Category Archives: Best Practices

Achieving Peak Performance

“No one appreciates the agonizing effort (Miyamoto) Musashi has made.  Now that his years of training have yielded spectacular results, everybody talks about his “God-given talent.”  That’s how men who don’t try very hard comfort themselves.” – Yoshikawa Eiji

Struggling to reach your potential is hard work and in the words of Robert Browning, it is “a road less traveled.”  And while it is not clear why so few put in the time and dedication to discover just how good they can be, it is clear that what is often mistaken for God-given talent is just the byproduct of what Geoffrey Colvin calls “deliberate practice.”  In his book, Talent is Overrated, Colvin dispels the myth that peak performers are predestined for greatness.  Colvin found that not only was future greatness not determined by your genetics, it wasn’t solely a function of hard work either.  In study after study, Colvin found that “many people not only fail to become outstanding at what they do, no matter how many years they spend doing it, they frequently don’t even get any better than they were when they started.”

In industry after industry, when it comes to mastering critical skills, people with lots of experience are often no better at their jobs than those with very little experience.  Even more scary, when it comes to leadership ability, a study from INSEAD business school found that managers with experience did not produce better quality outcomes (on average) than those without experience….and occasionally, actually got worse with experience.

So if peak performance is not based on talent or hard work alone…how can we escape the “experience trap” and reach our potential?  It turns out there are four keys to becoming a peak performer:

Know the right behaviors – while this may sound easy, discovering the right behaviors you need to master can be a challenge.  Even with keen observation and careful analysis, most peak performers struggle to identify and share the “secrets to their success.”  As I wrote in “Mastering New Skills,” while “there are always explicit aspects of what experts will share and tell you to practice…more often than not the more important points come from the implicit behaviors the experts do, but do not explicitly practice, teach or even notice.”  Begin by narrowing your focus to these behaviors.

Accurately and honestly assess where you are – after identifying the behaviors you want to master, the next step is to baseline your current performance.  The problem is, our brains are programed to tell us the story we want to hear about our level of expertise, rather than the one we need to hear.  That, combined with our fragile egos can spell trouble for seeing the gap between the behaviors we want and those we currently exhibit.

Put in the reps – Next, get your hands dirty and do the work.  I have heard it said that you need to repeat an action 10,000 times before you truly make it a reflexive movement.  Colvin says it takes peak performers 10 years of deliberate practice to make the skill appear God-given.  Either way you look at it, be prepared for work hard, sacrifice and struggle on your way to mastery.

Have faith in the process – finally, you have to believe that if you identify the right behaviors, embrace your gap and do the work, results will follow.  The results always lag the thousands of repetitions, so without an unwavering faith in the process, the odds are high you will quit long before you accomplish your goals.

The formula for achieving greatness is not difficult, but it is demanding.  The road is long and hard and requires both patience and persistence.  To be successful you need to know both the critical behaviors that lead to success and to be open and honest about your current skill level.  Armed with the knowledge of your gap and belief in the process, you can set your sights on internalizing the behaviors and mastering the new skills.


Cracking the Code on Engagement

“An experienced code breaker will tell you that in order to figure out what the symbols in a code mean, it is essential to be able to play with them…to rearrange them at will.” – Gero Miesenboeck

The Rosslyn Chapel was founded by William Sinclair in Roslin, Midlothian, Scotland in the mid-15th century.  The chapel stands on fourteen pillars, which form an arcade of twelve pointed arches on three sides of the nave and its architecture is considered to be some of the finest architecture in Scotland.  Among Rosslyn’s intricate carvings are a sequence of 213 cubes protruding from the pillars and arches with geometric patterns on them.  While no interpretation of the patterns has proven conclusive, Tommy and Stuart Mitchell believe the symbols represent pitches and tones which reveal a melodic and harmonic progression.  Thomas Mitchell combined the code breaking skills he learned during the Korean War with a lifetime knowledge of classical music to unlock a piece of music hidden in the chapel’s arches.  After 27 years of study and research using cymatics (a musical system in which patterns are formed by sound waves at specific pitches), the father and son team produced a tone which Stuart calls the Rosslyn Motet.

Mitchell’s success required dedication, careful analysis, and a bit of luck.  Most of all, it required Mitchell and his son to experiment with sand, sound, pitch and patterns.  We too must be prepared to play with a variety of tools and techniques if we are to discover the secrets of motivating people to participate in change.  Like all code breakers, our goal is to identify a “pattern of right behaviors” which will enable leaders to consistently inspire and engage those they lead.  In our attempt to identify the right behaviors, there are three additional skills we need to successfully crack the engagement code.

First, you need patience and perseverance.  Recognizing the pattern of right behaviors takes time and can often feel as if you are making little progress as your brain wrestles with seemingly contradictory information and attempts to rearrange the inputs to identify the pattern.  You may also need to retrace your steps and/or start over when one line of investigation ends with little to no results.

Second, you must have a strong familiarity with the language in which the code is written, so be prepared to become a student of human behavior and spend time in the trenches working with teams implementing change.

Finally, as you begin to learn the language of human behavior, you need to understand its inherent rules.  All languages (including human behavior) contain redundant qualities and patterns of frequency.  Learning how to read these patterns and recognize redundant behavioral trends can help you understand the messages being conveyed and the reasons behind them.

Code breakers approach complex problems with a mix of experience, ingenuity and curiosity.  Blending their knowledge of the code’s language with a structured approach to experimentation, code breakers identify the underlying pattern to crack the code.   By using a similar approach to the problem of engagement, we may finally be able to “crack the code” of motivating people to change their behavior.

Creative Collaboration at Pixar

A couple of years ago, the Harvard Business Review published an article on creativity and collaboration at Pixar.  According to Ed Catmull (President of Pixar), the trick to fostering collective creativity is three fold: place creative authority for product development firmly in the hands of the project leaders, dismantle the natural barriers that divide disciplines, and build a culture that encourage people to share their work-in-process and support one another as peers.  A key to creating this culture is implementing processes that drive collaborative behaviors every day.  The article defined two simple, but effective processes which form the foundation of Pixar’s innovation process: the use of daily reviews and the creation of a postmortem process.  Let’s take a brief look at each of these processes to see how they work to drive right behaviors.

The daily review process is relatively simple, but powerful in its effectiveness.  At the end of each day, everyone involved in the creative process shows the progress of their work to the entire team.  Everyone is encouraged to comment on the material presented, but the director makes the final call with respect to the work and the next steps.  By forcing a collaborative approach to presenting incomplete work at the end of each day, people get past the embarrassment of an unfinished product and are more creative as a results.  In addition, the group interaction allows everyone to learn from and inspire each other.  Finally, by establishing a time for the team to meet each day, the director saves time and reduces the opportunities for error by communicating to the entire team at once.

The power of postmortems is forcing the team to take moments for deep reflection and share lessons learned which can be applied to future projects.  At the core of the postmortem process is time spent asking the team to list the top five things they would do again as well as the top five things to avoid.  To keep this process fresh and engaging, the team varies the manner in which they conduct the postmortem each time.  In addition to the top five review, the team employs performance data with which to analyze opportunities for improvement.  Among other data the team collects is the lead time to completion for each activity as well as the number of times something is reworked.  These data points provide both a delivery and quality measure which can be compared against predetermined goals.

At the core of Pixar’s philosophy is a belief that driving innovation depends on finding the right people and putting them in an environment which encourages daily collaboration and taking risk to accomplish great things.  Betting big on people, giving them enormous leeway to create, and providing them with timely, honest feedback sets teams up for success and enables Pixar to consistently turn out award winning products.

The Power of an “Impossible” Goal

A $2,000 car?  The Chairman of Suzuki Motor Corporation said it was impossible…but, that didn’t deter Ratan Tata.  Motivated by a passion for meeting the needs of India’s impoverished people, the Chairman of Tata Motors assembled a five person engineering team (with an average age of 27) and launched a four year journey which began with an audacious goal and ended with a paradigm shift in the auto industry.

Rather than begin with a set of design criteria for the team to use when approaching the problem, Tata gave them an impossible goal: build a car for $2,000.  In fact, the cost target was the only fixed point with which the team was forced to work.  In every other aspect of the project, the team was challenged to “question the unquestionable” and utilize an open innovation model which considered ideas from anywhere and everywhere.

The audaciousness of the goal combined with the freedom to “break the rules” led to many industry leading innovations.  The Nano is the first time a 2 cylinder gas engine has been used in a car with a single balancer shaft.  Adhesives have replaced all rivets and mechanisms from a helicopter were used when designing the seats and windows.  The car’s 9 foot frame is 8% shorter than other compact cars, while providing the passengers 21% more interior room.   In addition, each part in the car serves a dual function, resulting in 1/2 the total number of parts as a normal car.  Finally, the team also had to think about its supply chain differently.  The Nano was designed in partnership with Tato’s vendors and suppliers, 100 vendors were co-located adjacent to the plant and the company developed a new business model for dealerships which slashed distribution costs.

The development of the Tata Nano is one of many examples of leaders inspiring teams to achieve seemingly impossible goals in the midst of tight deadlines.  As with each of these game changing innovations, it was Tata’s unwavering commitment to an impossible goal combined with a freedom to experiment by the engineering team which caused a shift in the paradigm.  All to often however, leaders take an opposite approach when trying to drive innovation.  The goals set are far too safe to force a new way of thinking and rather then giving teams latitude to experiment, they script their actions through detailed charters, procedures and return on investment criteria.  The combination of weak goals and stifling process boundaries kills creativity and ensures mediocrity.

If you want to experience the power of a inspired team who believes there is nothing they can’t accomplish, set an impossible goal and give your people the autonomy to discover radically new solutions to some of your toughest challenges.

“Impossible is nothing.” – Adidas

The Golden Hour

“There is a golden hour between life and death. If you are critically injured you have less than 60 minutes to survive. You might not die right then; it may be three days or two weeks later, but something has happened in your body that is irreparable.” – Dr. R Adams Cowley

The R Adams Cowley Shock Trauma Center is a free standing trauma hospital in Baltimore, MD and is part of the University of Maryland Medical Center.  Founded by R Adams Cowley, it was the first facility in the world to treat shock and now admits over 7,500 critically injured patients per year.  More amazingly, while many of the patients are near death when arriving at the center, more 97% of the 7,700 patients seen last year survived.

At the core of the center’s success is the shared belief that they can save every patient.  This almost obsessive pursuit of an “impossible” goal connects the team to a larger purpose and creates a never give up attitude in each member of the staff.  However, a never give up attitude alone is not enough to generate the trauma center’s impressive results.  Many organizations create inspiring visions and believe they are capable of accomplishing great things.  What they lack is a work environment structured to allow each individual to translate the vision into actionable daily events through simple, repeatable processes.

The mechanism the trauma center uses to create of this type of environment is the concept of the “Golden Hour.”  The golden hour refers to the sixty minute window after people are critically injured when what happens will determine whether they survive and what the quality of their lives will be.  This concept drives everything the center does and has guided each decision about how the center will manage the flow of patients and information, what equipment and technology will be used, and the make up and training of the staff.

So what does the concept of the golden hour have to do with continuous improvement?  Everything.  At the heart of continuous improvement is creating an environment where each individual identifies and solves problems.  Like a patient, what happens in the first 60 minutes after a problem has occurred dictates whether the problem is effectively solved as well as the quality of the new process going forward.  Unlike the trauma center however, few organizations create daily processes to ensure that each problem is identified, understood and solved during this critical window.

To effectively create an environment with daily problem solving at its core, management should take away three lessons from the trauma center.  First, it is critical to set expectations for each process so that there is a shared understanding of what constitutes a problem.  Second, we need to create systems which allow everyone to see problems in real time.  Finally, through a combination of an inspiring vision and effective training, we must provide the motivation and skills to solve problems in real time.

Teaching Kids to Lead

The Riverside School in Ahmedabad, India is an amazing experiment in empowering children and creating future leaders.  Founded in 2001, Kiram Bir Sethi and her team have created a unique learning environment where “common sense is common practice” and the overriding goal is to infect each child with the “I can” bug.  Besides developing a place where children are empowered to blur the lines between school and life, the unique curriculum has also yielded academic success.  Based on a benchmark study of 2,000 schools in India, Riverside beat the top 10 schools in math, science and english.

Even more exciting however, the school provides us with a great example of how to use simple, inspiring processes to driving dramatic change and tap into the multiplier effect.  In 2009, the school launched a contest called “Design for Change” where students are challenged to implement an idea to solve a problem they are passionate about. The only criteria for the idea is that it be of benefit to many people, look to solve an existing problem from a fresh prospective, and have the potential to see change in the lives of others as well as the students.  Using a powerful combination of inspiration and simplification, the contest reached 32,000 schools in India in its first year and has now spread to other countries.

So how did the school’s simple contest spread like wildfire and evoke such excitement and commitment?  While there are undoubtedly a host of reasons, here are a couple I think are most relevant for other leaders.  First, the contest uses a simple step-by-step process which leverages the school’s four phase development model; see the change (feel), be changed (imagine), lead the change (do) and spread the change (infect).  This model focuses on empowering the children to connect with an inspiring purpose, as well as puts the change process squarely in their hands.  The children not only have the autonomy to choose their team and brainstorm ideas, but they are responsible for designing a simple implementation plan and putting it into action.  Second, reflecting on the outcome of the change and sharing it with others is a required part of the process.  This allows the students an opportunity to cement their learning and at the same time infect others with their passion and results.  Finally, as the children share their stories they are able to be recognized by their community for their efforts.  Recognition received by parents and peers is a powerful motivator for future action.

This combination of inspiring with a purpose, driving engagement through autonomy and sharing stories of success creates intrinsic motivation in the hearts of each child and turns the competition into a powerful force for social change.  Similar to what we discovered in our work with front line supervisors and managers, effective change isn’t about the tools or techniques of process improvement.  Success is a function of how well you empower people to challenge their beliefs of what’s possible and build a change process which is simple to implement and share with others.  When people are inspired with a purpose and confident in their ability to shape the change, their creative spirit is unleashed and infused with the fuel of confident expectations.

Don’t Delay…Start Today

The Shingo Prize ( is a non-profit organization committed to the education, assessment, and recognition of organizations achieving operational excellence.  The process of applying for and receiving recognition from the prize is extensive and recently, we helped an organization undertake the challenge.  The organization has been on the continuous improvement journey for a few years now, and while they have achieved some great results, they have also struggled to engage the entire workforce in the change process and create a culture of daily continuous improvement.  One of the issues has been the leadership team’s lack of commitment to consistently provide the vision, resources, and urgency necessary to drive rapid process improvement.

When challenging for the prize however, the leadership team stepped up their game and spared no expense in preparing the facility and staff for the examination.  They created a well thought out and orchestrated tour, aligned the shop floor and support groups with a narrative to share with the examiners, ensured everyone in the facility knew their role in achieving a successful outcome, and conducted a series of dry runs to get the team comfortable with what to expect during the site visit.  As part of the preparation, the organization also implemented a significant number of improvements to key processes, daily huddles, and visual controls.

After witnessing the preparation that went into challenging for the prize, I could not help but wonder where the organization would be if they focused a similar amount of resource and energy around driving daily improvements the last three years.  Rather than merely ramp up for the examination, if the leadership team had created a similar level of urgency, alignment and preparation in daily activities, the organization would not only have achieved a higher level of cultural transformation, but business results would be significantly better as well.

In the end, the lesson to be learned is; don’t wait for a special event to create an aligned vision for your organization and pursue improvements with intensity and commitment.  Don’t put off until tomorrow what can be done today to create a culture of change and drive results.  World class organizations understand that continuous improvement is a daily activity embedded into the standard work of associates and managers.  They also understand that employees are hungry to buy into an “impossible” vision for the future, so there is no time like the present to start making the future a reality.