Monday, January 25, 2010

Create a Learning Culture

Want to unlock the potential of your employees? Want to harness the power of their ideas? Need to gain their cooperation and active participation in making the company better?

Create a Learning Organization.

What is a learning organization? A learning organization is one that places a high value on the knowledge and experience of the individuals, but understands the vulnerability of not transfering that knowledge to a system through which others can share and benefit from that knowledge. A learning organization seeks out the best practices of individuals, recognizes them, and integrates them into the process for all to use, thereby spreading the benefit of those best practices to the company. A learning company recognizes that the people are its greatest asset and the source of its wealth and success.

There are several key steps that need to be taken to facilitate the transition to a learning organization. Upfront planning and commitment is key. Of primary concern early after the decision to create a learning culture is that if steps are taken to create interest in learning, will we be properly prepared to support that interest. If we are not ready, apathy will result, so before we can really go forward with grandiose communication plans and goals and objectives for learning, we need to spend some time setting up the infrastructure for learning. One approach is to visualize and graphically represent the various career paths through the organization. This can be done through a career mapping initiative. The goal of this initiative is to thoroughly understand the key skill needs within the organization by position, streamline and standardize the position criteria, and map all of the potential career paths through the organization. As sample of how this might will look is included here:

In this example, you can see that there are four main tracks of progression through the organization, but there are cross-connections along the way, allowing people to move between tracks into other areas of interest.
Lets take the Six Sigma Black Belt position as an example. For someone to be successful in that position, they need several critical skills and character traits. First they need training in the essentials of what a Black Belt does. They would need a firm understanding of the DMAIC process, statistics, change psychology, team building, data collection, project management, influencing skills, and a desire to excel. Some of those are easily boiled down to quantifiable measureable things, others are charatcer traits, which for the most part, you either have, or you dont have. This information along with the roadmap give employees essential information needed to judge if they think they are cut out for a role as a Black Belt. It also gives them the path to success if they decide to pursue the position. They would know that they need to get some training in statistics, learn how to lead projects and people, learn how to tactfully challenge the status quo, and how to handle team dynamics.

As you can see from the example, quite a bit of detail goes into this analysis. The benefit of this to the organization is to finally be able to charge the individual with some responsibility for their own career and give them a roadmap to success. If the philosophy is that career development as an individual responsibility then you have to give them the tools to manage their own careers. This is the first piece of the puzzle. Once this is done, spend some time evaluating training programs and educational offerings in the marketplace and establishing, through purchasing or internal development, the catalog of available training. One of the key factors in this effort is to ensure that the educational offerings we elect to support are in alignment with our organizational values and goals. For instance, if we use a DMAIC process for problem solving, we should not be sponsoring training activities around other problem solving methods. That would contradict our aim. These are the two key elements of our ability to start the first phase of our transition to a learning organization. Once these are completed and ready for communication then we can roll out the career management program to everyone, begin encouraging managers to sit with their people and discuss career planning, creating career plans and acting on those plans. This activity will in turn enable progress in another major focus area: Promotion from within.

Promotion from within is an important part of creating a learning culture, but it has to be managed properly. Talking up a promotion form within value should be done in the context of promoting people with the right skill set for the job. Promotion from within is not a exercise in saluting the flag, we shouldnt do it for its own sake, but rather make it a key component of the larger aim, raising the skill level in the workforce. Promotion opportunity is a tremendous incentive for growth and learning. Poorly managed, promotion from within will only result in a frustrated workforce submitting their resumes for jobs that they are not remotely qualified for, then complaining when they are not selected.

The third major area of focus is the knowledge sharing activity. We have to create systems through which knowledge can be pulled by the individual that has a need. A major vehicle for this could be the company intranet. Some recent experiences that I have had indicate that as much as 25% of our resources are wasted repeating things we already learned once before and that many of the tough problems that are causing quality issues have already been solved, just not shared. This is a tremendous waste of company resources. A Knowledge Management System can allow for the collection, cataloguing, and collaboration on knowledge so that it is learned once, and applied many times to greater benefit for the company. Many times, a process improvement is achieved in only one location, through six sigma or other means, but could be shared with other locations that have that same process to multiply the benefit of what was learned. Worse yet are examples where that same process improvement was "discovered" by one of those other locations months or years later, wasting valueable time when we could have been collecting the savings. The idea of a knowledge management system is to accelerate learning by avoiding repeating the same experiments time and again, and instead building on previous knowledge to achieve new, higher levels of knowledge.

These actions only address part of the issue however. One of the key factors to our success is how well we create a desire to improve within the workforce. Everything we have discussed so far goes largely towards creating desire to learn for extrinsic needs (promotion, leadership, salary, position, etc.). We need to drill down further in order to create intrinsic motivation to improve our own work everyday.

Many of the ideas and tools of lean can and will help with that. First and foremost is making things visible. Creating visual management systems that allow the worker to see how they are doing is a basic first requirement. I start here because I believe that if we make things visible, that will create some of the initial drive to improve, which will force some of the other changes needed. Those changes are: giving control to the worker, enabling good decision making through well planned instructions, training on the tools of improvement, allowing workers to control the quality of their own documentation and procedures, educating them on the technology of our product and/or the process and rewarding the right behaviors. I believe making things visible is the key to creating motivation. Everything else will follow. The final action here is to determine how to effectively marry up the motivation and results of improving our work everyday with the global knowledge sharing piece so that we can quickly and easily share with each other best practices that come from our improvements.

With these steps taken, we will be far down the road to building a learning organization and fully leveraging the most valuable asset we have, our people.

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