Stepping Outside Your Comfort Zone

Pick up any newspaper, magazine or technical publication and you can learn about competition from many local, national and international sources. Articles on how to confront the competition through leaner operations, increased throughput, faster color changes, superior manufacturing techniques and shorter lead times are available from multiple sources. Staying one step ahead of your competition is more difficult than ever, but there are many ways to do so.

One side of the competition story that is not discussed as prominently is how to develop yourself so that you remain a valuable asset to your organization. What activities or plans do you have for staying current with the new research and technology that is continuing to develop and change at an ever-increasing pace?

Education is one way to improve our skills. For most of us, it has been a long time since we attended a college. But colleges and universities are realizing that returning students comprise an increasingly larger part of the student population, and they are responding with more classes and programs for the working professional.

What areas of your current job do you want to develop? What new areas of business would you like to investigate? I would challenge each of us to seek an opportunity to expand our education. Attending classes at local colleges is also a good place to meet other people working on advancing their education and skills. The network of people that is built outside of your daily path can help you develop your professional career. On-line classes are another option to expand your education. They offer a wide variety of topics and flexible schedules.

Another opportunity for personal development is to volunteer. During my daughter's parent-teacher conference this fall, the discussion turned to the parents' support of a child's education and development. Seeing the college sweatshirt that I was wearing that particular night, the geometry teacher asked if I would be willing to come to school one morning and give a presentation to approximately 100 ninth-grade students. The topic would be, "Why it is important to learn geometry."

If you have never had the opportunity to try to hold the attention of ninth-grade students, give it a try; it is not as easy as it may seem. Motivating these young minds to embrace mathematics and engineering is not for the weak. But there can be rewards lurking in the shadows.

The day after my presentation, the teacher called me to say that she had received a call from a parent of one of the students. The parent said that whatever happened at school that day was special. The student would not stop talking about why she needed to work hard and learn Geometry.

Volunteering can also mean taking a leadership roll in an organization. Using your skills and talents to coordinate a group of volunteers is a great way to learn how to take on similar leadership rolls in your professional career. Stepping outside your comfort zone and taking on a challenging task can be difficult but very rewarding. As a past president of a local professional organization, I have seen that the skills and personal relationships built with others who have similar interests can also help you to improve yourself.

Expand your horizons by investigating and researching a new technology. As new technologies emerge, there are applications for them outside the original scope of development. The use of an ink jet product labeling system to "paint" a darkened reveal (a detail line in a part's surface) could replace a complete finishing process, saving thousands of dollars a month. What other alternative technologies are available to solve a manufacturing problem that you are currently struggling with?

The time to act is now. As the competition increases and corporations downsize, writing a personal plan of continuous improvement makes more sense now than ever. The activities of the day are a constant reminder that there are issues to be solved and problems that need attention.

Days turn into weeks, weeks into months, and before you know it, a year has slipped away. By writing down an action plan with goals and dates, you have made a commitment to yourself to continue to grow and develop in your profession.