One Percent Better

Hurray! We’re getting a version update of our electronic medical record (EMR) this month. Of course, I might be overplaying my excitement here: EMR updates are emotionally closest to a trip to the dentist – usually turn out fine, but hardly worth circling on the calendar.

Like a good dental cleaning however, these updates can be beneficial. Although uncomfortable, EMR redesigned menus and shortcuts can help – once you’re used to them. It typically doesn’t take long for most of us to learn the “improvements” so we’re at least not worse off. It is also a good time to update customized features. I try to use updates as an opportunity to refresh SmartPhrases, update order preferences, or rearrange my desktop to be more efficient.

Given how much my quality of life depends upon my EMR skills, it’s a shame I don’t make an effort to work on it more often. Really, why wait to make improvements just once a year? Why not get better every day?

This idea of continuous improvement is a popular meme in the self-improvement community right now. Instead of working on goals or adjusting your routine episodically, set an intention to get better, just a little, daily. Sometimes it’s described as the 1% model. The idea is that improving your habits or work flow by 1% each day will yield compound benefits with time. It is an aggregation of marginal gains with a surprising payout. For example, daily 1% improvements would mean you are 37 times more effective by the end of a year. Now, I don’t believe this mathematical model is necessarily accurate or even necessary. But the concept that a little development done daily yields lasting improvement seems to be true.

The corollary, that if you got a little worse each day, you’d be much worse off at the end of a year, is also reasonable. That’s how most health problems set in: continuous and insidious aggregation of bad choices. Why then not use that same principle for good instead?

The Japanese thought of this idea a generation ago. Applied to manufacturing, they called it Kaizen, “continuous improvement.” It was a managerial principle that reminded people to look for opportunities to improve, just a little, wherever they were in the process and to do so each day. It led to remarkable reductions in waste and became a key to their economic success.