Learning: the key to continuous improvement – Steven Spear

MIT Sloan Senior Lecturer Steven Spear

MIT Sloan Senior Lecturer Steven Spear

From MIT SMR Custom

Certain companies continually deliver more value to the market. They do so with greater speed and ease than their rivals, even when they lack the classic elements of strategic advantage: locked-in customers, dependent suppliers and barriers that keep competitors at bay. Absent such structural advantages, you would expect parity. There are, however, still those companies that regularly outscore the competition. Toyota, Intel, and Apple are among them, as are many lesser known but no less disproportionally successful ventures.

The source of uneven outcomes on otherwise level playing fields? Learning, at which the very best organizations excel. They are far faster and better at discovering what to do and how to do it, as well as at refreshing the set of problems to be solved and solutions to be delivered faster than the ecosystem can render their relevance obsolete.

For sure, learning is not simply training. Training involves accepted skills with an accepted application, and then using an accepted approach to deliver those skills to the organization. Learning, on the other hand, involves converting ignorance and a lack of capacity into knowledge, new skills and understanding. It requires recognizing what you do not know and finding new approaches to solve new problems. This, in turn, requires critical thinking and a willingness to challenge accepted practices, even when those practices are perceived as successful.

Challenge—even respectful challenge—is not a natural act. When something has worked well, complacency and inertia accumulate and interests get vested in sustaining what is familiar, even if it is not optimal. Challenging historical approaches goes along with challenging the emotions, status and prestige associated with those approaches. That is not typically welcome.

For aspiring leaders to overcome inertia, as well as to realize and capitalize on the innate potential of those they wish to lead, they must embrace a two-pronged approach. First, they need to cultivate a sense of dissatisfaction with current practices, actively encourage paranoia about the status quo and incite a spirit of relentlessly seeking flaws. Second, they must make this constant challenge both respectful and safe, communicating the expectation that associates at all levels identify problems, try new approaches and evaluate those approaches based on both the results and the discipline and speed with which insights are generated.

This is a skunkworks approach, not a tactic isolated to a few top projects given to an elite group of researchers. It is everyone striving ahead on the work that is within their control and subject to their influence, so that both the pieces and the whole get better together.

Profound Transformation

Successful practitioners of high-velocity learning have made it a fundamental part of leadership to develop less-experienced associates’ ability to actively convert experiences into bona fide learning. A problem-solving/learning dynamic is broadly diffused throughout the enterprise. These organizations have expanded our typical concept of “the knowledge worker” from doctors, scientists and IT staff to the people wearing hard hats, coveralls and khakis.

Global manufacturer Alcoa enjoyed a profound transformation by embracing this approach. For example, when an Alcoa manager new to a recently acquired facility formed a quality and safety committee, he chose to depend on unionized workers. Previously, these employees expressed their insights by filing labor grievances, because more genteel methods of calling out issues were ignored and diminished.

This led the company to implement a system for all workers to easily document practices that led to injuries or beneficial outcomes. By changing practices based on workers’ insights, the risk of job injury collapsed from 2 percent to 0.07 percent. Costs dropped, and productivity soared. The company’s stock, a mainstay of the Dow Jones Industrial Average, starting tracking the NASDAQ—the domicile of dot.coms, high-techs and other ventures valued for what they know and what they are expected to invent.

Alcoa’s success reflects the essence of high-velocity learning: By motivating and enabling all employees to challenge the norm, organizations can realize competitive advantage.

Steven Spear is a Senior Lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management and at the Engineering Systems Division at MIT.

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