When you want to become a pro at an instrument, say a guitar, what do you do? You learn the chords and practice them tirelessly. Then you play them in combinations to produce tunes. Eventually you learn to sing along, perform to an audience, and invite feedback. Athletes too, employ the same approach to ace their sport – mastering a series of discernible skills through persistent practice.

What would happen if we use this method for work? United Aluminum, a manufacturer of superior quality aluminum products, tried it out. At one point, about 20% of their orders shipped late. Since their products went into other companies’ manufacturing, everyone’s output got delayed.

In want of improving performance drastically, the senior managers of UA launched an experiment, and invited all staff to use the opportunity to improve their performance. They aimed for a goal of zero late shipments, six weeks from the date of launch, and asserted that it was indeed a trial, and not a trap to assess performance. The end result – 100% of the deliveries were on time. Today, UA assures 98% on-time delivery, all year round.

What were some key elements of their success?

Assessing repetitive tasks: Our work involves a few repetitive tasks that are essential to our roles. For UA staff, that might be placing orders for raw materials, maintenance and repair of machinery, or daily employee check-ins. The management urged all employees to focus on these recurring tasks, and figure out the most effective way of doing them. Do these tasks trigger procrastination or distractibility? What is their role in the work of other teams? Can they be clubbed with other tasks? These questions redefine and re-energize them.

Testing actions for results: Every goal comprises a bunch of smaller actions. Testing, re-testing and perfecting these improves the ultimate objective. For example, if we want to achieve a 40% higher sales target, here’s a partial list of what we may need to master:

  • Finding new ways of speaking about products and offerings
  • Answering a variety of challenging questions with confidence
  • Negotiating numbers till they work for both parties
  • Establishing a rapport with clients, while doing all of the above

If we role-play the skills listed above numerous times, and get coached, we’ll only get better. UA staff probably sharpened their invoice making process, found better distribution channels, and made quality checks tighter.

Overcoming psychological obstacles: Breaking routine and older patterns requires working through mental resistance, and a considerable amount of problem solving, creativity, and risk taking. Moreover such effort succeeds only on the foundation of constant feedback. Not an annual performance appraisal. And that means honest, frequent, open communication with peers and managers. We may need to work on our ability to both accept constructive feedback, and share it gracefully too.

We’ve heard the saying, ‘practice makes us perfect’. What is it that we are practicing, when it comes to our work? What can we practice, such that our performance increases a few notches? We urge you to explore!

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