avalanche education

Feedback and Kaizen

Avy season has already opened in Colorado, with two accidents (neither lethal, thankfully) under our belts. It doesn’t take long when you have tens of thousands of folks new to the mountains and the bitchiest snowpack on the continent within minutes of downtown Denver. I’ve been looking ahead toward the new recreational curriculum that’s due out any day from the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE).

The new AIARE fieldbook

The new AIARE fieldbook

I was lucky enough to be a contributing editor/writer on the project, which is to say, I took the inspired, wise words of the Education Committee and lead author, Colin Zacharias, and do an edit on them. I added a few things here and there, but to say I’m an author on the project is a little generous. Nevertheless, it’s an improvement over past iterations of the AIARE curricula--and that’s no small feat. AIARE has been refining its avy offerings for three decades, relying on world-class researchers and educators and guides for insight.

I spent some time recently thinking about the debrief--an integral part of the AIARE method--and how it can jumpstart our learning and quest for mastery. I posted a blog on the topic last week; give a look if you’re psyched. I see the debrief as one of the best ways to identify weaknesses in our practice and address them.

As we head into avy season and I’m expected to teach courses on the matter … I’ve been revisiting my presentations and approach. Time to improve! Buried with the debrief is the job of taking our weaknesses and concretely identify and execute our improvements. It’s not enough to say, “Yo, bro, you’re sketchy. You should try not to be sketchy.” Well, it’s probably right on some level, but it doesn’t actually set up our sketchy bro to identify, implement, and execute practices to improve.


The beloved Tim Horton’s Honey Cruller (upper left); a planning session (upper right); and stoked clients above the Burnie Glacier Chalet.

The beloved Tim Horton’s Honey Cruller (upper left); a planning session (upper right); and stoked clients above the Burnie Glacier Chalet.

Some of you may recognize the “kaizen method.” In dumbed-down mountain guide terms, it simply means incremental improvement. Each day we perform an activity--working on the line in a car factory, painting houses, ski guiding--then we debrief, and hopefully we come away with an area in which to improve and an idea of how to do it.

Research shows incremental changes in behavior are far more sustainable than undertaking massive overhauls in our behavior. Dieting, for example, is way more palatable to most of us if we simply forego sugar in our morning coffee, rather than trying to eliminate it from every aspect of our lives. (Eliminating it entirely would mean avoiding donuts and no human has ever given up donuts successfully. Everybody knows this.) Rather than going for the cold turkey solution, it’s far easier and more effective to gradually improve our diet.

The Japanese word, kaizen, captures this philosophy, usually in the business realm. Daily, incremental improvements lead to greater skill and efficiency over time. It’s a pretty simple concept, one made famous in part by the Toyota Production System. Workers at Toyota are encouraged to make tiny improvements every day, leading to exceptional quality once the workforce has progressed to a collective state of mastery. For our terms, let’s consider ourselves “workers” in the task of planning safe, fun ski tours. Every day we identify one little area where we could improve, and the following day we address that issue with specific, concrete adaptations.

Critical to identifying these small areas for improvement is reliable, quality feedback from teammates. In the AIARE curriculum, we stress the critical role team plays in safer skiing/riding/slednecking. Less experienced practitioners often view team members as merely potential searchers/diggers in the event of an accident. Good teammates, however, should be involved in avoiding mistakes, rather than simply digging your carcass out of them!

Sure, beacon-shovel-probe practice is essential (check out AIARE’s new Avalanche Rescue course for the deep dive into it!), but far more important is your teammates’ ability to recognize a mistake, call attention to it, and help devise solutions to avoid it. That might be during a planning stage, on a tour, or during a debrief after the day. Delivering an opinion or some helpful feedback requires tact and a conscious approach to making it effective.

Good teammates, good feedback. And great touring … above  Ymir Lodge , where we deliver AIARE 2 and Avalanche Rescue courses.

Good teammates, good feedback. And great touring … above Ymir Lodge, where we deliver AIARE 2 and Avalanche Rescue courses.

“The quicker and more direct the feedback, the more useful it is,” write Spreitzer and Porath in the Harvard Business Review (Jan-Feb, 2012 issue). I’ve discussed “deliberate practice” elsewhere and for me, receiving direct, immediate feedback works for pursuing deliberate practice. Some people--a minority, I’d say, based on my avy courses--prefer feedback at the end of the day or at a natural break in the activity. Most, though, ask for a quick, to-the-point and respectful bit of feedback while they’re in the midst of their transition, kick turn, or uptrack. Pay attention and perhaps even ask, “Hey, you wanna chat now or later?” with your teammates and you may have a more receptive listener.

Keep in mind, too, the delivery of the feedback is often as or more important than the feedback itself. Feedback, too, isn’t only negative/critical---couch your feedback in positivity! You could offer a positive first and then something constructive regarding an area of improvement. For example, “Yo, your pace today is awesome! Good on ya for quitting donuts! Keep in mind, too, not everybody is as fit as you. Maybe try keeping the skintrack under 15 degrees and the folks at the back might actually move more steadily.”

For the record, no one has ever given up donuts successfully. But I digress.

I love working with other guides because I receive free teaching and feedback every day. When Tom Wolfe and I work at Burnie Glacier Chalet or plan a trip like our Ski & Sail Svalbard, we’re always suggesting little tweaks--everything from how we post a trip on our website to how we managed a transition on a windy ridge to what sort of coffee we might bring next year. We have a great working relationship, so I know when he gives me feedback, he has my best interest in mind and he’s committed to seeing me do a better job. Free feedback from an ACMG-trained ski guide? That’s gold right there, people!

See if your teammates are into debriefing, sharing feedback, and the daily improvements of kaizen. In the space of a single season, you’ll be that much closer to mastery, no matter what you’re doing.