The Dichotomy of Improvement

No one knows a job like the person who does it every day. That person will have the best ideas about how to make their job better because they have knowledge and experience. No one knows your life like you do. Therefore, you should have the best ideas about how you can be a better person, succeed more often, and make better decisions. Conversely, however, no one sees things quite like a person looking in from the outside. “Ever notice how you can give your friends great advice but it’s tougher for you to follow your own words of wisdom?” writes Tom Alaimo. 1 For instance, you are watching sports and don’t understand why the quarterback didn’t see the open receiver or how the defender completely missed where the ball was coming from. Your friend tells you a story and it is so obvious what they should have done. Even when you look back at events in your own life, it can be easy to wonder what you were thinking and why you did what you did. There is a reason people say hindsight is 20/20.

When we are detached from the situation, the correct decision can seem obvious. I have found that some of the best ideas for improvements have been right in front of my face and I didn’t see them until someone else pointed them out. The video below is a recent lean improvement I made at work; but I cannot take credit for the idea.

I am part of a world-wide lean improvement chat group where we all share videos, stories, tips, and tricks to learn and grow together. I shot a video explaining how we have thought of every detail on our shipping stations in the warehouses for the company I work for. People gave me great feedback and I was proud to share what my team and I had put together over years of improvements. But one person responded by suggesting that we should color code the tape length list on the top of our tape machine to correspond to the color of the button on the machine. DUH! How did we not think of that!? Of course this is not an earth shattering improvement that will save thousands of dollars or hours of time, but it is exactly the type of small improvement we make every day and pride ourselves on; those small improvements all add up to make the efficient processes which run our business.

The suggestion to color code our tape length list was a huge reminder for me about the dichotomy of improvements. When you do something every day, it is easy to get “in the weeds” as authors and former Navy SEALs Jocko Willink and Leif Babin would say. Willink and Babin write: “In combat, when you look down the sights of your weapon, your field of view becomes narrow and focused. Your vision is restricted by the small aperture in your weapons sight. You cannot see what is happening around you or the team.” 2 This is exactly what happens at work and in our daily lives. We can easily get so in the situation that we don’t realize every possible option or see every opportunity to do better. The focus that helps us succeed can actually become blinders that tunnel our vision and block out potentially useful ideas or information.

The dichotomy of improvements is that the people who have the most experience and knowledge are the most qualified to give advice and make improvements. But at the same time people looking in from the outside, who may have little to no knowledge or experience, can see something that seems obvious. An NFL quarterback with years of experience makes a bad decision and everyone at home sitting on their couch is suddenly an expert. But guess what, that NFL quarterback was in the situation. They were making multiple split second reads and trying to make the best choice possible, but didn’t see it all. My team and I have used those tape machines every single day for years and didn’t think to color code it. There are many lessons to be learned here.

Mindfulness

Image from https://www.realsimple.com/health/mind-mood/mindfulness-health-benefits

Psychology Today defines mindfulness as “… a state of active, open attention to the present.” 3 Have you ever pulled into work and thought that you don’t even remember driving there; like you were on auto pilot? Or looked up from your emails and realized it is 2:00 and it feels like you just got to work? Getting in the zone and accessing deep work time can be extremely beneficial. But it can also put you “in the weeds;” where your awareness of what is going on around you, or even within yourself, is greatly reduced. Practicing mindfulness is one way to get back in touch with the present moment; to be more aware of your thoughts, your feelings, your work, and what is going on around you. Beyond the obvious benefits of being more aware, “Mindfulness’ popularity has been bolstered by a growing body of research showing that it reduces stress and anxiety, improves attention and memory, and promotes self-regulation and empathy,” writes Liz Mineo for The Harvard Gazette. 4

Mindfulness doesn’t have to be the hippy, yoga, buddhist guru image it conjures in your mind. Or the overused buzzword it has turned into. Mineo interviewed Suzanne Westbrook, a retired internal-medicine doctor that taught an 8-week course on mindfulness, who said simply: “It’s about noticing what happens moment to moment, the easy and the difficult, and the painful and the joyful. It’s about building a muscle to be present and awake in your life.” 4 I think we would all benefit from being more aware, present, and in tune with what is going on within ourselves and around us. For me, the first lesson on the dichotomy of improvements is mindfulness. Becoming more aware so that you see more of the easy, small improvements that are right in front of your face but that you keep missing as you rocket through your workday.

Detachment

Image from https://activerecall.co/jocko-willink-detach/

What I have found through practicing mindfulness, is that sometimes the best course of action is to take a step back. Physically or mentally step out of the situation in order to gain a new perspective. Mindfulness can give you the awareness to know when it is time to detach. Once you have detached, you can be like the person looking in from the outside who sees the situation from a different angle. Literally pretend like you are someone else who is watching yourself doing what you are doing. This is a superpower. Not only can you be the person with the knowledge and experience, but you can also be the person who is seeing the situation from the outside. You can be the guy on the couch AND the NFL quarterback in the middle of a big play, seeing everything from the inside and the outside at the same time.

Feedback

Feedback is critical to improvement. Both giving and receiving feedback is important for growth. Be willing to receive feedback without taking it personally. Be willing to give feedback to others, constructively. When the person on the outside makes a suggestion, don’t just say to yourself “they don’t know what they are talking about. I do this every day.” Be mindful. Detach. Think about what they are telling you. Maybe it is something super obvious that you have missed. That doesn’t mean you are a bad person, or even that you are doing a bad job. It is just a chance to get better. And when you are the person on the outside, find a way to give your advice politely. An inability to give and receive feedback is one of the major hurdles to success. Listen to what other people have to say. Be objective. You never know who will come up with a great idea or when. And you will never be a part of that great idea of you don’t listen or are not aware enough of the situation to take it seriously.

I tell my employees that their job is not to do their job, their job is to make their job better. Doing the actual work is just a way to put people through processes or in physical areas so they can make them better. The work is the vessel which carries them to the next great idea. However, if you are on autopilot and just coasting through the day, you might be getting a lot done in the short term but you are certainly not seeing things that could make your job better in the long term. Step one, be more aware. Step two, step back and observe yourself and others in order to see everything from the outside. Mindfulness and detachment are two easy ways to increase someone’s ability to see those obvious choices, those improvements that are right there under their nose. And finally, give and receive feedback. No team will succeed without it and every person will be better because of it. Reflect often on both what went well and what could have been done better. Ask others for their feedback and, if you do it right, offer your feedback to them. We all have a lot to learn from each other.

It is easy to get in the zone, put your nose to the grindstone, and crank out hours of work. Sometimes that is necessary. But even when you have to dive into the weeds, try and stay aware of yourself, your team, and your surroundings while also seeing it all from the outside. If you can master this, you will be far ahead of those people that just mindlessly get through the day. It takes practice, but luckily every minute is a moment where you can be more mindful.

Let’s keep the conversation going! Please share, comment, or give feedback so we can all continue to learn and grow together.

-Tyson

Sources

1. 5 Thing I Learned From a Former SEAL, by Tom Alaimo, Feb 8, 2018, accessed 1/27/2021, https://medium.com/swlh/5-thing-i-learned-from-a-former-seal-93d797c43607

2. The Dichotomy of Leadership, by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin, Copyright 2018 by Jocko Command LLC and Leif Babin LLC, St Martins Press, New York. https://www.amazon.com/Dichotomy-Leadership-Balancing-Challenges-Ownership/dp/1250195772/ref=tmm_hrd_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1611800321&sr=8-1

3. Mindfulness, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/mindfulness

4. With mindfulness, life’s in the moment, by Liz Mineo, April 17, 2018, accessed 1/27/2021, https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2018/04/less-stress-clearer-thoughts-with-mindfulness-meditation

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