When it comes to going to see the doctor, what kind of person are you? Some people go see the doctor every time they sneeze. Others go for regular check-ups. And then there are others who will only go long after they should have. Think the Black Knight from Monty Python and the Holy Grail – “it’s just a flesh wound” (ah, that scene NEVER gets old for me). People are all over the spectrum with how often they see a doctor. Personally, I’m not quite at the black knight level, but I know I don’t go as often as I should.
Why do people go for check-ups? Well, as the saying goes “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”. Kind of like my buddy who had the heart attack. Had he gone to the doctor when he first experiences symptoms, he might have been able to prevent the heart attack. Or at least reduce the pain involved in having it. The prescribed “regular checkups” are really just checkpoints on your overall health. They are a way for doctors to see how you are doing year after year, and check if there are any signs of trouble on the horizon.
We see these checkpoints at a number of spots in life. Most jobs do yearly performance reviews. These are really ways of checking in to see how we are doing. Ways to examine what we are doing well, and what we can improve upon.
Financial people often recommend that we meet with them annually or bi-annually, to see both how we are currently doing as well as to find out if anything in our lives has changed that would affect what we should do moving forward.
In the business world, projects often have a phase called “lessons learned”. The idea in the lessons learned phase is that we look at what worked, and what didn’t in a project. That way if we ever undertake a similar task, we can try to build on our experiences and avoid making the same mistake again. So we can improve for next time.
Heck, in some ways that’s what New Year’s Resolutions are about. The New Year becomes a checkpoint for setting goals that we want to accomplish in the coming year.
The Golf Ball Game
Recently I went to a business conference on problem solving and continuous improvement. We opened the conference by breaking into teams of 10-15, and playing a game. In the game each team received a bucket of golf balls. We had to see how many points we could score, and to score a point we had to follow a few basic rules. We scored one point for each golf ball that passed through the team. The rules were:
- Each member of the team must touch the ball at least once
- You are not allowed to pass the ball to the person directly next to you
- The last person in the team must pass the ball to the first person on the team to complete a circuit
- The ball must be airborne during each pass
We were given 2 minutes to come up with a plan and 2 minutes to try out our plan, after which each team then gave the convener their scores. We then had 2 minutes to revise our plan, 2 mins to try out the new plan, and provide score updates. I think we repeated this process 2 more times (for a total of 4 attempts). The first time we did this, I think we passed 16 balls around the group. By the last pass, we were around 200.
For all the groups at the conference, our initial plans didn’t look anything like the ones we came up with on the fourth attempt. Our process evolved, and was different every time. Thing is, there were a number of things we were changing as we went. We changed the way we organized the people in our group. We changed the way we handed off the balls. We changed the way we kept track of our counts. And we changed the number of balls we held in our hands for each pass.
It was a really fun exercise, and the convener used it to illustrate a few points. One was that if you just keep doing something the same way, you won’t see change. You may see some marginal efficiency improvements, but that’s it. If our group came up with a plan and kept trying it, we may have gone from 16-25. For significant changes, sometimes you need to re-examine every part of what you are doing, and be willing to try different things. But you can’t do that unless you take the time out to discuss what you are doing among the team.
That’s how we opened the conference. The rest of the day we talked about all sorts of problem solving techniques. I won’t dwell on details, but here were some highlights for me:
- There are multiple approaches to doing things. Just because you have “always done something this way” that doesn’t mean it’s the best way.
- If your current approach isn’t working, try a new one.
- Don’t continue down the same path repeatedly expecting different results.
- Sometimes stronger personalities have a way of driving things, but all members of a team can provide value so it’s important to find ways for everyone’s voices to be heard.
- When dealing with problems, it can be overwhelming and sometimes not possible to deal with the whole thing at once. If you can find ways to break up problems into smaller pieces, and then focus on one piece at a time, problems become much more manageable.
- In a team setting, communication is very important. One of the best things you can do is have continuous checkpoints to see how things are going, and evaluate if the approach you are taking is working/makes sense or if you should try something different.
One of the key topics of the conference was how we should always strive for continuous improvement. Alright, I know it was a business conference. But hey, I like to write about relationships, and I’m kinda neurotic about this stuff. So of course I started connecting this back to the realm of life, and love.
Isn’t continuous improvement a great goal to have in everything in life? It doesn’t matter what you are doing – shouldn’t you always want to improve? Should we ever really say “ah, that’s good enough” if we know something can be better?
If you enjoy golf, aren’t you always trying to improve your game in order to have a better score. Even if it’s just casual fun, there’s satisfaction in seeing improvement. If you enjoy cooking, isn’t there value in trying new things. You may try some recipes and end up hating them. But you might love the next one. Look at parenting. For the sake of your kids as well as your own sanity, there’s value in learning different approaches and techniques that you can use. Heck, even if it’s something you hate (say, scrubbing toilets) – getting better or at least more efficient at it means you can get it done faster.
If you’ve ever heard of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs isn’t that what self actualization is about? Being the best person that you can be? I’m not content with just being a good toilet scrubber – I want to be the best toilet scrubber I can be!!!
Improvement in Relationships
The goal of continuous improvement also applies in relationships, and it shouldn’t even matter what state your relationship is in. Some relationships need a lot of work. Others don’t really seem like they need work, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be better.
If you are truly committed to someone, shouldn’t you want to have the best life together possible? If there are things you can do to improve the relationship, then you are making life better for both you and your spouse. And all the same points from the above apply.
A buddy and I once joked that relationships should have the equivalent of checkpoints or performance reviews, where you have an opportunity reflect on how you are doing and set some goals together. I actually think that it’s a great idea, I’m just not sure how exactly you go about doing it. When the idea came up, we talked about it being something you do on your anniversary. The point that was made in the conference was that once a year isn’t enough. For continuous improvement, this should be part of your everyday life. If you see areas you can change and improve, do it. Don’t wait.
Some of the biggest areas for conflict in relationships are how you spend time together, splitting of household duties, parenting, sexuality and finances. As a couple, take a look at those areas and talk about them. In every area there are probably things that you think you are doing well, and other things you think you could improve on.
Pick a topic (splitting of household duties for example), and individually put together a list of the things you think you are doing well, and the areas you can improve. Then compare notes. Doing it individually and then sharing prevents the more dominant personality from saying things like “Yeah, of course we are doing a great job of splitting household chores. Now hurry up and finish vacuuming – you’re blocking the TV”, while the less dominant personality says “yes dear”. By comparing notes both voices can be heard. Ideally you both see the same strengths and weaknesses, but you may also find that some of the things you think are going well are things your spouse thinks you can improve on. Isn’t that good to get out in the open?
For things that you want to improve on, try different things. Try something for a while, and if it’s still not working try something new. Don’t be scared of change. Just because you’ve always done something a certain way, doesn’t mean you have to continue doing it that way. Let’s face it, even if something used to work, if it’s no longer working you can’t hold onto it.
Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results – Albert Einstein
If your relationship is in a fairly distressed state, then sometimes the issues can seem overwhelming. By focusing on one item and trying to make improvements to that first, you can make gradual changes to your relationship. Start with something small and manageable – not the major conflict points. Dealing with the smaller issues can increase the overall satisfaction in the relationship, while showing that larger changes can be successful.
One thing that’s easy to lose sight of is people change, and situations change. I’m not the same person I was 20 years ago. Why would I expect my wife to be? For any long term relationship, you need to be willing to grow together, and re-learn each other again and again as the years go by. And hopefully you continue to fall in love with each other again and again as you both change.
Here’s a scenario from my life (which shows that yeah, guys can be dumb). When my wife and I started a family, my wife stayed home with the kids. We came up with a way of dividing the household chores that seemed to make sense for us. After a number of years, my kids were in school full time and my wife started working again. But guess what? For a while, I expected our division of labor to continue as it had. It wasn’t a conscious expectation, but I was set in my habits of the chores that I had been doing for the past few years. I didn’t take into account that suddenly my wife had less time available, but for some reason I was expecting her to do all the things that she had been doing before. Our situation had changed, so we needed to change our approach. These sorts of things happen all the time.
Communication is Key
It doesn’t matter how good or bad your relationship is at the moment, there is always room for it to get better. Perfection doesn’t exist, but continuous improvement is a goal we should all be striving towards. To do that, you have to be committed to your spouse and your relationship, and be willing to communicate. Increasing your understanding of each other and being willing to put your spouse’s needs at the same level as your own is key to a lifetime of happiness.