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Plain English About Information Quality:
The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Information Professionals, Habit 7: Sharpen the Saw

  Column published in DM Review Magazine
January 2005 Issue
  By Larry English

This is the tenth in a series of columns on how Stephen Covey's The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1989) apply to information professionals. If you have just joined us in this, I encourage you to read the previous nine columns of this series at www.dmreview.com/authors/author_sub.cfm?authorId=30029.

We start this mid-point year of the first decade of the third millennium focusing on the seventh of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Information Professionals, begun last January. However, this is not a conclusion, but rather a continuation of our journey to become more effective in accomplishing our respective goals, to add more value to our customers, to be more effective agents of change and to better be able to bring our organizations into the realized information age.

Habit 7: Sharpen the Saw

Habit 7 is to our personal effectiveness what Kaizen is to quality. Kaizen comes from two Japanese words kai meaning "change" and zen meaning "for the better or good."1 Kaizen is a quality management system that means a habit of continuous improvement involving everybody in the organization - managers and workers alike.2 "Sharpen the Saw" is the habit of "continuous improvement" of the other six habits of effectiveness. Masaaki Imai says that kaizen means "continuing improvement in personal life, home life, social life and working life."

Covey calls this habit the "Principles of Balanced Self-Renewal." This habit causes us to pause from our ever-busy lives and work to renew ourselves in four key aspects of our lives. We can become so caught up in our busy-ness that we can lose the edge of our effectiveness. Habit 7 causes us to consciously spend time and energy "honing" ourselves and our skills to keep and increase our effectiveness.

Habit 7 is about taking care of the most important resource you have - yourself. This habit is a quadrant II activity that I call "re-creation" - not just "recreation" of play or frenetic vacation as an interlude to work, but as time and activity that truly rejuvenates us. These re-creation activities are important, but rarely urgent until we become ill and must address it. Habit 7 is about increasing your PC (production capability) by taking care of yourself.

Four Dimensions of Renewal

We must focus on renewing ourselves in four critical areas of our lives - physical, spiritual, mental and social/emotional - in order to optimize our effectiveness (See Figure 1).

Figure 1: Four Dimensions of Renewal

Physical Dimension. The physical dimension is about taking care of your physical self - eating right, getting the necessary rest and exercising. A balanced exercise program addresses three areas, endurance, flexibility and strength. Endurance is improved through aerobic exercise, increasing the ability of the heart to pump blood through the body to provide oxygen. Without oxygen, the tissue can deteriorate or die. Flexibility is improved by stretching muscles so the body can better handle strain without tearing. Strength is improved through resistance exercise that increases the body's ability to perform the physical exertion required to perform our work or leisure activities safely and efficiently.

These three aspects of endurance, flexibility and strength are very analogous to the three quality characteristics of a data model and a database design (stability, flexibility and reuse):

  • Strength = Stability: a data model and database supports new applications accessing it by only adding new entity types/tables and new attributes/
    data elements without requiring structural modification.
  • Flexibility = Flexibility: a data model and database enables business process reengineering with minimal change to the model or design.
  • Endurance = Reuse: an operational data model and database is directly reused by all operational applications without requiring unnecessary redundant databases.

Spiritual Dimension. This dimension is the core of your life, your center and your commitment to your value system that provides the basic "leadership" to your life. It's a very private area of life and a supremely important one. It draws upon the sources that inspire and uplift you and tie you to the timeless truths of all humanity. And people do it very, very differently.3

The more I study quality management and the more I help people implement information quality functions, the more convinced I am that the discipline of information quality management (IQM) is a higher calling. It calls us to value and care for the knowledge-workers who are the information "customers" - not technology or application "users." IQM demands of us that we be good stewards of our products and services for the benefit of other stakeholders, including our enterprise's end customers.

The importance of spiritual renewal is that this is what is at the core of our being. It is our value system and the commitment to our value system. Our spiritual self represents our motives and what drives us in our lives.

Spiritual renewal takes time. It is a quadrant II activity. The spiritual dimension provides the leadership to your life, and as such is highly related to Habit 2.

Remember your vision (of the end in mind) for your information quality or information management outcomes?4 Sharpening the saw is about renewing your personal mission that gives you the energy and drive to see clearly (Habit 2) to move you to accomplish that vision (Habit 3).

Mental Dimension. Mental development comes through education -- formal and informal. Without a study discipline, our minds can atrophy. The information age demands continuous learning in all forms. However, we must ask a key question: Are we learning things that help us grow?

  • Do we learn the ins and outs of a technology, but fail to learn the principles of how to effectively apply the technology to creatively solve business problems?
  • Do we learn application or data development methodologies, but not how to reengineer business processes or how to effectively design enterprise-strength databases?
  • Do we learn how to measure information quality, but fail to learn how to improve processes to prevent the defects we measured?
  • Do we learn how to write "work" procedures for applications, without learning how information producers and knowledge-workers really work - and end up with cumbersome and inefficient procedures.
  •  Do we learn how to solve technical problems, but fail to learn how to solve people problems?

Training makes up two of Deming's 14 Points of Quality. Point 6, "Institute training" directs us to train people so they know how to perform their work to produce quality outcomes. Point 13, however, teaches us that learning how to do today's skills is not enough. Deming entitles Point 13, "Institute a vigorous program and education and self-improvement," teaching us that we must learn tomorrow's skills.5

Thus, the real question we must ask ourselves is this: Are we learning tomorrow's skills? What are you doing to prepare yourself for tomorrow's information age workforce? Skills include personal and corporate ethics, value-chain management (as opposed to vertical functional management), quality improvement techniques - such as Plan-Do-Check-Act and Root-Cause Analysis and interpersonal relationship development (which makes up the fourth dimension of Habit 7).

Social/Emotional Dimension. The first three dimensions - physical, spiritual and mental - align closely with Habits 1, 2 and 3, respectively. The fourth dimension (social/emotional) focuses on Habits 4, 5 and 6 - the "public victory" triad. These represent the principles of interpersonal leadership, empathic communication and creative cooperation.

As information professionals, we must develop ourselves as leaders, regardless of whether we hold a title of manager or professional. Only as leaders can we effect positive change and growth in the area of our scope of influence.

The social and emotional sides of our lives are interdependent. They are shaped by and are exhibited in the interpersonal relationships with others, at home, at work and at play. The renewal of this dimension happens through our interactions with others.

While the first three dimensions are renewed by carving out Quadrant II time for them, we have ample opportunity in regular contacts with people to sharpen the saw of our social skills. We hone them by practicing Habits 4 (Think Win/Win), 5 (Seek First to Understand, then to Be Understood) and 6 (Synergize).

It is in the social/emotional dimension that information professionals affect a difference to their enterprises. Here is an example of how you can sharpen the saw professionally. The next time you experience a difference of opinion with someone you need to or want to relate to positively, try this Covey prescription:

Practice Habit 4. Say to the person: "I can see that we're approaching this situation differently. Why don't we agree to communicate until we find a solution we both feel good about? Would you be willing to do that?" Most people who are not win/lose personalities would agree to that.

Then, practice Habit 5: "Let me listen to you first." Do not just listen to replies, listen empathically to seek to understand others' views and their paradigms. When we can turn around and describe their point of view as well as they can, then you should be able to share your view in a way that enables them to understand your paradigm. If both parties are open, then it should be possible to explore alternative solutions that might be better than either initially proposed.

Practice Habit 6 by honestly exploring those alternatives to look for ways of synergizing so that the outcome will be better than either original "solution."

It is disheartening to hear information professionals say, "My management won't support what I am doing." I will ask, "Have you listened to you manager to find out what his/her burning problems are?" If information professionals honestly listen to understand the business problems that their managers are grappling with (Habit 5), and if they have a clear vision of what outcome their services will provide (Habit 2), and they understand the next steps of how to get there (Habit 3), then there is no reason why they will not be able to share their story in a compelling way (for it will be a Win/Win - Habit 4) and achieve a favorable response.

This whole process may cause information professionals to rethink our personal mission and vision. Einstein said it best, "We cannot solve problems with the same thinking we had when we created the problems." Have you understood the real business purpose of your professional work, and do you have your own professional mission statement?

  • Do you have a vision of what it will look like when you accomplish that mission?
  • Have you understood how what you do fits into the value chain of your enterprise?
  • Have you identified who in the organization your work must help succeed in order for them to provide support for your initiatives?
  • Do you understand the next steps that you and others must do to move you to accomplish your vision?

If yes, then you are ready to tackle the world and have probably already done so. If not, consider the following. Join the IAIDQ (International Association for Information and Data Quality). Come join those who want to learn how to apply sound quality management principles effectively to information, the second most important resource to any enterprise. You could also plan to attend The 17th IQ Conference in Houston, September 19-23 to learn effective IQ management techniques and to network with others who are solving their information quality problems. Also consider reading Covey's The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People to reinforce what you have learned in this series; Deming's Out of the Crisis chapter 2, "Principles of Transformation," to understand the 14 Points of Quality and how effective organizations change to adopt quality management as a business management tool; and my Improving Data Warehouse and Business Information Quality, chapter 11, "The 14 Points of Information Quality" to understand how Deming's 14 Points apply to information quality.

Next month I will discuss Habit 6, "Synergize." While this is the last of the seven habits, it is not the end, but a beginning or a continuation of your own personal journey toward effectiveness. Through this series, I have tried to sharpen my own saw. I thank my daughter, Ashley English Daniels, who inspired me in this endeavor. And I hope this will have enabled some of you to reach deep inside yourselves, to discover and focus on your own value system and to draw upon your resources to become more effective in your life and work. I end this series with Covey's words: "The Daily Private Victory - a minimum of one hour a day in renewal of the physical, spiritual and mental dimensions - is the key to the development of the Seven Habits, and it's completely within your Circle of Influence. It is the Quadrant II focus time necessary to integrate these habits into your life, to become principle-centered."6

Moving along the upward spiral requires us to learn, commit and do, on increasingly higher planes. We deceive ourselves if we think that any one of these is sufficient. To keep progressing, we must learn, commit, and do, learn, commit, and do, and learn, commit and do again.

What do you think? Let me know at Larry.English@infoimpact.com.


  1. Masaaki Imai and Brian Heymans, Gemba Kaizen, booklet, p. 22, adapted from a chapter in The Change Handbook, Peggy Holman and Tom Devane, ed., NY: Berrett-Koehler, 1999.
  2. Imai, Masaaki. Kaizen: The Key to Japan's Competitive Success. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1986.
  3. Covey, Stephen. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1989.
  4. English, Larry. "The 7 Habits Of Highly Effective Information Professionals: Habit 2: Begin with the End in Mind." DM Review, May 2004.
  5. Deming, W. Edwards. Out of the Crisis. Cambridge, MA: MIT Center for Advanced Engineering Study, 1986, p. 23.
  6. Covey, op. cit., p. 304.

Editor's Note: Habit 6: Synergize will appear in the February 2005 issue of DM Review.


For more information on related topics visit the following related portals...
Business Intelligence and Data Quality.

Larry P. English is president and principal of INFORMATION IMPACT International, Inc., Brentwood, Tennessee, and the author of the widely acclaimed book, Improving Data Warehouse and Business Information Quality: Methods for Reducing Costs and Increasing Profits. English is cofounder of the International Association for Information and Data Quality (www.iaidq.org). English is an internationally recognized speaker, teacher, consultant and author and may be reached at larry.english@infoimpact.com or through his Web site at www.infoimpact.com. For more on how to improve your IQ principles and techniques, and prevent your organization from wasting millions in information scrap and rework, join the IAIDQ (visit www.iaidq.org).

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