Thinking Better

Thinking Better – these two words are packed with implications.  What seems like a simple idea, to think better, can be amazingly illusive.   I’ve yet to meet the person who outright declares that they have no desire or interest in being better in general – be it at thinking or something else they are doing.  It seems a universally accepted idea, to get better…to be better.  Do you want to get better?  Of course I do!

Actually getting better, however, is another matter.  When I was 18 years old, I weighed 165 pounds.  I read one study that suggested a normal man should probably gain one pound each year at least until their 50’s, and then level off to a stable weight.   Based on that advice, I should weigh just under 200 pounds.  In fact, that has been my “get better” target weight since about the year 2000, but I’ve only achieved it for a brief time in 2002 and did not maintain it.  For the last 16 years, I have frequently said “I’ve got to lose weight!”   I’ve been in favor of getting better (losing weight) but not…actually…getting… better.

I find that the gap between what we say we want, and what we actually get is all too common.  I could tell you about my golf game, but it’s a sadder tale than my failure to control my weight.  (and you are probably saying to yourself it is quite likely related!)  Wanting a better score and actually improving performance over time are, sadly, not the same thing.

So what is the difference between wanting to get better, and actually getting better?   For me, the answer lies in looking deeper into these two words: THINKING BETTER.

To start, we must realize that both of these words imply process.   “Better” is a word that, by definition, implies comparison.  This is better than that.  One of my favorite songs by Paul McCartney was not a hit, but a fun collaboration with Steve Miller called, “I Used To Be Bad.”   They reportedly improvised the song, just having fun, but the hook to the song is, “I used to be bad but I ain’t gonna be bad no more – you know I learned my lesson, a long long time ago.”   Look it up and listen, and see if it doesn’t get stuck in your head.

We used to be bad, but we desire to be better and we “ain’t gonna be bad no more.”   It’s the goal of every endeavor, in some way or another.  And when we report results, we hope for nothing better than a report that tells that kind of story – we used to be bad, but now we are better.  Or sometimes we soften that first part – we have been good, but now we are even better.   Last year we sold 1.5 million, this year we did better, topping 2 million.  For the first half of the year, we had 200 customer complaints…we can do better and are working hard to address those issues so we have fewer complaints the second half of the year.

Even when we have to admit we got worse, we want to turn the conversation to our plans to turn that around, and get better.

Better is a word of contrast or comparison, but it is also a word of reflection and aspiration.  We want to be better, we are happy we did better, or we have to find a way to do better.

Which leads me to the other word – Thinking.

Thinking involves using our minds.  Reflection, Consideration, Brain-storming ideas, discussing – these are all activities that all engage our brains – Thinking.  But we can do that thinking haphazardly – day dreaming about whatever happens to float by.  Or we can have a process for thinking logically, orderly.  If the goal of thinking is to get better, then a logical thinking process is called for.

So Thinking Better implies using our brains to contemplate in a logical way about improving ourselves, our organization, our lives – and the way of thinking that serves that endeavor best is a logical way.

But good logic is not enough – it needs to be linked to action.  That is why there is so much power in simple logical patterns like Plan, Do, Check, Adjust – or A3 Thinking.  I submit 4 steps of thinking better that leads to doing better:

  1.   Setting our eyes on a measurable goal by THINKING about the following questions:   what do we want to be better?  how do we measure it now?  what does it mean to be better?  what is our goal?  what is the gap between our current state and our goal?
  2.   Analyzing WHY things are the way they are.  What are the causes of our gap?  What obstacles will we have to overcome?   Are there systemic forces at work here (i.e. what is the root cause?)
  3.   How should we address those causes to move toward our goal?  Who must do What by When to advance toward the goal – to close the gap?
  4.   What has happened, and what do we do now?  What did we try that worked?  What unexpected things happened?  What adjustments should we make?  How do we standardize our new way of doing things so the gap stays closed?

Think Better and then Do Better.  That is the goal.  And we keep that cycle up until the goal is reached and sustained.   Then…set a new goal.  There is no finish line!

Your Best Leadership Tool is…

…who you are.      “Leadership is influence,” according to leadership guru John C. Maxwell.   And nothing influences people more than the personal example of their leader.    When leaders are new, what they say carries a lot of weight.  But before too long, people start to pay more attention to what the leader does.  And if that is different than what they say, then people dismiss that leader’s words very quickly.

It’s been said, “people do what people see.”  This calls out that the example of the leader speaks much much louder than their voice.  And recently, John Maxwell called out the corollary to that, “people keep on doing what people keep on seeing.”

If you want to lead your people to embrace continuous improvement, the best way to build that culture is to practice continuous improvement yourself.   If you are improving your work, those you lead will see you doing that, and be inclined to do the same.  If you are telling people to practice continuous improvement, but not improving yourself, there will likely be significant headwinds to getting the behavior to take hold in your team’s culture.

Your best leadership tool is who you are.  The best gift you can give those you lead, is a better you.


What ARE we trying to do?

It’s such a simple question.  So simple, apparently, that it is often skipped over.  Or if we do think about it at the beginning of a project, or we remember it as we get into the fray of doing?

What are we trying to do?  What is our purpose?  What is the goal?  What problem are we trying to solve?   How will we know we made things better?

These are all versions of that simple question, that we frequently skip, forget, or worse yet…assume everyone already knows the answer.   (usually everyone knows AN answer, just not the same answer as everyone else)

And yet – think back on frustrating times at work or in any organization that you participate in – school, church, civic organization, club…the seeds of frustration are sown when we skip over or make assumptions about that simple question.


3-P, A3 Thinking, PDCA, Strategy Deployment, Problem Solving, and whatever improvement tools and methods we find to help us (or pay consultants to help us with)…these all begin with a version of that simple question.

As we look forward to 2015, what better time to ask in all areas of our life:  What are we trying to do?