Rigorous Learning Systems

Rigorous Learning Systems:

Many companies are into problem solving using a format based on Plan-Do-Check-Act, the old Deming Circle, or using one of its many derivatives. The rigor of use varies, unfortunately, but rigor is the key to consistently clear thinking. The best systems require people to think in a logical format when they fill out reports. Repetition makes rigor habitual.

Sounds simple, and intellectually, it is. But behavioral change takes persistence and practice, as anyone can attest who has implemented formal problem solving in a company. People have to break old habits of finding fixes and forgetting the problems – and hiding “mistakes” that are important to learning. Old dogs have to learn new tricks.

A Common Language for the Organization

Why is this worth the effort? Companies have all kinds of problem solving tools already. What they lack is a common problem solving logic across all functions of the company. Once a common problem solving discipline is ingrained, it becomes part of a common language for the company. Once that happens people focus on common problems, rather than on blaming each other, and a common language bridges the silos.

The best companies’ systems record decisions, actions, and outcomes in a similar logical format. Designing such a system is easy. Developing discipline to use it is coaching people to form new habits and break old ones.

These systems work well for tame problems. These may be hard to see and to solve, but they are clearly definable. People agree that a problem exists. They can learn to agree on facts. Once found, chains of cause and effect are clear. And whether a countermeasure is beneficial or not is seldom disputed.

Stepping Up to “Wicked Problems”

Wicked problems spill outside this zone of relative certainty by stirring doubt, dispute, and division. The situation is murky and changing all the time. Human behavior and ecological behavior factor in; problem solvers are embedded in the system. Their beliefs and biases are apt to be part of the problem. Perspectives and beliefs clash. Personal status and welfare are at stake. Prior experience may blind us to the obvious. No countermeasure seems to be win/win. All seem to be Whack-A-Mole; solving a problem only to see it pop up somewhere else.

In this case, resolution may involve more than changing processes, but changing us, examining greatly differing worldviews and fundamental assumptions about how things work, or ought to work. Problem solvers may not even have the same criteria for deciding what is a fact.

In this case, resolution requires “dialog” with rules. The first few rounds among stakeholders in a problem strive only to understand facts and perspectives from different views. Such a problem rarely has a clear answer. Agreement for change may be reached. Sometimes it is dissolved: adopt a different belief and the problem melts away. (For example, if public nudity no longer offends you, then it is no longer a problem to you. However, if other people remain offended, the problem refuses to melt.)

Wicked problems are as much behavioral and emotional as logical. If they can be resolved (or dissolved), it is more likely to happen through insightful dialog. Dialog is under Behavior for Learning.

A common issue with both tame and wicked problems is not studying a problem deeply enough to frame it in context. Framing a good question goes a long way toward resolution.

Rigorous Record Systems:

This can start simple. 1. Keep a logbook of your problem solving. 2. Read the logbook.

If we can’t recall what we learn at the right time, we are apt to rework the same problem, or a similar one time and again. This is less likely if we record our understanding of a problem at the time, what was done and why, and the outcome – and actually look back at this. Failures are as important to record as successes. If conditions change, the same idea might work later.

Reporting to a record system recaps what was done and why. Just doing that reinforces learning, codifying it, not just doing a fix and moving on. Organizing our logic by an A3 paper format is an example. Human psychology factors in; we do not like to report negatives in detail. Leaders for learning drive out fear and emphasize learning processes. They reward learning, not just successful problem resolutions.

A record of what happened is useless if we can’t retrieve relevant information when new situations are faced. Computerized knowledge management systems should make this less onerous than in paper-laden days of yore.

To explain why a record system is important, consider how the importance of a university library is explained to graduate students learning the history of their fields. “The library is our past speaking to our present so that you can make our future better than today.”