Small Improvements That Can Transform Your Professional Life

small daily improvements

If you don’t work in manufacturing – which is very likely since less than 9% of U.S. jobs are in the manufacturing sector – then you probably think continuous improvement has nothing to do with you.

And you would be wrong.

Ultimately every job, even a “creative” job, is inherently a production job. Speed, quality, efficiency, cost control… the best performers in any role work faster and do better work. Productivity always matters. (Just ask all the people desperately wishing George R.R. Martin would finish the next book in the Game of Thronesseries.)

And that’s why the best performers – knowingly or not – adopt continuous improvement techniques to streamline their own tasks and de-clutter their own workdays. Maybe you’ve at least heard of 5S, or benchmarking, or Six Sigma… but I feel sure you’re using at least a few of the techniques found in the Toyota Production System (TPS), a methodology Toyota employs to constantly make incremental improvements that lead to better quality and production efficiency. (I worked in manufacturing for almost twenty years and for us, TPS was like the Holy Grail of process improvement.)

Fortunately, if you want to be more productive, you don’t have to undergo a total professional makeover. You can just adopt a few simple techniques and strategies that will streamline your workday, free up time, sweep away some of the clutter… and ultimately let you accomplish a lot more by doing a little less.


Decide who will decide.

Placing authority and responsibility where it belongs is a hallmark of any productive work environment. That means the biggest decision you can make is choosing who is in the best position to make certain decisions. (Hint: it’s rarely you.) Smart manufacturers set parameters and guidelines and then give the right employees the authority to make the right decisions.

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I once worked in a manufacturing plant where every new job couldn’t go into production until a supervisor had signed off on quality. If that seems strange to you, it definitely seemed strange to me. After all, operators were responsible for ensuring the product met quality standards during the run, so why couldn’t they be trusted to determine whether the product met quality standards before the line fired up?

You probably do the same thing. Most likely, someone made an expensive mistake and you want to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Whatever the reason, here’s the problem: sign-offs automatically reduce the amount of responsibility employees feel for their work because someone – maybe you – has inserted their authority into the process… and now it feels like you are in charge, not me.

Here’s a better way: explain, train, provide guidance, and then trust people to make smart decisions – because when you do, they will.

(Don’t forget you can also use this at home. One way is to give your children broader parameters instead of strict rules, and then trust them to work within those guidelines. You’ll be amazed by how quickly they take responsibility when you let them “own” their decisions.)

Eliminate unnecessary decisions.

Decisions take time. Decisions can be incorrect. And if nothing else, decisions naturally create – you guessed it – indecision.

That’s why best practices exist: when you’ve found the best way to perform a task it makes no sense to constantly revisit the performance of that task until after you’ve dealt with other bottlenecks and choke points.

But there’s an even simpler use of this strategy. Take Leo Widrich, the co-founder of Buffer: he wears jeans and a t-shirt every day. And he eats the same thing for lunch every day. Why? His goal is to avoid decision fatigue; he’s found what works for him and he saves his mental energy for making decisions that truly matter.

Pick a few things that work well for you and stick with them. Don’t make yourself decide every day what to have for lunch; pick a healthy meal you like and stick with it. Don’t make yourself decide what you’ll do first when you arrive at work; automatically tackle the task with the highest impact and knock it out before you do anything else.

Save your brain power (and, ultimately, your willpower) for making the decisions that require thought and analysis and sound judgment. That’s what great manufacturers do – and you can too.

Take a regular step back.

Methodologies like Toyota Production System include scheduled meetings to review past performance and brainstorm potential improvements.

In short, they build in regular periods of reflection. Most of us don’t, unfortunately. We spend a lot more time reacting — to peers, to direct reports, to customers, to competitors – than we do reflecting on what we could do better.

Every day (or at a minimum every week) schedule a little quiet time for yourself. Congratulate yourself for what you’ve done well and then consider what you could have done better. Step back and approach an old problem from a new angle.

Give yourself the time – and the permission – to be creative; you’ll be surprised by how many great ideas you have stored up inside you.

Use a realistic to-do list.

Your daily punch list probably includes twenty or thirty items.  That isn’t really a to-do list. It’s a wish list, because you’ll never get all of those things done.

Continuous improvement teams often have hundreds of items on their punch lists, but then they focus on knocking out one or two key items at a time.

So can you. Create your wish list. Include every task, every idea, and every project you would like to complete.

Then pick three or four items from your wish list that are the easiest to accomplish. Or pick two or three (or even just one) that will yield the biggest payoff. Or pick three or four that will reduce the biggest frustrations or eliminate the biggest headaches.

Make your short list your actual to-do list – and then work hard to get those items done. Then you can create a new to-do list from your wish list… because the process of improving your life should never end.

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