Learning Systems for Learning Organizations

Compression - Problem SolvingDavid Veech, May 26, 2011

The Compression Institute is recommending that organizations take aggressive steps to become vigorous learning organizations.  We make this recommendation because we lack perfect information. We can’t perfectly predict the future. Therefore an organization’s best hope for weathering whatever storms may come is the collective ingenuity and creativity of its people – as a learning organization.

Training programs a company offers its employees, no matter how robust, don’t make that company a learning organization.  While those training programs are valuable and will provide a certain baseline of knowledge, being a learning organization has less to do with what people collectively know than how they respond to new and unforeseen challenges, obstacles, problems, and crises.

This type of skill is simply referred to as problem solving; something we humans do frequently in our daily lives, but in a completely unstructured way.  Our actions are driven by our experience base rather than by analysis.  That presents the major concern:  we cannot solve unforeseen, unanticipated, and novel problems the likes of which compression will bring, by thinking from our experience base.  For these, we must learn to analyze, synthesize, and evaluate.  Quickly.

Organizations that teach their workforce a standard problem solving process and demand full participation in that process are a leg up on the rest of us.  Unfortunately, these organizations are few and far between.

Teaching everyone a standard problem solving process requires a firm structure with clear rules, strictly enforced.  Many processes will fit this bill if properly taught.  At ILS we teach a process we call C4: Concern, Cause, Countermeasure, and Confirm.  We have a C4 worksheet for team-based problem solving. We have a C4 card for individual problem solving.  Both provide documentation for trend analysis. Both provide a step-by-step guide that demands thorough analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. (ILS will provide the forms and a rough guide at no cost to companies asking for them.)

However, C4 is no more magical than many other ways to structure problem-solving logic. The magic is in the practice; constant practice.  Following the process is often frustrating, but the only way to get the magic is by slogging through the slop.  Repeating the process of identifying problems clearly, determining root causes, and developing and implementing countermeasures reinforces higher-level learning for people.

Perhaps the most valuable practice toward becoming a learning organization, though, is the Confirm stage as we structure it. Confirm prompts people to follow-through on the countermeasure implementation to ensure that it sticks. This demands updating standardized work by a team of people.  It demands that team members learn the new standardized work (TWI’s Job Instruction is a proven technique for embedding learning).  It demands that the individual (with the C4 card) and the team (with the C4 worksheet) think through the entire problem solving process after it’s finished, searching for opportunities to strengthen the approach itself and reinforcing the learning achieved by completing the process.  It ensures that processes actually work the way the documentation says.  This type of After Action Review has proven to be an effective learning tool, but it works best if the people involved do it again; and then again.  The only way we can get this kind of repetition is by applying the problem solving process to our daily work; not just special projects.

To start becoming a learning organization, select or define your preferred process (C4, Six Sigma, 8D, etc.)  Document it. Give it solid structure. Reinforce it every day. Teach everyone how to problem-solve using this structure. Insist that leaders become coaches to improve everyone’s skills doing this.

This isn’t all there is to becoming a Vigorous Learning Organization, but developing this rigor in daily practice will help you get there.

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