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(Article) 6 Ways You Can Make Your Company A Learning Organization - Bill Black

February 27, 2014

6 Ways You Can Make Your Company A Learning Organization

I’m not a big fan of buzzwords.  I also have to admit there are times where they actually become useful.  The problem with this particular one, “learning organization” is that it’s often misused.

I do believe that if you really want your company to get better, it needs to be a learning organization.  At the same time, just saying you have one doesn’t make it true.  Here are 6 things you might want to think about if you’re really serious about
making your
company better through learning:

You have to celebrate mistakes.

I think this is the most important thing for you to focus on.  We all make mistakes.  In many companies we do our best to hide mistakes when they’re made.  Mistakes aren’t celebrated.  In fact, in many cases mistakes aren’t even tolerated.

Go back to when you learned to ride a bike.  Did you get it the first time around?  Most likely you fell off a few times before you got the hang of it.  Use the same principles with mistakes in your company.  Let people fall off the bike and when they do cheer them on. 

You have to learn from the mistakes that are made.

We don’t want to have our mistakes go to waste.  Every time a mistake is made here’s the question you need to ask, “What did you learn?”  If we don’t learn something from our mistakes, there is no chance we’re ever going to get better.

I know you’ve heard the saying, “the first sign of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.”  If you find that people keep making the same mistake in your company your people and you are not learning anything.  Demanding some sort of learning from mistakes is what a learning organization is all about.

You must demand personal responsibility.

This one took me a while to learn.  When I first started in business I wouldn’t tolerate mistakes.  People working for me learned really fast to either blame others or justify their mistakes.  When this happened they would get off the hook and we were ready to make the same mistake over again.

Once we finally learned that we needed people to own their mistakes and mistakes were not bad we set the stage for people to take ownership of their actions.  If your people know that they won’t be punished for making a mistake, you’re on the right track.

At first, you’ll want to focus your company’s attention on what projects are important.

When a company has a culture of letting mistakes be made there is often a formalized company wide improvement process going on.  If you hire a consultant to help you with this process they might say that you should let projects bubble up from the bottom.

I find that this is a mistake.  When you first start a total quality management or lean program your people have not been trained to focus on what’s important.  In many cases things that get chosen by your employees might not be important.  When you start down the road of establishing a learning culture take responsibility for the projects and choose them yourself.

You’ll want to get your people involved on focusing on improvement areas.  With training and experience your people will start to recognize important projects.  When that happens you’ll let ideas bubble up from the bottom.

You have to stay with it when things don’t go so well.

All improvement projects have times when things are going backwards.  When this happens you need to stay with the program.  This is where you get to show your employees that you’re serious about the program. 

You have to understand that your employees really don’t listen to what you say.  They watch what you do.  If you don’t stay the course your employees will know you’re not serious.  In fact, they’ll start mocking your program.  I think that if you’re not going to learn how to handle set backs you’re better off not starting in the first place.

You have to have patience.

These programs take time.  In many companies it take as long as ten years before a learning organization has been institutionalized.  Don’t talk about your learning organization.  Just start doing what makes a learning organization effective.  I think that you’re going to get more mileage by just doing it. 

When you start to see some real traction, then you can talk about what a learning organization means.  After all, you’re going to make mistakes getting this program off the ground.  It might be a good idea for you to learn from your mistakes and not crow about what you’re going to do.