Commit It to Memory
Home page
About Us

“If you want to retain those who are present, be loyal to those who are absent.”

-- Dr. Stephen Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People

“Learning cannot be disassociated from action.”

-- Peter Senge, The Fifth Discipline

“The most important measures are both unknown and unknowable.”

-- W. Edwards Deming, Out of the Crisis


Commit It to Memory by Kevin McManus

First published in Industrial Engineer magazine June 2003

Most of us recognize the fact that we remember very little of what we hear or see in a training session if we do not put those concepts or skills to use very soon after going to the training. At the same time, we all recognize the need to remember and use those key tools, rules, and ideas that are introduced at such sessions. I feel that we get lost so to speak when we fail to make distinctions between those things that are nice to know and those things that we must know.

For example, let's look at a statistical process control training session. In such a session, we are usually exposed to the different types of variation, control charts, and control limit calculation methods. Soon after leaving the session however, we have forgotten the details about using these tools, in turn making it difficult to actually use them. Technology has helped us remember many of the things that we used to forget, but because we were likely overwhelmed with of the information presented in the training session, and we did not get the chance to practice using these tools enough, the probability of using these tools is relatively low. Think about it – what do you remember from the last SPC training session you went to?

I can remember a point in time sixteen years ago when I could not repeat the list of seven quality improvement tools from memory. Now this may not seem like that much of a problem to some of you – after all, there are many places where we can go to look such information up. On the other hand, I had already taught these tools to other people and was expected to use them as part of my job. Shouldn't I be expected to be able to rattle off the list of seven tools with no hesitation at all?

As time has gone on, I have searched to define those concepts and tools that we as managers, or as people otherwise responsible for performance improvement, should be able to list from memory. As I help my people learn those skills that will make them more effective in their job, I seek to define which things need to be committed to memory. For example, can your people describe the top five things they need to do on a regular basis to work safely as they perform their daily jobs? Can your managers repeat the company's mission statement or key strategic challenges from memory? If they cannot, is there cause for concern? Why can't they remember?

When someone says to me “I forgot”, I am quick to ask that person to make a comparison. I begin by asking “Why did you remember to put on your clothes before leaving the house this morning?” They usually respond with something like “Well, that is common sense – no one goes out of their house without being dressed.” After pausing for a moment of reflection, I then ask “Is what you forgot to do just as critical to the company as leaving the house unclothed would be to you?” They usually say “Yes” if I have asked the question in regard to an appropriate moment of forgetfulness.

There are a lot of careers in life where successful people have to rely on their memory in order to perform at above average levels. A fireman cannot take the time to look up the procedure for entering a multi-story house that is ablaze. A middle linebacker cannot consult the defensive playbook as he is scanning a given offensive set prior to making a defensive play selection. A facilitator cannot reference the tip sheet on how to deal with difficult people in the midst of a heated strategic planning session.

I believe that memory will be one of the four critical mental effectiveness skills that will emerge over the next five or so years (along with whole brain thinking, mind speed, and use of all seven intelligences). There are many resources to study if you want to improve your memory, but we really need to begin by gaining clarity about what things we really need to remember as part of doing our job each day. This is especially key in a day and age where information overload is such a salient concern.

There are several ‘best practices' that high performing organizations employ in order to help make sure that their people remember the important things. For example, one company has created flash cards of such key things for their people to study during breaks, lunch, or before and after work. Studying the cards is key, because pay raises are contingent on answering all of the questions right on a certification test – the questions on the cards are the same as those on the test.

I expect my people to know the top five things they can do daily to help improve in the areas of cost, morale, quality, and safety. These expectations are built into our work instructions, our certification materials, and our job aids. If my people can remember the top twenty things (in four chunks of five items) that they can do each day to affect these four areas, they will be much more prone to live those expectations each day.

We all too often get caught up in teaching people theories that they will soon forget or expecting them to know every detail of a given job. Unless these expectations are properly designed and delivered, the probability of them being committed to memory and recalled as needed on the job is quite low. People don't remember paragraphs of words – they remember ‘chunks'. People don't remember long quotations unless the phrases and sentences are somehow linked together. Are you able to recall the poem that you memorized in tenth grade English class? If so or if not, you need to explore the approach that was used to commit that poem to memory.

We are learning that the human brain filters out a lot of information in order to help keep the mind sane. We are also learning that an environment which contains even a small amount of fear is not the best environment for either learning or memorization. Research is also showing us that we retain a lot more information then we can effectively recall. The challenge in the future will be to teach the right stuff in a manner that allows the concept to be understood, retained, and applied consistently.

As this century progresses, mind power will supersede physical power as a prerequisite for high performance. Those managers, trainers, and CEOs that can link memory with instinctive behaviors in the workplace will have company success that will far outpace that of their competition. If the phrase “I forgot” is heard all too often in your organization, perhaps you need to revisit the approaches you use to train people. It could be the case that they are being asked to commit too much stuff, or the wrong stuff, to memory.

Would You Like to Learn More?

Click on one of the following links to learn even more about Great Systems! and the types of systems improvements I can help you make:

Great Systems! home page
More articles on performance improvement
Systems Change: The Key to Getting Better Results
Do You Need Great Systems!
Types of Systems I Can Help You Improve


“The only thing I know is that I do not know it all.” -- Socrates

Copyright © 2015, Great Systems!
Last Revised - March 1, 2015
Contact me at: