When it comes to work, it’s time to “Honor the Game”

When it comes to work, we need an attitude adjustment. More than just injecting social tools and practices into what we do, we also need to inject pride and quality. A pursuit of mastery and operational excellence. Ways to make the jobs more fulfilling

Simply put, we need to radically alter the way millions of people approach work.

But how?

The secrets are in a new approach to youth sports. And in an old approach to making the trains run on time.

Jim Thompson & “Honor the Game”

Somewhere along the way, people forgot the point of youth sports. It became less about camaraderie, fun, and personal development. And it became more about winning at all costs - with increasingly violent results.

Jim Thompson wanted to change that. And, in 1998, he founded the Positive Coaching Alliance with the ambitious mission “to transform youth sports so sports can transform youth.”

Jim takes a holistic approach to coaching sports. He starts with a focus on personal mastery of a sport. The preparation, discipline and hard work required. How to develop the necessary skills and techniques in pursuit of excellence.

Then he couples the pursuit of mastery with the need to “Honor the Game” - respect for rules, opponents, officials, teammates, and one’s self. This is what frames each person’s approach to the sport. How they behave in addition to how they perform.

When I first heard about it, it seemed like just a nice idea. Then, I saw “Honor the Game” promoted on the official  little league site, with guidelines for all new players, parents, and coaches. Same for lacrosse.

And recently, walking by my local baseball field, I noticed everyone enjoying the baseball games underway. I thought of Jim Thompson.

And I saw those 3 words embroidered on every kid’s cap.

The miracle of the Japanese train system

That holistic approach - the pursuit of mastery coupled with respect for the game and the people playing it - can also apply to work. And the best example might be the Japanese train system.

Japanese railways are among the most punctual in the world. The average delay on the Tokaido Shinkansen in fiscal 2006 was only 0.3 minutes. When trains are delayed for as little as five minutes, the conductor makes an announcement apologizing for the delay and the railway company may provide a "delay certificate" (遅延証明書), as no one would expect a train to be this late.”

I’m in Japan as I write this and I see it first hand. The train system is sprawling, covering remote small towns, and yet every single train I take is on time. Every person working there is efficient and helpful.

Compared to the New York City subway I’m used to (“one of the most extensive public transportation systems in the world”), Japan’s system has 20 times more track and carries 14 times more passengers. Yet the experience for the NYC customer is, to be kind, completely different.

Why is the Japanese system so much better?

An answer can be found in the holistic approach espoused by Jim Thompson. The Japanese rail companies’ pursuit of mastery covers a comprehensive array of improvements. It includes new technologies while it also capitalizes on the quality and process innovations introduced more than 60 years ago by W. Edwards Deming. As a result, they have an entire workforce focused on continuous improvement and squeezing errors out of the system.

The entire workforce also honors the game. Due to their national culture as well as their corporate training, they respect the procedures while also respecting the customers, their fellow employees, and themselves.

It’s time to “Honor the Work”

As I try and avoid being a cheerleader for social business, I’ll be thinking of all that goes into the miracle of the Japanese train system. And of the value that social business methods will contribute.

Would applying social tools and practices further improve the Japanese train system? Probably.

Would they make the trains run on time? No.

If we truly want to change the way we work, it won’t be by bolting on new techniques to what we do. It will be to apply Jim Thompson’s holistic, comprehensive approach.

“Honoring the Work” will be about pursuing mastery, bringing to bear all the improvements from past decades. Looking back at the Demings and the Druckers. Even the David Allens and the Atul Gawandes. And looking forward, complementing past  innovations with the emergent promise of social tools and practices.

And it will also be about providing a framework for behavior based on respect. Respect for the work itself as well as the people involved.

After all, the real goal isn’t just making business social. It’s improving productivity while making the jobs more fulfilling.

That’s honoring the work.