It has been said that “there is nothing new under the sun.” It has also been said “of making of many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.” Although much could be said about both those statements there is one underlying theme I have taken away from both, which I’ll share by taking you back a few years to when I was a younger man.

During those years I trained in the martial arts: specifically, karate and kickboxing. I loved it! It was a healthy outlet for all the energy I had at the time and provided me with structured discipline, something lacking in previous years. In training for my first tournament my Sensei said and did something that stayed with me ever since. He said “if you are thinking you are going to learn some secret Bruce Lee move in order to win, you’re wrong. There are no secret moves. The only thing that wins is mastering the basics and conditioning.”

He taught us the basics and he worked us, to the point where, to put it politely, we learned very quickly not to eat much before coming to class! We did the same basic moves over and over and over again until muscle memory took over, where we could act or react without giving it a thought. We physically conditioned our bodies where we could finish each round with the same intensity as when we began. By training at his gym you were guaranteed to win a trophy. Our gym was often not invited to tournaments as it generally ended up with our people competing with each other in the finals and taking home all the trophies.  

The same principle applies to our pursuit of mastery and growth in business. In our quest to become bigger and better there is a tendency to look for that silver bullet which will solve all our problems; that “secret move”, that “something new”, which will win us the prize. Instead we should be in pursuit of mastering the basics, first by understanding them and then being steadfast in their implementation and sustainability.

One key factor is employee engagement. During my Lean training the instructor put it this way: “employee engagement is the heart of Lean.” Here are some typical results of implementing Lean:

  • Double labor productivity all the way through the system (for direct, managerial, and technical workers, from raw materials to delivered product)
  • Production throughput times reduced by 90%
  • Inventories reduced by 90%
  • Errors and scrap in production cut by 50%
  • Job related injuries reduced by 50%
  • Time to market for new products halved
  • Wider variety of products, within product families, can be added at very modest additional cost
  • Capital investments required will be modest, even negative, if facilities and equipment can be freed up and sold
  • Firms having completed the radical realignment can typically double productivity again through incremental improvements within two to three years, and half again inventories, errors, and lead times during this period

Pascal Dennis, the President of Lean Pathways and author of many Lean books, made this statement: “The only sustainable way of reducing cost is to involve your team members in improvement. The TPS (Toyota Production System) relentlessly attacks muda (waste) by involving team members in shared, standardized improvement activities. A virtuous cycle ensues: The more team members are involved, the more success they enjoy. The more success they enjoy, the greater the intrinsic and extrinsic rewards, which stimulates more involvement.“

The continual pursuit of learning through conversations is something we talk a lot about at Actionable. Engagement doesn’t happen through a shortcut or quick fix. You begin by defining the goal, culture, gap, or issue you would like improved. You then share that with the workforce and have them be actively involved in process of implementation: leaders are developed, employees are engaged, community and personal values are nurtured. You have a conversation, take action, and then enjoy the impact.

As I learned through my study of martial arts, there are no shortcuts to mastery, just as there are no shortcuts to engagement. Progress is earned through the repeated application of ideas. What are you doing with what you already know? Don’t just keep reading books, act on what you know to be true until you have mastered it. Then, move onto the next.

There may be “nothing new under the sun,” but sustained practice through action can create mastery. You just might take home the trophy.