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Michael Balle

Michael Ballé: Where is the blueprint for a manager who wants to create a learning organization?

By Michael Balle, co-author of The Gold Mine and The Lean Manager - Last updated: lundi, avril 9, 2012 - Save & Share - Leave a comment

Learning is hard. Particularly in adults, learning requires a determination to learn. This means controlling one’s intuitive “first response.” Learning requires what is called “frame control”, which is a mindfulness about our mental models and knowing how to actively play fit-to-fact with new info or situations. Grown up minds are simply not designed for learning as we know what we know, and believe what we believe.

In other words, first “what we see is all there is” – it’s hard to realize that the way we see a situation is only our own perspective on whatever is going on: part of the story, not the full picture, and as Qi Gong Jinn says in Star Wars “your focus determines your reality.” Secondly, we can’t help having an opinion about anything (this is automatic) and believing it true. That’s the default option. Learning means being able to second-guess oneself and challenge our understanding of the situation or the deeper models of our comprehension. My favorite equations about learning are the following:

DATA + CONTEXT = INFORMATION (frame control)

INFORMATION + UNDERSTANDING = KNOWLEDGE (learning)

KNOWLEDGE + RESPECT = WISDOM (grokking)

This to say that learning is already hard work for oneself, but getting others to learn is even worse!

The default position of management is that you have plenty of bright ideas but lack the number of arms to do it all – so you delegate. Managers don’t want learners, they want competent people who do what they’re told and get things done without fuss. The problem, of course is that people hate that – they constantly argue for initiative, autonomy and involvement, which is a headache for the run of the mill manager.

Leaders, on the other hand, don’t need more pairs of hands – they want people who will fight for them. This is a very different kettle of fish, particularly in fluid situations and changing environments. Leaders then need people who 1) can learn and 2) will fight to get their objectives realized. Quite a tall order.

Of course, this is one of the reasons lean management is so much more effective. By developing people rather than by managing them, one gets staff that understand what they do and can act appropriately in all situations without needing constant supervision – they’ll even call you when they need help. But this means countering one’s own intuition and taking the time to teach rather than tell: it’s a dotted line and not a straight arrow.

So yes, organization’s default mode is getting things done regardless of waste: either by setting processes and finding the people to follow them, or by telling people to achieve objectives without wanting to know how. True learning organizations are scarce, and seldom remain so before reverting to the average.

Fine. The deeper issue here, I believe, is that if the learner has not learned, the teacher hasn’t taught. As authors we have been collectively very poor at proposing workable models of organizational learning. Most of the learning organization stuff around means well, but is clearly not very practical to any manager that has a department or a project to run, today, now.

Until Toyota showed us how, there was no long-term, systematic working model to create an organization. As Art translated it, Taichii Ohno saw the TPS as activities to improve, and Toyota redefined how we look at organizational roles by stating JOB = WORK + KAIZEN. This is the understanding and practice we should be explicating and teaching.

I believe that most managers out there accept that the world has become so turbulent that collective learning is a top of the list issue. But once that is said – how? The lean answer of acquiring the discipline of the gemba, accelerating flows to reveal problems, stopping at defect to develop people and continuously doing standardized work and kaizen to, well, learn, is rarely pitched at search and quite a tall step in any case.

I think that Craig’s question could be reformulated as a challenge: what are, we, business writers, doing to create workable blueprints for managers who want to create learning organizations? Are we part of the solution, or are we part of the problem?

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