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The Importance Of Small Changes In Improving Performance

by David Brock on December 18th, 2017

Too often we think of performance and continuous improvement incorrectly.  While we and our managers (who are trying to coach us) may be well intended and highly motivated, we set ourselves up for failure from the outset.

One of the problems is we try to change too much.  It’s kind of like some bad coaching I got on my golf swing.  Rather than going to a professional and paying for coaching, I asked a friend who had a very low handicap advice me on my swing.  He watched me at the driving range, then said, “Dave you have to do these 5 things….”

He was absolutely correct, I was doing at least 5 things wrong.  But what happened was that I tried to correct those 5 things all at once.  You’ve probably guessed it, the results were even worse!  I was trying to do too many things at one time, I was getting confused, and just failed.

As individuals and managers, we often make the same mistake, when we look at performance improvement, we try to attack too many things at one time, not focusing on improving execution in one thing first, the moving to the next, then to the next.

We would be far more effective in improving our performance or that of people on our teams by focusing on and mastering one thing at a time.

The second area, is that we try to achieve too much in too short a time.  Very often, I sit with executives that want to drive huge performance improvements, as a result they set goals that drive are so high people fail. We try to make giant steps in performance improvement, inevitably failing, where lots of little steps, over the same period, may be more effective.

For example, “You need to double the number of prospecting calls you make every day.”  There are endless examples of these.  They may be right, it may be necessary to double prospecting calls, but it takes a lot of things to do this and to make that doubling effective.  Sure people can dial twice as many numbers–but probably not improve results.  Sure, people can have twice as many conversations, but if they aren’t talking to the right people about the right things, they won’t improve their results.

One of the things we miss in performance improvement is the cumulative impact of very small improvements we make day by day.

To illustrate this, let’s do the math between two performers.  Let’s say one is 99.5% effective in what they achieve every day, the other is 99.9% effective.  Most of us would say, these are each top performers.  Most of us would say the difference is negligible.

But at the end of a month (let’s assume a 20 day working month), the cumulative difference in performance is 8% and the end of the year, the difference is over 250%.

It’s astounding!  A very small improvement in performance, every day, has a profound impact on our overall performance over time!

Perhaps, we would achieve more, if we made performance improvement simpler.  What if we looked at ourselves, at our own personal improvement, what if we said, “What do I need to do differently every day to improve by a fraction of a percent every day?”  Those daily incremental improvements stack up and accumulate, driving massive changes over a month and year.

Running the same math, just saying, “What if I improve my performance by 0.1% every day?”  At the end of the month, the change would be a little more than 2%, at the end of the year, it would be 8%.

How do we do this?

Well first, we need to measure ourselves, we need to track a few simple numbers to understand our current performance.  They needn’t be complex.  While it would be nice to have hard data, they needn’t be hard data driven.  For example, an honest Yes/No to the question:  “Did I accomplish more in each customer call I made today than yesterday,” could be very powerful.  It gives us a simple measure of whether we are getting better.

Of course, we could leverage data provided by many of the systems we use, but we have to be cautious in how we apply them. ” Did I make more calls today than yesterday,” is a very bad measurement.  We need to put an outcome dimension to that to drive tremendous improvement.  So, “Did I make more calls achieving my desire outcome than I did yesterday,” is much more powerful in driving performance improvement.

Once we start tracking ourselves, again, it just needs to be one simple measure, as long as you are being brutally honest with yourselves, then we need to know, “How do I get better?”

It’s really hard to do this by ourselves.

We can go to training and get the knowledge of how to get better.  Likewise, we can read books or blogs to get that knowledge.  But having the knowledge is insufficient.  It’s how we apply that knowledge that drives performance improvement.

And that’s where we need help.  That’s where coaching comes into play, having someone that can observe what we are doing, help us understand that, and help us improve in how we apply that knowledge.

This is the magic of great managers and leaders who do great coaching.  They recognize that performance improvement is more successful if we get a little bit better every day.  They don’t try to get massive change, they aren’t like my friend coaching me on my golf swing.  While my friend was right, his “coaching” didn’t improve my performance, it made it worse.

To do this, it takes deep understanding and keen observation on the part of the manager.  You don’t do this by analyzing numbers from behind your desk.  You don’t do this, by dictating all the things that need go be fixed.

We do this by working closely with each person, watching them, observing them, understanding each person.  It takes the recognition that the little thing that will cause each person to get a little better every day, is different for each person.

Little changes, little improvements every day have profound impacts on performance improvement.  Set a goal for yourself, have your people set goals for themselves.  It doesn’t have to be big.  Less than 0.5% improvement every day, makes you over 8% better at the end of the month, and over a year makes you 250% better.

Imagine the impact of this little change done everyday.

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6 Comments
  1. David, I can relate to your golf example of trying to attempt too many swing changes at one time. On the other hand, one of my favorite business books is Right Away and All at Once by Greg Brenneman, who is one of the world’s foremost experts on business turnarounds. Brenneman’s advice is to pick four or five “blue chip” items to transform a business, and implement them right away and all at once (as opposed to the traditional incremental approach). While Brenneman is talking about the entire business, there are times when multiple simultaneous changes are necessary to move the revenue needle.

    • Chris: Thanks for the comment. Having done a number of turnarounds, either as the New Executive, or as a consultant brought in by the board, I understand and agree, in principle, with Greg’s approach. You have to drill into it a little more deeply:

      1. Typically, in a turnaround, there are a lot of things broken. There is a critical sense of urgency to turn things around, in the cases we’ve been involved with, the business viability is an issue.
      2. Identifying the few big/high leverage issues and focusing on them is critical. We tend to focus on the top 3-4, but the principle is the same as Jack’s.
      3. As you point out, these are the top 3-4 at the corporate level. When you translate it down to the individual level, ideally, it becomes 1-2. The reality is people can’t effectively manage more than that it big changes. Often, we try to get the team to break these down into smaller chunks, executing them very quickly. The thought being, it’s easier to drive a lot of little steps, very quickly, then a couple of giant steps. So the individual level looks very different than it does at the top level.
      4. In the article, I was looking less at the turnaround situation, but more at the overall continued improvement, development and growth of the organization.

  2. Dave, you might find some interest in the examples cited in Carl Honore’s “The Slow Fix”.

  3. When receiving sales coaching, the process can be overwhelming, especially if there’s a lot to change. The problem is, trying to fix too many things at once can be overwhelming. By implementing suggestions one at a time, you can assess what really works.

  4. It stands to reason that every business needs to build an effective sales force. However, there’s no “one size fits all” approach that works. Rather, businesses should focus on developing the sales team that will help best achieve their objectives.

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