Sunday, September 30, 2012

Do We Know How to Learn?

The theory of knowledge that management in any form is prediction.”  W. Edwards Deming

When I first read the above quote many years ago, I didn't fully comprehend what Deming was trying to say.  After a lot of thought, reflection, and experience with a variety of organizations and management systems, I came to realize the significance of this statement as the basis of organizational - and personal - learning.

Whether through arrogance, lack of understanding, or just having too much to do, many organizations have failed to adopt of the Plan-Do-Study-Act (PDSA) cycle within their operations.  Others have implemented the cycle within their problem-solving process but failed to recognized it as a mental model for leadership and decision-making.

The Learning Organization

The power of PDSA thinking lies in the realization that every decision is, in effect, a prediction that a specific outcome will occur.   If one consciously adopts this mindset and practices it to the point where it becomes natural, significant learning can occur.

Taking action and expecting a specific outcome is not profound or revolutionary. But too often, the connection between action and outcome can be so basic that it becomes unconscious. And when the connection is not consciously recognized, little or no follow-up takes place to assure that the outcome is as expected and more importantly, why or why not a particular outcome occurred.  It is this lack of follow-up that prevents learning from taking place.

Too often, I have seen organizations continue to operate in the same manner, even when it does not appear to work.  They try harder or their leaders emphasize performance more strongly but any improvement in results that does occur is short-lived.  Organizations like this don't seem to understand that their performance is not the due to chance, but the result of a set of predictions that are failing to come true.  Improvement requires careful observation and study to determine why their hypotheses are false.

When decisions and actions are seen as hypotheses that specific results will occur, there is more of a tendency to watch for the connection.  “The why” becomes just as important as “the what” when reviewing results.  When results do not meet expectations, team-level reflection takes place to understand the reasons and the hypotheses are adjusted accordingly.  It is this process that enables organizational learning to occur.

When looked at in this way, it becomes clearer that becoming a learning organization does not mean spending more time in the classroom.  It means teaching people to consciously recognize that decisions are predictions, and honing the ability to study and understand whether (and why) results match the predictions.

Developing a PDSA mindset throughout an organization takes a lot of effort, practice, and patience.  People have to be coached and questioned regularly to understand that actions – even seemingly small ones – are predictions of specific outcomes.  The more developed this level of reflection becomes, the more the process will become a habit, and the more organizational learning will occur.

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