Learning from experience is one of those challenging processes that everyone wants to do and understands the value of, but is incredibly difficult to implement effectively, even in relatively small or simple organisations.
It seems obvious, we had a non-optimal outcome, so next time, we’ll do it differently. Next time comes along, often elsewhere in the business and we do the same thing, expecting a different outcome. Un-surprisingly, we get the same, non-optimal result, and difficult questions start to be asked.
So why is this so difficult?
It strikes me that to understand the difficulty of organisational learning, we should consider the human psychology and the way a child learns by doing. By touching fire, a child learns that it is hot and it hurts – they don’t repeat that experiment / mistake. Another person telling them it’s hot doesn’t have the same impact.
So, simply telling people what went wrong – sharing the knowledge, has a low chance of making an impact and stopping them doing the same thing.
Our organisational learning processes are often built around documenting and sharing knowledge. The cynic in me thinks this is because it’s easy – we can clearly show we’ve tried, that we’ve done something. We’ll even establish metrics for how much knowledge we’ve stored, sorry, shared.
Rarely do we think about the way people learn, the child with their hand in the fire. We forget that our organisations are made up of people. Rarely do we try to measure the effectiveness of our knowledge processes, or try to understand how often it is accessed and used. Why? Because it’s just too hard! The benefits are intangible (although immense) and measures are meaningless.
So what can we do?
There are no easy answers to this one. It is embedded in the culture of our organisations, and that type of organisational change is slow and subtle.
However, as quality professionals, we can start to nudge…
Change the language
I often find myself invited to lead or participate in a ‘lessons learnt’ review at the end of a job. I explain (gently!) that a lesson hasn’t been learnt until an action has been taken, or something has been done differently. Within my organisation, we now call them ‘learning from experience’ reviews or even ‘lessons to learn’ reviews.
Turn learning into action
In the business I work in, our learning from experience reviews no longer just produce lists of what we did well and what we could have done differently. Like any other meeting, they now generate actions that are tracked and managed. We use them to change our processes and give our people the tools to behave differently.
Use the root cause analysis tools of the quality professional to understand why things happened the way they did. Like any other problem, take action to address the root cause – don’t just tell people not to do it next time.
Use root cause analysis on the positives
As quality professionals, we often focus on problem solving – corrective action is about fixing the cause to prevent recurrence. However, these tools are even more powerful when used to understand what went well. What were the causes of the good result? How can we take action to make sure we do those things again?
Organisational learning is difficult, but we can use the leadership competencies of the quality professional to start and to guide the changes needed to make it effective.