Learn to learn as an organization

IN HIS BOOK "The Fifth Discipline," Peter Senge suggests that companies become learning organizations. He defined a learning organization as an "organization where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free and where people are continually learning to see the whole together."

Since Senge introduced the idea, organizational learning has been a hot topic in the business world, so much so that it has become one of the core values of the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award. "Achieving the highest levels of organizational performance requires a well-executed approach to organizational and personal learning," according to the award's 2007 criteria for performance excellence.

'I haven't seen a new mistake made in the last 10 years!'

World-class companies have shown organizational learning will: provide greater value to customers; identify new internal improvement opportunities; reduce errors, defects, waste and related costs; improve responsiveness and cycle time performance; and increase productivity and effectiveness.

In construction, learning is going on, but not learning as an organization.

"I haven't seen a new mistake made in this industry in the last 10 years," is the way one owner put it. "We just keep making the same ones!"

Most of us learn from our mistakes so we don't repeat them, but few contractors have been successful in translating Senge's learning theories into action.

I define a learning organization as having systems and processes in place to capture lessons learned from both positive and negative experiences and jobs. It is able to deploy the information to its people and accelerate learning so other employees don't make the same mistakes and so they can replicate what worked.

I suggest these straightforward methods to springboard learning opportunities in your company. The six ways to learn as an organization are:

1. Punch lists. Almost all jobs end with a punch list. Once the punch list is completed, it usually is filed with all other project documents for that job. Those involved in the punch-list work may learn from doing the corrections and do better on the next job. Instead, why not collect copies of all punch lists and periodically look at all the lists? Look for items that are common to many of the lists. Look for patterns.

2. Complaints. As with punch lists, complaints represent opportunities to spot trends or common problems. When viewed individually, each complaint-is unique. But when viewed as a group of all complaints received for the past year, different issues or common problems can be discovered. This, of course, assumes the company has a system in place to track complaints.

3. Callbacks. Callbacks usually occur in service work but may also apply to warranty work for new or retrofit jobs. The goal is to eliminate all callbacks. Looking at each one individually usually results in limited organizational learning. Instead, look at all callbacks for the last year. Look for common issues or types of failures.

4. Stock outs. Nothing bothers a crew more than an incomplete delivery of parts or material, often because the supplier is out of stock and must put the parts on back order. A company can analyze its own data or work with a supplier to identify the common types of material or parts that are most often missing.

5. Post project reviews. At the end of each project, companies usually do some form of job close out. This may be just collecting all records and drawings into a file and ensuring the punch list is completed. It should be more than this. Conducting a review of the job with all partners can identify many lessons learned. These can be shared with other project teams to further create organizational learning. Yearly, the firm can examine all the reviews to look for trends and common problems.

In all five learning opportunities the approach is basically the same: gather the data combining individual cases into a larger information base. Analyze the whole set of information by common groups or categories. Prioritize the most important groups, find the root causes and initiate preventive measures.

6. Plus/delta. A useful way to create learning in your organization is to do plus/delta at the end of meetings. This is holding a brief discussion at the end of a meeting to evaluate the value and process of the meeting. Two questions are asked and discussed: What worked well? What could we do differently or better?

Always ask the positive question first and do not allow the participants to answer the second one before answering what worked well. (By focusing on the positive first, it sets a better tone in the meeting.) This is a brainstorming session, all ideas are recorded and disagreement or debate of any idea is withheld.

After all ideas are shared, evaluate the list. For the ideas that worked, consider ways to replicate each. For example, if the participants thought that it worked to have a copy of the meeting's agenda printed on a white board or flip chart to help keep on track, do it again in every meeting. Then look at the do-differents and determine what action to take.

The plus/delta technique does not take long to do and it gives ownership for the meeting's success to the participants, not just the leader.

Like most worthwhile things, learning takes effort and pays dividends. Consider the cost of not learning!

Dennis Sowards is an industry consultant. His company is Quality Support Services and can be reached at dennis@YourQSS.com or at 480/835-1185.

Dennis Sowards led the development of the High-Performing Contractor Assessment model for SMACNA. He founded the consulting firm Quality Support Services and can be reached at dennis@YourQSS.com or at 602/740-7271.