Thoughts on quality & productivity, in and out of the office.

Continuous improvement; an oft-overlooked meta-skill

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Functional skills

Ask a person what they would like to learn and we’ll usually receive a list of desired abilities in response. How to use that new analytics software, or how to program an IoT device, to become a scrum master, or learn to snowboard. Our minds tend to fix on hard skills first. Skills that are easy to quantify and lead to us being able to carry out a specific task. Functional skills like this are often taught in a class room, or by reading a book, and you’ll usually find certifications attached to ones we might need for work.

Functional skills are important. After all, we need to be able to do our jobs and without them we’d all be haphazard generalists doing mediocre work across the board.

Soft skills

Layered on top of hard, functional skills we have soft skills. Communication, persuasion, team work, leadership. All very important, arguably more important than hard skills given today’s rapidly changing landscape. Yet we tend to assign them a lower priority. Perhaps because they are harder to pin down, harder to set goal posts around, more qualitative in nature and therefore harder to quantify.

Meta-skills

The third layer. These are habits, ways of thinking that help govern the underlying skills and our overall direction. The focus here is on the big picture, on the broad, over-arching processes we use when approaching our work and our personal lives as a whole. Continuous improvement is one such meta-skill.

Continuous improvement

Often applied in manufacturing and more recently in agile project management methodologies, Continuous Improvement encompasses the ongoing effort to iteratively assess and enhance processes.

With each iteration we ask ourselves the following questions:

What went well?
Which parts of the process produced acceptable results?

What didn’t go well?
Which parts of the process under-performed?

What can we do differently next time?
How can the process be adjusted to produce better results next time? Adjustments to a process should be considered in the following order:

  1. Remove: If part of a process, or an actor is not adding value remove the step.
  2. Improve: Tweak the remaining steps improve their efficacy. Advance hard and soft skills if missing.
  3. Add: Add new steps or people to the process where necessary.

This process of assessing processes applies most obviously to work, where the same problems are often solved again and again. But it can also be applied to our personal lives, where it also delivers compounding benefits in the longer term. Stepping back and looking at how we manage the transactional processes in our daily, weekly or monthly to-do lists is a good place to start but consider also how we approach our long-term goals as well.

What are we achieving? What are we forgetting or pushing down the line? What are we starting but not finishing to a standard we’re happy with? Who else is involved? Are they helping or hindering?

Taking a leaf from the Scrum project management framework, we should schedule this conversation with ourselves or our teams on a regular basis.

With each iteration more productive models ensue, and over time we form a powerful habit as continuous improvement becomes part of our default way of thinking.

Thoughts on quality & productivity, in and out of the office.

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