Learning as a foundation for engagement, part 3: Tools

Earlier posts in this series introduced organisational learning and explored why the practice hasn’t had much traction in organisations. This post offers tools for learning processes.

1. Suggestion box blog

In this cartoon by Harvey Schwadron – an employee outside the boss’s office drops a suggestion into the suggestion box. Unfortunately, the suggestion box has no bottom and the suggestion falls into the resignation box directly underneath it. In organisations that don’t learn well, suggestions are ignored or, worse, those offering them are treated as troublemakers. Try a suggestion box blog – the blog administrator can receive suggestions and publish them, or enable the person making the suggestion to post directly. If there is an open culture, the blog can be open so others can comment. Responses or contributions from the company’s leader will add to its credibility.

2. After action review

Richard Pascale describes the after action review (AAR) in a HBR article Changing the Way We Change. The practice emerged in the US military and is used after military action or exercises to enable learning. Suspending rank is the key feature of the AAR as it encourages participants to review events in order to learn. The process is based around four questions that can be adapted to any organisation and is especially useful on completion of events or projects.

  • What did we set out to do?
  • What actually happened?
  • Why was there a difference?
  • What activities do we sustain and what activities do we improve?

3. Stupid hour

Learning doesn’t come easy when we take ourselves too seriously, or we are driven by the need to look good. Dorothy Marcic, in her ground-breaking book Managing with the Wisdom of Love, advocates a ”stupid hour” where staff get together, perhaps at the end of the week and ask “what are we doing that is really stupid?”

4. Lean thinking

Lean thinking, modelled on Toyota’s processes, provides scaffolding for learning by creating multifunctional teams to surface opportunities for improvements (OFIs). Here is more detail from a post by Alex Twigg.

5. Incentives

Some years ago Portland Cement near Whangarei changed their remuneration system from an over-time based system to a total remuneration system. Overtime hours were annualised and employees were expected to work up to 51 hours for their annualised salary, but could go home if they finished the work. This changed employee behaviour – under the overtime system, they would welcome breakdowns, as they would have to work longer, and therefore make more money. But under the annualised system, they were incentivised to work more smartly. As an example, loader tyres used to be frequently damaged by limestone rock. Employees wanting to get home quicker, welded wings onto the loader buckets to clear rocks away from the tyres. The employees got to go home earlier and the company saved money. Annualisation effectively opened up avenues for learning.

6. Appreciation

Appreciation is arguably the noblest form of communication. Too often, workplace communication focuses on fault-finding – concentrating on what is wrong, rather than what is right. When people are frequently criticised, over time they cease any meaningful communication with those who are criticising. This creates the antithesis of learning. In an environment of appreciation, people feel safe to make suggestions. Here is a link to an earlier post that elaborates on appreciation.

the communication spectrum

7. Undercover boss

The TV show Undercover Boss features businesses in the U.K., the U.S. and Australia. Across diverse businesses in these three settings, a consistent experience emerges – when the “boss” gets to know the people on the front line, they typically learn to appreciate what the workers do and return to their C.E. role much better for the experience. The C.E.s often enact employee suggestions, or include the employee in a project team. Here is Directv’s C.E. Mike White, talking about his undercover boss experience.

8. Learning from customers with social media

When I wrote this post about social media in February, this year, Stabucks Facebook page had almost 20 million likes. Now, 11 months later it has more than 26 million. Not all will provide useful insights for Starbucks, but any complaints can be quickly identified. Twitter serves the same purpose.

9. Values for learning

As with any other sustainable development in businesses and communities, better learning processes are underpinned by enabling values. Values that align well with learning include openness, honesty, integrity and appreciation. They are also the antidotes for defensiveness. You can probably think of others.

Do you consider your organisation is skilled at organisational learning?

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