Learning Organizations Require Certain Conditions

May 11, 2012

As I noted at the beginning of my last post, Principle 14 of the Toyota Way states that become a learning organization is achieved through relentless reflection (hansei) and continuous improvement (kaizen). What does it take to make reflection and continuous improvement work?

There are conditions related to personal and organizational dynamics that must be in place to foster learning. For a start, people and organizations have to want to improve, which means being able to take an honest, realistic look in the mirror.

At a personal level, people need a growth mindset versus a fixed mindset. People with a fixed mindset tend to believe that “you are who you are” and there isn’t much that can be done to change that, whereas those with a growth mindset believe that people can change – substantially, if they so desire. Another important distinction to understand is that people with a fixed mindset react to setbacks differently than those with a fixed mindset.

Dr. Carol Dweck has studied the different mindsets extensively, and in one enlightening study she examined how schoolchildren reacted to getting a low grade on an exam. Students with a fixed mindset felt that they were failures. Those with the growth mindset said – and genuinely felt – that they needed to try harder next time.

A low grade was a blip on the radar to those with a growth mindset, simply a signal to make an adjustment in their journey to maximize their potential. Those with a fixed mindset tended to view a low grade as an indictment that they weren’t smart and allowed a low grade to almost literally halt them in their tracks.

The reason for this is that people with a fixed mindset tend to look for situations that confirm their current abilities while shying away from situations that don’t, and they get defensive about any shortcomings or failures they encounter. Growing, however, means putting yourself in new situations and embracing the opportunity to stretch and expand your abilities, something those with a growth mindset are willing and able to do without hesitation.

Being aware of what type of mindset you have is an excellent start, and if you have a fixed mindset changing your outlook – and soliciting the help and support of others – can help you to see where you are judging yourself unfairly and limiting yourself in the process. Managers need to be alert to the mindsets of their people to coach them effectively. As a manager, your approach will obviously be very different based on the exhibited mindset of the individual that you are coaching.

The approach that leaders take with an organization as a whole is as equally important. When it comes to being a learning organization in general, leaders definitely set the tone. Let’s say that a software team was unable to complete some task or delver a feature as planned. Do they feel pressured to defend why they were not able to complete the work because they are being judged and evaluated?

Leaders need to keep in mind that when obstacles appear, people need to experiment and learn to overcome those obstacles. We all need to be working towards aggressive targets, but being judged and evaluated on a binary “you succeeded or failed” scale does not foster a learning environment. The goal is to collectively reach new heights as an organization, and that means everyone is participating in getting there. Leaders need to participate in the process as well, doing more than acting solely as judge and jury.

Introducing informality into the workplace is another great way to encourage change and visibly demonstrate that the organization is willing to learn and adapt. Scrum or Kanban boards using sticky notes versus electronic tools are a great example of informality. Exclusive use of detailed project plans captured in tools tend reinforce the notion of work being formal, scheduled and “locked down” without the option of easily making a change.

Using a framework like Scrum instead of a fully codified process is another way of engaging people. Scrum provides just enough guidance as opposed to a rigid process where compliance is expected and any deviation from the process is actively discouraged. When people have influence and control over their work, they are more engaged and productive; in fact it can be counter-productive when everything is strictly defined because judgment and adaptation to specific circumstances on the ground can and will take a back seat to process.

When it comes to the physical work environment, open, comfortable workspaces are ideal. They aren’t meant to provide a laid-back, country-club environment. These days workplaces have enough stress associated with the mountain of work that people face; they don’t need stiff, sterile cubicles reinforcing rigid organizational structures that stifle collaboration and interaction. Overall, informality helps to relax people so that they can concentrate on what needs to be done, plus it creates a feeling of safety for people to speak openly and candidly.

And when it comes to working with people and teams, leaders should engage people as often as possible in their own setting to learn what is really going on – using the Go and See Lean approach. As I noted above, leaders should not judge, but participate with people and teams on reaching aggressive goals.

Without a certain amount of informality and a demonstrated willingness to learn and adapt, fear and caution win out over stretching and growing. Punishing failure or even worse – perceived failure – will send a strong message to play it safe and negotiate goals and performance measurements down, not up. Courage, curiosity, and the willingness to try new things must win out over defensiveness and a fear of failure. A fundamental truth is that you’ll never reach to top without stretching for it.