The Myth of 10,000 Hours

In this TEDx talk, Josh Kaufman, author of The First 20 Hours outlines his theory of learning a new skill.

One of his key points is the prevailing belief that you must spend 10,000 hours practicing a skill to become good at it.

This equates to over 5 years of practice 8 hours a day, 5 days a week.

Intuitively, we all know we have developed competency at tasks in far less time.

The 10,000 hours is practice to become able to perform at an elite, world-class level against intense competition. A top grand master at chess. A winning starting NFL quarterback. To get on the top podium at the Olympic Games.

But as Kaufman points out, the first part of the learning curve – up to basic competency or even above, is very steep. The thousands of hours are for developing on a far more shallow slope into the level of the elites.

In the video, Kaufman broke the basic learning process down to four steps which mirror the structure behind Toyota Kata.

Deconstruct the Skill.

We, in the lean community, made a huge mistake in attempting to deconstruct “continuous improvement.” Instead of deconstructing the process of continuous improvement, we instead deconstructed the production processes that resulted.

We ended up with a list of production process characteristics – “you have to have kanban,” and “you have to have standard work” rather than breaking down the skills that were applied to achieve them.

Toyota Kata gives us a deconstruction of the basics of continuous improvement so that we can learn them. That doesn’t mean there aren’t advanced nuances to learn, but those are built on the foundation of competence with the basics.

And basic competence can get you a long way.

Just to be clear, this doesn’t mean you can get away without understanding the basic tools. It’s just that, in so many cases, they have been put into place without that understanding. The tools are there to help define “what should be happening” and clarify “what is actually happening” so you can apply the correct thought process and use them to drive improvement. Without the underlying thought process, taught by the improvement kata, sustaining the “tools implementation” is very difficult.

Learn enough to self-correct.

Learning enough to self-correct means that you can recognize the difference between what how you are doing it, and how you want to be doing it.

(There’s that “should be happening” and “is actually happening” theme again.)

You can certainly teach yourself to play the piano, or even teach yourself multivariate calculus.There were no flight instructors for Wilbur and Orville Wright, yet they managed to develop very sophisticated skill with aircraft that were dangerously unstable by any modern standard.

But to learn effectively, you need some baseline of what “doing it right” looks like. Sometimes that is obvious. Sometimes it is more subtle.

This is where having a coach really helps. A coach stops you before you get into trouble. He can correct a nuanced imperfection in your technique that may have a major impact. Having a coach can get you to this point much faster.

That’s why many people hire a coach, sometimes by a different name like “taking lessons” or “going to school” to help them get through this phase more quickly.

Most of the good Toyota Kata classroom training out there gets you close to, but usually not quite over, this point. You can try it, you can get through a PDCA cycle with good coaching, but likely you can’t pick up enough to self-correct yet. THAT requires practice with a coach until you catch on to what “good” looks like.

Remove barriers to practice.

If you are coaching or teaching, this is far as you can get someone to go if they really don’t want to participate.The learner has to want to learn the skill, because everything past this point requires internal motivation.

Feeling stupid is a barrier to sitting down and doing the work. The opposite way to say the same thing is “needing to look like you know what you are doing before you know how to do it.”

This is one reason there has to be self-motivation – because you have to be willing to be incompetent in order to build competence.

For some reason corporate training, and related adult education programs, call it “good” if you have your backside in the seat for the required number of hours. Does it matter if you were on your email the whole time? Often no.

So people get sent to the Corporate Training Department’s “Problem Solving” course, get it on their transcript, and are expected to be able to do it. Same thing for “Handling Problem Employees,” “Lock-out / Tag-out” and a myriad of other corporate topics. The goal is almost to simply create a record that you attended, so they can say “We trained him” and remove legal responsibility.

Toyota Kata doesn’t work that way. Many managers struggle with the idea that they have to do more than just attend the class. They are their own barriers to practice.

What are yours?

Practice at least 20 hours.

This isn’t the “myth of needing to practice.” You actually need to do the work.

20 hours of practicing the improvement kata breaks down to roughly 40 days if you are thinking that way on purpose and reflecting on your actions, and consciously self-correcting for about half an hour a day.

The more you try, the more practice you get, and the quicker you will come up the learning curve. It isn’t that hard, but you do have to work at it.

And working at it is more than just reading the five questions.

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