When’s the last time you learned something?

Alas, sailing season is over. To ease my withdrawal pains, I read Points East, a nautical magazine. The Editor’s Page by Nim Marsh featured a story about the venerable old Lowell Boat Shop on the Merrimack River in Amesbury, Mass. It’s been in continuous operation since 1793, building dories and small boats out of wood.If you’ve ever been there, you know it’s a very small operation, but this caught my eye: “So many boats were efficiently produced at the shop that Henry Ford made a pilgrimage to Lowell’s, seeking ways to streamline his own assembly lines, which, according to vintage car buff Dennis Donahue, had already manufactured 17 million Model Ts in 19 years.”Henry Ford invented the assembly line, and it made him one of the richest men in the world. By any measure of success he had arrived. He was at the top, the very pinnacle, yet he was still looking for ways to do it better. Even more startling, he was willing to look at operations much, much smaller than his own in search of ideas that could help.He wasn’t proud; he knew good ideas can come from anywhere, and this boat shop had a reputation. Ford was used to getting ideas from strange places. He had toured a meat packing plant and noticed the cattle were brought to the butchers under their own power. “Why shouldn’t the work be brought to the worker?” And the assembly line was born.I’ve mentioned before that I was quite fortunate to meet and work with the late W. Edwards Deming early in my career. Dr. Deming is generally given the credit for showing the Japanese and so many others how to build very high quality products.The last time I saw him was in Santa Clara, when I bumped into him in a hotel lobby. We chatted a bit. He was 92 years old, and he told me he was still looking for ways to do it better.Dr. Deming was not as wealthy as Henry Ford, but he had been nominated for the Nobel Prize several times. The highest quality award in Japan is the Deming Prize. He and Gen. Douglas MacArthur were the only non-Japanese to ever be awarded the Emperor’s Order of the Sacred Treasure. And I can tell you mentioning Deming’s name in Japan makes them bow.Yet after a long and distinguished career as perhaps the most recognized and celebrated quality guru, he was still looking for ways to improve what he was doing.I left that chance meeting to meet with a 40-year-old vice president who already knew everything there was to know about everything. For which of those two would you think I’d have the most regard?Bill Gates was often criticized for his paranoia about Microsoft losing its lead, even when they had a very commanding position. He had an insatiable desire to learn how to make his products even better, often pulling all-nighters. Gates never graduated from Harvard, but he was learning things that weren’t yet being taught in schools.Even Steve Jobs, who told a graduating class at Stanford that he just wasn’t college material, spent his life learning things that just weren’t taught in schools. He learned from each of his new products how to make the next one even more innovative.So what about you? I don’t care if you’ve got an MBA or even a Ph.D. When’s the last time you learned something not taught in school? There’s nothing wrong with learning in school, but it shouldn’t be the only place we learn. Our jobs and environments provide numerous opportunities to learn.If you want to be leading-edge, you can’t learn it in school. By the time they start teaching something in school, it’s not leading-edge anymore. Too many people know about it.They say experience is the best teacher. Yet too many people, who claim to have 20 years’ experience, really have one year’s experience 20 times. You don’t want to be one of those.Unless your experience is making you better and better, you’re falling behind. If you’re not going out of your way to learn and understand as much of what’s new as possible, you’re very probably not staying the same, but failing to keep up with the rest of the world.Don’t envy the very successful; do some of what they do, and it could happen to you.Ronald J. Bourque, a consultant and speaker from Windham, has had engagements throughout the United States, Europe and Asia. He can be reached at 603-898-1871 or RonBourque@myfairpoint.net.