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Pat O'Toole's Dos and Don'ts of Process Improvement: DONT Expect a Miracle

Pat O'Toole explains why you shouldn't waste time looking for the easy path; start improving your projects' performance one day at a time and you will be successful – whether or not you EVER achieve Level 2.
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A few weeks before the Twin Cities Marathon, our running club traditionally hosts a 20-mile training run followed immediately by a potluck lunch. To get runners of varying skill to finish around the same time, we have the slower runners start out at 8am, the medium runners at 8:30am, and the fast runners at 9am.

A couple of years ago, I participated in the run and went out with the medium runners. At mile 17, I happened across a 285-pound "runner," who was lumbering along at a pace slower than most people walk. He was breathing heavily (no pun intended), sweating profusely and looking as though he was about to pass out. I was convinced that it was only the thought of the pending feast that kept him moving at all!

My first concern was medical, "Are you all right?" I asked. "I'm doing OK," he replied, "but I'm sure glad I started out at 6:30." After he assured me that he was going to make it, I promised to save him a plate of grub, bid him a fond farewell, and left him to ponder Newton's Third Law of Motion.

The run ended at an elementary school where we used the cafeteria for our luncheon. The "moving mountain" was the primary topic of conversation as the returning runners loaded up their plates and took their seats. "How could a runner allow himself to get into such bad shape?" was the question of the hour. "No 'real runner' would ever allow himself to fall apart like that."

With lunch just about over, the first runner to set out became the last one to finish. As promised, I had saved him some food, and so I brought it to the table where had he plopped down with a sense of self-satisfaction. A few members of our running club are newspaper reporters; they joined us at the table, each carrying another plate of food for our beleaguered colleague. The questions started slowly but the pace picked up as his story unfolded.

It turns out that about a year prior, Bill had tipped the scale at 400 pounds and decided right then to turn his life around. His friends scoffed when he made a public commitment to run a marathon. After consulting a sports doctor, he started off slowly, but still managed to drop over 100 pounds in the next 11 months. With only three weeks to go he was still hoping to run the full 26.2 miles within the six-hour time limit – and darned if he didn't do it! Bill's miraculous feat was featured in Runner's World magazine – an experience that most of us "real runners" will probably never enjoy. OK, to the moral of the story...

At every SEPG conference there is at least one presentation entitled something like "How We Achieved Level 2 in Three Months." These sessions are jammed with hopeful newbies praying for the miracle of instantaneous success. They could probably learn more from talking to Bill. First, they could learn that "one data point does not a trend make." They shouldn't judge the distance the presenters have traveled by only seeing them cross the finish line. After all, the presenters can run a 100-yard dash quicker than your organization can run a marathon.

They could also learn that you really can set aggressive goals and achieve them. But, more importantly, they could reflect on the fact that even if Bill had NOT successfully completed the marathon that year – he had still dropped 100 pounds and was a better man for it. Bill's life didn't miraculously improve because he ran a marathon; his life improved because he worked out every day for 11 months.

Don't waste time looking for the easy path; start improving your projects' performance one day at a time and you will be successful – whether or not you EVER achieve Level 2. As an anonymous marathoner said, "The miracle isn't that I finished... the miracle is that I had the courage to start." So take that first step – and enjoy the journey!

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