.
Companies that delay in making the decision to embark on their lean journey carry more fatigue in the form of archaic thinking, wastes, ancient business processes, ways of doing things and reluctance to unlearn and change.
Look for motivation
Developing a habit of deliberate practice to become a world-class performer might appear like a demanding task, so some motivation helps. Motivation can come from a goal, vision, enthusiasm from seniors and peers or can be purely necessity-driven. The cause or purpose must be rewarding in its results. Receiving support and coaching from the senior management can motivate one to practice more and accelerate the process. People at Bridgeport Indonesia and at Mysore Kirloskar were inspired when they saw my work ethics in my daily deliberate practice of lean thinking and routines, and were motivated to multiply my efforts (like monkey see, monkey do). This resulted in producing world-class excellent results, many of which stand unsurpassed.
Motivation for kick-starting the journey of lean manufacturing can be derived from the results already produced by lean organisations, such as cost reductions, lead times and throughput time reductions, unbelievable short lead times for new product development, space saving, high velocity flow, flowing inventory, quality improvement, increased efficiency, motivated workforce, learning organisation and creating room for price reduction to customer (the ultimate lean test) after increasing profitability. This basically means perceiving and achieving results that are otherwise believed to be impossible.
Aim, practise and achieve
A majority of the organisations that embark on the lean journey are usually those in existence rather than new ones. As we cannot travel back in time to reap the benefits of an early start, we can only apply the principles of deliberate practice to help us reach our lean goals.
Since achieving exceptional performance is demanding, one must know precisely what one’s goals are and be committed to reaching them, even when the circumstances are not ideal. Stories of great successes tell us that the practice was always relentless. One will need rock-solid determination in order to put in the amount of practice necessary so as to become great. This determination can come only from knowing what one wants – simply ‘liking’ something will not drive one to put in the practice necessary to become a world-class player.
Achieving great performance requires one to identify the specific critical skills needed in order to improve and then practise them, working over and over on those specific aspects that need improvement, instead of making only a few general drills on what one wants to get better at.
With the proper motivation, anyone who uses deliberate practice to improve will succeed in any field, including lean manufacturing. If one wants to become successful with implementation of the lean manufacturing system, then one must remember to focus on ‘how’ he/she practises daily routines. In order to make the biggest improvements, one needs to design a method of deliberate practice that focuses on those areas critical to one’s field and that offers him/her immediate feedback.