Tag Archives: learning as a catalyst to change

Drive Change Initiatives by “Feeding the Brain”

learning

A high tech firm was studying a group of competitors and one of the team members explained that when the firm sent people to visit other companies, each person was given a specific “learning goal.”

In addition to their task at hand, the visitor was expected to learn as much as possible about a particular issue and then share it within the firm. The organization believed their competitiveness could be improved largely based on how effectively they brought knowledge into the company.

Consequently, they invested in gathering, disseminating and using learning as a catalyst to change.

Similarly, we recently saw how powerful knowledge transfer can be when conducting a “Lean Office” training session during which we helped a cross-functional group map their value stream. All the participants had thorough knowledge of their own piece of the process, but no one really knew much about the processes of their internal customers and suppliers.

Value Stream Mapping is inherently a ‘knowledge sharing’ or learning process, so there were plenty of Eureka’s! When individuals learned how their work fit into (and often slowed or hindered) the work of other parts of the value stream, they were able to identify ways to shrink the time required to deliver their service by well over half.

To quote the innovator, Doug Hall, we must ‘feed the brain’! In order to develop new insights, new solutions, new opportunities for competitive advantage, we must actively mine for knowledge that can trigger solutions.

All sorts of learning can become a catalyst for change. Learning about the market and the customers can help you see possibilities for innovation that you have overlooked before.

Leverage Learning for Change

learning for change

The importance identifying threats and opportunities and then quickly making necessary changes / improvements was discussed in our previous post, which defined this competency as organization agility.

An equally important component of sustaining a culture of improvement and change is the pursuit of knowledge. To develop new insights, new solutions, new opportunities for competitive advantage, we must actively mine for knowledge that can trigger solutions. In other words, learning can become a catalyst for change.

Here are five key areas in which this knowledge can be accessed:

  1. Learn from the work. The most important knowledge of all is knowledge of your own value stream — he set of activities that move the value from your suppliers through your operations to your customers. Know it in detail — how long it takes, where it piles up, how well it is synchronized with the needs of the customers. In most organizations, there is a knowledge barrier that holds the waste in place: the people who know the work best are seldom in a position to know the big picture so when they see waste, they often assume there must be a reason for it. And if they know of better ways of doing something, they often lack the influence to make any significant changes. And those with the broader perspective and the influence do not really understand how the work as it is done today well enough to arrive at the ‘Eureka!’ moment. One of the fundamentals of the Lean approach is that you must “go to the work.” Don’t just talk about the results or listen to people talk about the work — go to the work. Look at the work, and learn from the people who do it every day. Without this knowledge, little can be substantially improved.
  2. Learn from the marketplace. A prime example of learning from the market took place in the early 1980’s when Toyota believed that, to grow their sales in the United States, they would need to have manufacturing facilities here. But they concluded they did not have enough knowledge to do so successfully. So, they entered into a joint venture with General Motors opening the NUMMI plant in California to produce both the Chevy Nova and the Toyota Corolla in the United States. Having achieved their learning goals, Toyota went on to open plants in Alabama, Kentucky, Indiana and more. General Motors had the opportunity to learn the production systems that enabled Toyota to produce very high-quality product with low cost. Indeed, many individuals at GM learned a great deal through this venture. But in keeping with the practice of gathering knowledge by chance and then leaving it where it lies, GM gained little more from the venture than the cars that came off the assembly line.
  3. Learn from customers. Customers may tell you what they want, but not necessarily why. What do they really value? How do they use or struggle to use what you give them? What are the things that you could do differently that the customers would not know to ask? They don’t ask because they know enough about your process to suggest it and you don’t know enough about their process to offer it. Contextual inquiry is a method of learning more about the customer needs than the customer could tell you by watching the customer use the product in context. It has been used by some software developers and systems designers for a number of years. But it can be used in many other circumstances. The staff of an assisted living facility was able to eliminate almost half the forms in the move-in process by spending time with the departments requesting the forms to really understand how and why they were used. With the new understanding, they were able to design a much simpler and less error-prone move-in process that also perfectly met the needs of the accounting, facilities, and medical departments as well.
  4. Learn from the competition. In his book, “Benchmarking: The Search for Industry Best Practices,” Robert Camp described a methodology to learn and apply better ways of doing things by identifying and studying the best. His is a rigorous and time-consuming methodology, and companies must choose the most important aspects of their work to compare and try to improve. In addition to benchmarking, there are a number of quick and inexpensive ways to mine competitive information. Visiting competitors’ websites can increase knowledge and generate ideas about how you might leapfrog them by combining the best of the competitors with your own best capabilities and offerings. Visiting the competitor as a customer can also tell you a great deal about their customer service and how you can improve your own. The manager of a loan processing and underwriting group went to a competitor to apply for an auto loan — and was astonished at their speed and quality. This learning experience changed his mindset: “We were processing loans as fast as we can. Now I know we have to process them as fast as they can!”
  5. Learn from the world at large. What is going on in technology? What methods are others trying out? How is it working for them? How could it work for you? In the mid-20th century, Toyota noticed that Ford auto workers were nine times as efficient as those at the Toyota plants. So, they sent Taiichi Ohno to study the Ford processes. Ohno concluded, however, that the capital-intensive Ford production model could not be applied to the Japanese automobile company. Nonetheless, Ohno continued to search for ideas for improvements. On one study mission, Ohno watched the bread replenishment system in a Midwestern grocery store and saw how he could adapt this method to make cars with low capital requirements. The Toyota Production System was conceived — a breakthrough achieved!

Learning & Development: 3 Key Best Practices

We are often asked about how organizations can optimize the value of their Learning & Development programs, with many C-level leaders looking for ways to increase training-related behavioral change as well as their return on investment.

A recent VitalSmarts webinar addressed this subject quite nicely, and shared several perspectives that are well-aligned with ours. For as long as the recording might be available, you can listen to the webinar here.

Alternatively, here’s a brief summary:

First and foremost, the webinar’s over-arching premise is that Learning & Development must become a strategic partner of the C-suite in order to bring about improvement and real behavioral change. In addition, there must also be a C-level commitment to consistent L&D programming. As the presenters said several times, “Training, or L&D, must be treated as a process rather than an event.”

In case anyone needed convincing, some thought-provoking statistics were then shared.

For example, only 7% of Learning & Development leaders measure the bottom-line effectiveness of their training programs. Possibly more troubling, only about 10% of all Learning & Development executives have met with the C-suite; and only a few align their training plans with the organization’s strategic plan.

In addition, only 35% of the US workforce receives any training at all! And even then, the average is three days of training per year.

Finally, without effective reinforcement and ongoing development, only 14%-15% of the information shared in training “sessions” is applied in the workplace. Instead, people most often do nothing differently or make a few changes for a while and then revert back to whatever they were doing in the past. Clearly this enormous “gap” represents significant waste, which was referred to as “learning scrap.”

Next Steps: 3 Best Practices
For those determined to improve the value and effectiveness of their Learning & Development programs, that is to increase learning transfer and reduce learning scrap, three best practices were suggested:

  1. Define the role and purpose of Learning & Development within the organization. To begin this process, the first couple of questions might be, “What would translate to a breakout year for L&D?” “This training will be a success when… (complete the sentence”?”
  2. Build the Learning & Development platform on defined and agreed-to business outcomes. It was pointed-out that most L&D managers plan their programming on what they “hope people will learn.” But the real focus should instead be on “what people will do differently as a result.”
  3. Recognize that L&D is a process, not an event. The process must include ongoing measurement and support to ensure the business outcomes are achieved. This means coaching, reinforcement, and accountability on multiple levels:
    • C-level must be committed and allocate resources for appropriate levels of learning as well as for reinforcement and ability coaching
    • L&D leaders must align with business outcomes, and move the “finish line” of their training to include an achievement phase.
    • Front line managers must provide reinforcement and support
    • People at all levels are accountable for applying what they’ve learned and related behavioral change

Learning from the Marketplace to Promote Internal Change

As noted in our previous post, “knowledge” is one of the most powerful change agents, and all sorts of learning can become a catalyst for change.

One very effective source of knowledge is our marketplace, which includes our customers and competitors.

By learning from the market we can often see possibilities for innovation that have been overlooked. Of course learning is only the first step, as the gained knowledge must then be applied.

For example, in the early 1980’s, Toyota believed that to grow their sales in the United States they would need to have manufacturing facilities here, but they concluded they did not have enough knowledge to do so successfully. So they entered into a joint venture with General Motors, opening the NUMMI plant in California to produce both the Chevy Nova and the Toyota Corolla in the United States.

After they achieved their learning goals, Toyota went on to successfully open plants in a number of U.S. locations, applying their knowledge each time.  While General Motors had the opportunity to learn the production systems that enabled Toyota to produce very high quality products at low cost, and while many individuals at GM learned a great deal through this venture, GM gained little more from the venture than the cars that came off the assembly line.

Learning from the customer can also open our eyes to new possibilities. But it’s important to recognize that customers may tell you what they want, but not necessarily why.

So making the extra effort to go beyond just “what they need” to gain knowledge is critically-important. Contextual inquiry is a method of learning more about the customer needs than the customer could tell you by watching the customer use the product in context.

What do they really value? How do they use or struggle to use what you give them? What are the things that you could do differently that the customers would not know to ask? And consider that they don’t ask because they don’t know enough about your process
to suggest it, and you don’t know enough about their process to offer it!

Similarly, knowledge of the competition can produce a greater sense of urgency or a heightened “willingness” to change, and in many cases can give us better insights as to the best ways to satisfy our customers and achieve a competitive edge.