Improvement for you?

note: improvement work should always be accompanied by a spirit of celebrating what you do well; otherwise your outlook becomes extraordinarily negative and you can easily become ironically disenchanted with getting better at something


Lately I have been thinking through the many facets of what a learning and performance professional does. This is because that’s my day job and I continue to meet people who wonder about what I do during the work day. Trying to come up with a succinct definition of something vast is always a nice challenge. I’ve found the best way to describe my work is to talk about it in terms of how I help:
1. I orient / on-board people to the company;
2. I train and coach and mentor people to be better at their jobs;
3. I aid staff to prepare for their next jobs;
4. I write curriculum, lesson plans, and manage related processes for many different people inside and outside of the organization.

It’s the second one that gets to the title of this post–“What about improvement for the individual, outside of a work environment?” I started thinking.

First, then, let’s look at the four major ways a company knows to purse this second thing–in other words, how does anyone know in the first place that there are performance gaps, as they are called?
STEP a. A person notices something about him/herself that is not in alignment with what is expected and asks for help;
STEP b. Someone’s boss reports that a worker is not performing to an expectation;
STEP c. A system exists that tracks individual performance data and someone analyzes this data for trends;
STEP d. An overall metric or broad deliverable is off target for the organization–and someone figures out how that is connected to what people are or are not doing in their jobs.

You might notice that this list has a prerequisite: a list of what is expected in the first place. So, how do you go about applying these work-based processes to your own life–and know what is expected?

Here are my suggested steps:

(1) Determine who will help you make a particular list of expectations (you are not limited to one list). This list can be developed solely by you–but if it is, wherever you are going in life will be inherently narrowly determined. Invite people you trust to help.

(2) Write the topic statement for this particular list. Start with general ideas of what you are already doing. It could be as simple as “I am an independent artist” or “I am a tennis amateur.”

(3) Create the list. The list includes things that you can one day say you did or did not do–and that have a direct effect on your topic statement. In a workplace, someone can be measured against a list only if there are clear expectations inherent in it and if it is known to “roll up” to higher purposes. For example, if someone’s work list included “Show up to work and answer the phone,” this is pretty easy to be broadly successful at–but that person will never know what is truly expected of him or her. Instead, “Show up to work at 8A each day, answer the phone before 3 rings, and resolve all customer issues within 5 minutes using customer service excellence in tone of voice” creates a clear series of expectations.

(4) Live with the list for a little while. Keep this list with you and add or refine items on it as you experience them. Using the phone example, perhaps it’s really that 4 rings is more realistic that 3. Perhaps your original list is all “whats,” as in “answer the phone in 3 rings” — but has no “hows,” as in “answer the phone using customer service excellence.”

(5) Live with the list for a bit longer. This is important because within the realm of learning we are looking at improvement–and improvement can only occur is there is a “baseline” of some sort to consider from which to improve.

(6) Determine the components of STEPS b., c., and d. Ask for someone to be your “boss,” identify a system that tracks what you do, and determine the overall outcomes that you are a part of.
i. The person who acts as your boss will be able to offer an opinion based on his/her observation of you when you attempted your expectations. You should be able to listen to this person without arguing back.
ii. A system that tracks what you do will offer impartial data. What system tracks what you are doing? If you are the independent artist, then perhaps you belong to a group that tracks attendance at networking events or the number of items sold at art fairs.
iii. Finally, what are the overall outcomes you are a part of? Is it more people working as full time artists in your community? Is it community attendance at art events? What already measures things like this? Does the city have a pre-set measure such as “percentage of local workers who are full time artists?” that it publishes each year?

(7) Apply STEP a. – notice something about you that is not in alignment with what is expected and ask for help. Using the phone example, are you answering on average at 6 rings? Determine why this is. Do you not have the knowledge to answer in time? Do you not have the skill to answer in time? Is there another factor? Is the expectation of the number of rings too high? Regarding this last question, it would be easy to say “yes,” but by this point you have tested the number of rings–so be sure that something else isn’t happening before changing an item on your list. After all, improvement is about living up to standards. When you have your thoughts, ask for help–and be open to the fact that the reasons you think you aren’t meeting your standard may be different than the reasons someone else provides. From here, create a plan to improve. Do you take a seminar on how to answer the phone faster, for example? Do you take an on-line class? Do you find a mentor?

(7) Apply STEP b. – your “boss” reports that you are not performing to an expectation. Make sure the conversation is based on your list–and listen to this person’s impressions of what you are doing. Ask questions. If you are the independent artist and you had “sell three sculptures each quarter using customer service excellence,” and that didn’t happen, listen to the ideas from the “boss” about why this didn’t occur. When you come up with these thoughts, determine what the gap is. Did you not show at fairs enough? Did you appear mean to potential buyers? When you know the gap, what is the action to take to close this gap?

(8) Apply STEP c. – a system exists that tracks individual performance data and someone analyzes this data for trends. What system did you make sure was tracking you? In a workplace, you usually wouldn’t have to wait to hear the trends; someone would probably call you up and assign you to a class with other people in your job function to close a gap. In this case, contact the people with the data. Ask them what trends they are seeing. The data may not be overly sophisticated, but try to determine with their help if the data is unique to you or is applicable to many. When you have determined the gap, determine and implement with your “boss” or another person the appropriate action to close this gap–and if it involves you alone or if many could benefit.

(9) Apply STEP d. – an overall metric or broad deliverable is off target for the organization–and someone figures out how that is connected to what people are or are not doing in their jobs. When you have the correct data in hand, determine with others how it is related to what you–or people in similar positions to you–are or are not doing. Using the phone example, perhaps customer satisfaction is down and you find out via a survey that tone has been great but that pronunciation is poor. With this realization, you have your gap and then you can determine the action to take–and if it’s for you or if it’s something you want to involve others in. Again, in a workplace, this type of action would be assigned to you; but in our own lives, we have to take ownership of additional parts.

(10) Know if you really improved. No matter which STEP resulted in an improvement action, do the following:
i. write a clear, specific statement about how you will be different because of the improvement action;
ii. encourage the action to include pre-post practice. For example, if your gap is talking to people less than politely, make sure you include in the action the chance to talk the way you currently do, then go through a session on how to talk politely, and then actively apply the new techniques to practice changing the way you currently talk.
iii. go back to the systems after a certain time frame to see if anything has changed. In the artist example, are people selling more items? Is attendance up?
iv. go back to the metrics after a certain time frame and see if anything has changed. Is a higher percentage of workers full-time artists?


If you are able to accomplish a portion of this, I think you will be more aware of not only where to improve–but what you can maximize as far as what you do well. So often these things we do well can overshadow or creatively replace a “gap” that we have to learn to live with.

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