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Steven Spear

Steven Spear: Accelerated learning of what to do and how to do it

By Steven Spear, - Last updated: Wednesday, April 1, 2015 - Save & Share - Leave a comment

Certain organizations “punch above their weight,” generating far more value (that accrues to everybody, not just customers or just shareholders, etc.), faster, and more easily. This despite them having access to the same technical, financial, and human resources as all their counterparts——and thereby enjoying the same advantages and suffering the same constraints.(1)

The difference? They know much better what to do and how to do it, so operate on a frontier of speed, timeliness, efficiency, effectiveness, safety, security, and so forth others barely perceive. As with all knowledge, the source of their profound knowledge is accelerated learning, and that accelerated learning is the consequence of garnering feedback out of experiences across the spectrum of operational, design, and developmental and using that to feed forward into the next cycle of experiences.

It is that feedback feed-forward——ideally occurring everywhere, with everyone, about everything, at scale large and small——that is the engine of relentless discovery and which is the source of significant and sustained competitive advantage.

It is necessary for leaders to initiative the building, running, and application of this “engine.” After all, leaders——by formal and natural authority——establish the norms and standards of the organizations for which they are stewards.

A starting strategy is for leaders to change the end of day conversation from one focused only on what has been accomplished (and which, by implication seeks to penalize that which has not) to one which highlights obstacles in the path to being successful, their causes, and alternative approaches.

Question 0: What did we do today?

Necessary for establishing connection between action and outcome.

Question 1: What did we today? (e.g., design, make, sell, service, treat)

Necessary to track progress, celebrate success, establish the value of the enterprise.

Question 2: What got in our way today? (e.g., material, informational, situational)

Necessary for starting the dialogue on where adjust and correction (improvement, innovation) are necessary and possible.

Question 3: What were the causes for these obstacles?

Necessary for starting the diagnostic process.

Question 4: What are alternative approaches that will remove, offset, or remediate against these causes?

Necessary for starting the treatment planning process of ideas that can be tested and piloted?

Question 5: Of the changes we made ‘yesterday’ (e.g., that we put and place and are managing for feedback, how are those progressing and where are they struggling?

Necessary for wrapping not just the doing of ordinary work but the development of changes in exactly the same feedback feed-forward dynamic.

Versions of this daily inquiry were trademark to Alcoa CEO Paul O’Neill, who ushered that company through a transition from ‘ordinary’ by heavy industry standards to safest, most productive, and remarkably efficient and profitable. (2) It was the modus operandi of US Navy Admiral Rickover, ‘father of the nuclear navy,’ who conceived and nurtured and organization which has sustained perfection over generations of crew, staff, and contractors. (3)

Worth noting, this dynamic behavior of safe and relentless inquiry, evaluation, and redesign does not come naturally. It requires most people to step out of an emotional and social comfort zone in which they’ve learned to accentuate when they have the right answer and suppress when they do not. In fact, the more successful the individual (particularly in professional settings of formal or informal qualification), the less likely they are to be comfortable stepping outside of defined routines, even in the ‘rationale’ imperatives for change are irrefutable.(4)

Therefore, if change is going to occur, it has to start with leadership first creating safe, bounded arenas in which they can practice self-reflection, self-correction before mentoring similar skills in others.

1: Please see, for example:

Jaikumar, “Post Industrial Manufacturing,” Harvard Business Review, 1986.

Krafcik, John; “Triumph of the Lean Production System,” Sloan Management Review, Fall 1988.

Ward, Liker, Cristiano, Sobek; “The Second Toyota Paradox: How Delaying Decisions can Make Better Cars Faster”; Sloan Management Review; Spring 1996, page 43.

2: Please see Chapter 4, The High Velocity Edge.

3: Please see Chapter 5, The High Velocity Edge. Also,
The Rickover Effect by Theodore Rockwell.
Rickover: The Birth of Nuclear Power, Public Broadcasting System (PBS), 2014.

4: Argyris, Chris, “Teaching Smart People to Learn,” Harvard Business Review.

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