Habits and Repetition: the Key to Learning

Posted on March 28, 2013 by

Learning habits are an essential and critical to learning a new discipline. I am not an expert in Kung Fu, that much is clear. However, I am learning useful skills every time I step into the DOJO, which is 2-3 times per week. When I look back as a beginning white belt almost 2 years ago, I am amazed at how far I have come. To give you an idea, I had very poor flexibility in the hips (unlike my female classmates), and could hardly raise my legs higher than about 45 degrees from the ground! I was humbled right from the beginning because I always considered myself pretty sporty! Today, while not perfect, I can do a side blade kick with my leg extending close to 90 degrees! I have also discovered just how much I need and want to learn as I look forward to testing for my purple belt next month. How did I get better with my flexibility?  I achieved it through habits, exercises, and repetition.

The same can be said for lean improvement. To learn and develop, it is important to realize the value of habits and frequent repetition. Lean improvement is a complex skill that requires new instincts, habits, and behaviors. If we want to learn this, it takes frequent exercise, practice, and doing it over and over again. Ironically, it isn’t until later when it dawns on us the reason why we are doing something, which at the onset is unclear, has a clear purpose. Going back to our Kung Fu example, the first thing my Kung Fu Sensei drilled into me was learning the “horse stance.” I thought at the time, why on earth am I learning this? I thought I was here to learn self-defense. Being the savvy Sensei he is, he would not answer, and would instead demand correction when my stance was out of form, even slightly. One day it dawned on me why the “horse stance” is fundamental to early martial arts learning – it forces one to be centered, develop balance, and learn control.

So habits are key to doing continuous improvement in a structured, successful way. When we practice lean, we learn what value is, how it is created, and what constitutes waste. We learn first what the deadly wastes are, and then we learn how to actually see problems. Instead of rushing in to fix problems in the typical “wack a mole” fashion, we learn to understand problems before we fix them. This can a hard skill as we all come to work as well-intentioned solutions people. But until you deeply understand the problem, using the intelligence of everyone directly impacted by it, how can you be sure that your suggestions will ensure it’s both fixed and stays fixed? Lastly, it is a skill to verify results empirically. This is hard for people to do consistently. We need to see if improvements are producing the expected outcomes. All too often, we don’t know if what we changed made the difference. With practice and new habits, we can make improvements and learn valuable lessons.