The Inner Game of Continuous Improvement

By Jon Miller Updated on February 26th, 2017

Five-time Superbowl winner Tom Brady credits reading The Inner Game of Tennis by Tim Gallwey for helping him overcome anxiety and self-doubt, and to keep winning. I read the book looking for parallels and general lessons that could be applied to workplace performance and continuous improvement, and was not disappointed. Here is a summary of what I learned about what I will call “the inner game of continuous improvement.”

Non-judgmental Self-talk, a.k.a. Hansei

They key to the inner game is how you do hansei, or self-reflection. Above a certain level of competence, achieving high performance is less about the technical aspects of how the work is done or game is played, and more about how we let our thoughts and feelings get in our way. According to the author, a person’s ability to convert knowledge of technique into effective performance depends on “the kind of relationship that exists between Self 1 and Self 2”. Self 2 is the self who has formed the habits, the physical routines, the muscle memory and has the ability to perform. Self 1 is the self who is able to see and criticize what Self 2 does after the fact. The typical self-talk is critical, “Why did I do that? I know better! Focus!” Self 1 beats up on Self 2, and we “tighten up”, missing the easy shot by trying too hard.

For organizations, the parallel is creating a no-blame culture, removing fear from the workplace, from any team environment, be it office, sports team, family or inter-personal relationship. Being non-judgmental does not mean ignoring mistakes, it just means not feeling bad about them. Will and desire for clear-eyed and honest reflection is the background condition for improvement.

The Inner Game Way of Learning

The author lays out the following improvement steps as the “Inner Game Way of Learning”. To the lean thinker they may seem to be out of sequence. However, they closely follow the CAP-Do cycle, which is a variation on the PDCA / PDSA cycle.

Step 1 Observe Existing Behavior Non-judgmentally (C – Check)

Step 2 Picture Desired Outcome (A – Adjust, P – Plan)

Step 3 Let It Happen! Trust Self 2 (D – Do)

Step 4 Nonjudgmental, Calm Observation (Repeat CAP-Do)

First we “go see” to observe ourselves or others at work or performing sport. Then we identify problems and envision a better a better state, if not an ideal one. Then we trust “Self 2” to follow the standard “without conscious control of mind”. In organizational terms, Self 1 is management who trusts Self 2, the people, to do the work according to the standard they have been trained to, and to improve the work. Treat these mistakes objectively and unemotionally. They are not reasons to tighten up and try harder, but as opportunities to learn and improve.

Correct Technique is Standard Work

A basic pre-condition for high performance, in sport or in business, is consistency in executing the correct techniques and best known methods. On learning correct technique the author states, “I believe the best use of technical knowledge is to communicate a hint toward a desired destination” and this is how details of standard work is taught. The table below shows an example from a breakdown of tennis technique. The parallels to major step, key point and reason for key point as in a Job Breakdown Sheet are clear.

Source: The Inner Game of Tennis: The Classic Guide to the Mental Side of Peak Performance. Gallwey, Tim

There are a few other noteworthy parallels with the “inner game” to lean thinking.

Watching and Listening to the Ball

Watching and listening to the ball is identified as key to learning to focus in tennis. Within a business context, what is the ball? Is it the progress of the team on a project? Is it the number of sales calls made? Is it the monthly financial performance? The ball is the customer. In order to see how well our strokes and technique are actually performing, we need to be present where the ball is in motion – the customer’s gemba. This where the customer uses the product or service. Too often when leaders talk about “keeping an eye on the ball” it is in regards to internal issues such as progress or problem resolution, not on the customer.

How You Win is Sweeter than the Win Itself

“Reaching the goal itself may not be as valuable as the experience that can come in making a supreme effort to overcome the obstacles involved.” The lean thinking parallel is that developing people is as important, if not more important long-term, than delivering financial results through lean. More narrowly within problem solving, we say that the Check phase of the PDCA cycle involves examining both the process and the results of the improvement effort, so that we can learn from both.

Competition Makes Everyone Better

The author arrives at a startling conclusion. In competition, “it is the duty of your opponent to create the greatest possible difficulties for you” and you for the opponent. This raises the challenge for both sides to develop to their fullest potential, concluding “true competition is identical with true cooperation.” Too often competition in business is portrayed as zero sum, but if we valued learning to win as much as the win itself, the benefits of competition would be enjoyed more widely.

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