Six Sigma


Pat Townsend & Joan Gebhardt

The Three I's of Organizational Learning

The idea of the "learning company" gained a good deal of popularity about the time that many U.S. executives decided they had "done quality" and began looking for the next hot idea. Of course, a company only sets out to be a continuously learning organization so it can continuously improve. In other words, a learning company is pursuing quality, but with an updated label.

 By whatever name, a workforce (in any company, culture or country) new to the idea of being allowed--in fact, encouraged--to think during working hours and to take an active part in the continuous improvement of every aspect of its organization's operations will initially bring both enthusiasm and wariness to the project. The enthusiasm will be wasted--and the wariness strengthened and justified--if the workforce is not provided with the necessary tools and its performance is not reinforced.

 What follows is a description of one possible platform that makes it possible for people at all levels of an organization to take part in the exploration of current conditions and the development of ideas for improvement.

 In the United States, one of the best models for organizational learning available at the present time comes from what might be a surprising source: the U.S. Army. The model's background is quite pragmatic and helps to explain why it is a model worthy of study and adaptation.

 In the 1970s, the Army was not doing well. It was mired in old habits, and communication channels were barely functioning. Senior leaders realized there was a serious problem, and, to their credit, they also recognized that the systems, not the personnel, were the primary source of the problem.

 The procedure they adapted is called the After-Action Review (AAR). Essentially, after almost any action at any bureaucratic level (be it an office procedure or a field operation), there is a discussion by as many of the people involved in, or affected by, the action as possible. Ideally, the discussion is formal and has specific steps to be followed in a particular sequence. Once everyone understands and has experienced the formal conduct of an AAR, it's possible for small, less formal groups of people to quickly apply the same steps to relatively small improvement opportunities. The AAR has become a normal part of everyday procedures in the United States Army.

 The larger, more formal AARs are interesting to observe because the most basic rule is that, although mutual respect of people of all ranks is certainly expected, anyone's ideas or actions are open to discussion--by anyone. First-time observers always come away from an AAR marveling that a junior enlisted soldier openly questioned a senior officer and the senior officer either explained the action in question or entered into a discussion about how to change the action for the better. The key is that the idea or action, not the individual or the individual's intentions, is questioned.

 The sequence that takes place in an AAR--and it's a sequence that is appropriate in any setting in which continuous improvement is the goal--can be summarized as: investigate, identify and institutionalize. In short, the first phase of the discussion is devoted to investigating what happened. Candor and honesty are absolutely required, but they won't be evident if individuals believe that the goal of the discussion is to assign blame and punish wrongdoers. Completeness is required as well; if not all views of what happened (or is happening on a daily basis) are offered, the solution will be less reliable.

 It is during this investigatatory phase that individuals must be comfortable about offering ideas or asking for information despite their relative positions in the organizational hierarchy. Goodwill must be assumed; juniors and seniors alike should assume that no one else has been deliberately forcing the unit to perform at a level lower than it could. At the same time, there should be no assumption that any one person has the complete answer.

 Once the action under discussion has been fully presented to the group, group members can begin to identify the best possible solution. Here again, the sequence is appropriate for a gathering of more than a hundred people or for two. Once again, candor and honesty are required, and goodwill must be assumed. The discussion about which of the possible options should be chosen can be lengthy because the answer may not be self-evident. It often takes a skilled meeting facilitator to help the participants identify the way to proceed.

 Once a decision is agreed to, it becomes time to make the newly defined procedure part of the regular routine--it's time to institutionalize the newly identified behavior. This can be as simple as two people agreeing on a new way to handle a situation or as complex as rewriting many manuals and introducing new training classes to ensure that everyone affected by the procedural change knows what is now expected.

 Institutionalization is crucial because the new procedure can only become subject to a new investigation if it's understood and agreed to and formally becomes part of the normal sequence of events. This is the central point to any effort at continuous improvement: Improvements must build on one other, and that can't happen unless there's a methodology in place to ensure that ideas for improvement are implemented and the implementation is properly documented.

 Not sure that such a process can help an organization? Consider the difference between the U.S. Army that limped out of Vietnam in 1975 and the U.S. Army that swept the field in the Gulf War in 1991. Senior Army leaders have credited the AAR as being the primary tool for that transformation. Hey, wait, there's another neat word to use in place of "quality": transformation. . .


About the authors

 Pat Townsend and Joan Gebhardt have written more than 200 articles and six books, including Commit to Quality (John Wiley & Sons, 1986); Quality in Action: 93 Lessons in Leadership, Participation, and Measurement (John Wiley & Sons, 1992); Five-Star Leadership: The Art and Strategy of Creating Leaders at Every Level (John Wiley & Sons, 1997); Recognition, Gratitude & Celebration (Crisp Publications, 1997); How Organizations Learn: Investigate, Identify, Institutionalize (Crisp Publications, 1999); and Quality Is Everybody's Business (CRC Press, 1999). E-mail them at ptownsend@qualitydigest.com .

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