Learning and Continuous Improvement

By Kathy Miller on June 26th, 2013

I have been hearing leaders talk about their desire to become ‘learning organizations’ for the past 15 years.  I wonder what they think a learning organization looks like.  Over the past few months, I have taken several informal polls to find out how people learn and improve within their organizations.  The results are discouraging.

Poll # 1 – Do people in your organization have time to reflect and think about the outcomes of their actions?

I sent out this poll to all members of LinkedIn.  Over 200 people responded in the first hour that the poll was available.  Only 13% indicated that they had plenty of time to reflect.  Over half said that they had very little or no time to reflect.  One person commented that we can’t expect sustainable growth either personally or for our companies if we don’t take the time to think about our outcomes.  Another questioned (rhetorically) whether it is better to make the same mistakes over and over or to take the time to reflect.  Another challenged leaders to think about whether they wanted to ‘waste’ or ‘invest’ time!

Poll #2 – How does your company conduct debriefs after projects in order to capture lessons learned?

This time over 400 people responded to the poll in LinkedIn.  The results were somewhat encouraging in that 44% indicated that they at least usually debrief.  However only 24% said that they had a formal process and a full third of those who responded said that they rarely or never debrief.  This poll elicited many comments!  One person questioned whether these percentages of debriefers was too high.  In fact, when I took a closer look at the data, I found that most of those who said that they use a formal process for debriefing were consultants.  Most engineers rarely or never debrief!

Others said that the quality of the debriefs was so poor and fuzzy that nothing could be learned and carried forward.

In another survey that we conducted pertaining to sustainable practices within organizations, 86% of the respondents said that continual learning was a core focus of their organizations.  Yet only 62% agreed that they had enough time to reflect and learn at work.  And this sample included some stellar organizations  known for their great work in Sustainability strategies.

So what is my take-away from this informal research?  It seems to me that we are engaging in what my family used to call ‘wishful thinking.’  Most of us would like to achieve growth both personally and professionally.  Yet we don’t invest the time and process into those activities that would foster the growth.
My next set of questions to people at work will focus on how they achieve continuous improvement.  Stay tuned.