A Structured Approach to Personal Development

Setting the Stage

Continuous improvement and ongoing growth are key pillars of the Lean principles we hold dear and teach our partners at Beyond Benchmarks.

Unfortunately, one of the saddest results of the increasing pace of changes and evolution in today’s business world is leaders often feel they don’t have the time needed to invest in upgrading the skills and competencies that can best serve their organizations. Rather than proactively driving our work and becoming the best leaders we can be, frequently our work drives us as we reactively try to keep up.

Lean business philosophies and methodologies are all about improving efficiency, eliminating waste and increasing value for all involved. Lean thinking is a way of optimizing the resources, energy and, most importantly, the people of every organization.

Two of the most interesting and effective methods for channeling Lean principles into our professional and personal lives include structured and ongoing personal development plans (PDPs) and leader standard work (LSW).

Personal Development Plans

Commonly used tools for personal development plans include a “6-box” or “9-box” approach, also known as an “A3.” These are very versatile tools that can be applied to a wide range of improvement activities since they help measure both outcomes and the behavioral adjustments required to achieve a desired goal.

Here is the basic layout of an A3:

A3 Layout

Seems simple, right? That doesn’t mean it’s easy.

First, a strong statement as to WHY you wish to pursue a development plan is essential before keeping score and working toward benchmarks in support of your “why.”

Once our “why” is established, we must recognize and define where we are in our current state and where we want to be in the future. Ideally, we have both measurable behaviors and outcomes we can track. Although the importance of measuring our progress is obvious, how we define the most important things we’re measuring can be difficult.

A good starting point for leaders unsure where to begin is thinking about six dimensions for personal development:

  • Knowledge
  • Career Development
  • Skills and Competencies
  • Leadership
  • Behaviors
  • Human Development

This isn’t an exhaustive list, but it is a good place to start. Experiment with these and other dimensions to discover which are most important in your growth.

How then does this inform the metrics with which we’ll measure our progress? See the following chart:

Progress Chart

An accurate measure of our initial state is critical so that subsequent measures will inform our progress. This also implies that we are taking measurements at the appropriate intervals to not only keep score, but also determine if any refocusing or adjusting is called for.

So in my own example, in order to free up enough time to accomplish the above tasks, I needed to better understand where I was spending time in my current state. Done through the establishment of leader standard work, part of the findings suggested I was spending an inordinate amount of time in meetings and answering emails. Sound familiar?

Here’s what some of the specific actions taken to move metrics looked like:


Note the blue/grey tracker to indicate whether or not I finished each action on time. This should inform some reflections in our final steps and set up some thoughts for the next iteration.

Frequently, the relevance of our initial metrics will be revealed as we go through the process and informs changes to metrics that would be more meaningful in our next iteration. In many first attempts, it isn’t uncommon to discover some metrics are not optimal, difficult to gather or have other issues suggesting they be changed or discarded.

A monthly tracker helps keep us moving at a steady pace and locks in the new behavior of using this tool as part of our new standard work.  It can also help identify trends and underlying data problems or behavioral issues.



Finally, insights and reflections are critically important, but often under-utilized, aspects in this process. They require level-headed, intentional reflection and honesty — which, given the nature of our task-driven work, is not always easy. This is where many first timers of PDPs and LSW leave much on the table.

Here were a few of mine:

  • Spending too much time in value stream steering teams and not enough working on A3 operational improvement plans.
  • Finishing “The Toyota Way” by Jeffrey K. Liker. It’s a densely rich book exploring all dimensions of Lean philosophies. I need to read it again every six months or so, especially Chapter 21 directed to service organizations.
  • One of the managers I’m coaching is having trouble seeing how a PDP and the tracking of leader standard work can help them find more “white space” in their calendar. It’s difficult to fit into their packed schedule, they’ve never done something like this before, they don’t trust the process enough to commit the time to it and need to better understand the current state of their LSW.
  • I need to really lock in metric validation for next year’s targets and lead the financial target accountability in all value streams.

Before we move onto the leader standard work to enable your PDP, here are a few parting thoughts and reflections on personal development plans:

  • The development of a PDP often works best in conjunction with LSW.
  • This can be a very difficult process. It takes up precious time, so you’ll need to prioritize or delegate other things to truly invest in yourself and become a better servant to your organization and customers.
  • Admittedly, this is not for everyone. You really need to believe that this process can help improve you as a person, professional and leader.
  • Those who teach also learn. While teaching PDPs, I’m often unintentionally coached by the individuals I am coaching. By showing them my own PDP for a fresh perspective, I gain additional insight and suggestions for further improvement.
  • This is meant to be an ongoing, iterative process — not a one-and-done exercise.

Visit Part 2 of my approach to personal development for more on leader standard work — the “how” behind the “what” and “why” of a personal development plan.