The learning organization: real or illusion?

Published on
February 19, 2021
Marcel Aartsen
Marcel Aartsen
Marcel Aartsen is a trainer/consultant at LMI
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Is there such a thing as a "learning organization? Can an organization learn at all? And if so, how do you build a learning organization? Or is an organization an abstract concept and only people can learn?

The term "learning organization" was introduced by Peter Senge in his book The Fifth Discipline (1990). It is an inspiring book, but tell me honestly: after reading it, do you now know what specifically you need to do to make your organization a learning organization? Of course we need inspiration, but we need more. We need more concrete tools. Good news: there are. Keep reading, because I'm going to explain and demonstrate the following:

Emergence (Ant Mathematics)

The video below shows a fun and famous example from the study of complex systems. It is a computer simulation of an ant colony looking for food. The behavior of each individual ant is super simple: they walk around randomly, without purpose. When they come across food, they take a piece of it back to the nest, leaving a scent trail for other ants along the way. Other ants walking around randomly who happen to come across this scent trail follow the trail. You can see the anthill in the middle and three food sources at different distances. We see how the colony first brings in the nearest food source, then the middle one, and finally the farthest away food source.

The behavior of individual ants is extremely simple, and no ant oversees the situation or even the problem. Let alone anyone has a plan, or an analysis. But the colony as a whole is able to solve the geometric problem of which food source is closest, even though no individual ant knows anything about mathematics! In addition, the colony possesses goal orientation: once food is found, more and more ants go after it. From the combination of the simple behavior of individual individuals, intelligent behavior arises at the (higher) level of the colony. This is also called emergence. Emergence is not as exceptional as it may seem. A traffic jam on the highway is such an emergent phenomenon: it is not found in any of the individual cars, it is a property of (the behavior of) a group of cars. Then again, there is not always emergence. The group panic following the Dam scream, for example, did consist of a great deal of individual panic. There is emergence in some phenomena, but not in others.

Rules in use

In Lean we also see emergence occurring. Not in the caricature often made of it, in those workshops and big programs that consultants like to advise and sell, but in the real Lean - the Lean that works, the Lean developed by Toyota and discovered by Womack and Jones.

Steven Spear
Steven Spear

Over twenty years ago, Steven Spear, in his PhD dissertation for the Harvard Business School, distilled a few simple rules of behavior or patterns from Toyota's routines that lead to a learning organization. Individually, everyone follows simple rules, but the organization as a whole learns as if doping has been used! The rules have a number of important characteristics. I highlight three here:

  1. They embody systems thinking;
  2. They give the organization self-correcting capabilities;
  3. They give the organization purpose - here: the ability to develop itself through.

1. Systems thinking

Social network
Copyright © MIT

A system is something made up of parts that affect each other. Examples of systems include atoms, the universe, body cells, cities, as well as the organization where you work.

If we want to improve an organization, it is not enough if we only stick Post-Its® to individual process steps. This is because systems theory teaches us that systems are more than just their parts (also known as "the whole is more than the sum of the parts"). This used to baffle me: how can 1 + 1 be more than 2? Of course, this is not true at all, because 1 + 1 is not a system. In fact, a system is something else: in addition to all the parts in each system, those parts are also somehow connected. 1 + 1 is not a system because those ones have no further relationship to each other. But, for example, a family is indeed more than just a collection of individuals, while "all the people whose first name is second letter A" is nothing more than a loose collection of people without any influence. Similarly, an ant colony is more than lots of ants, you are more than just some body cells, and an organization is more than a collection of separate teams or process steps.

Consequence of systems thinking

The rules
Copyright © Steven Spear

Drawing more process steps on a longer piece of brown paper does not make for systems thinking! Because those parts have relationships with each other: they deliver products, services, documents, etc. to each other. So we must not only optimize individual teams and process steps, but also design, manage and improve the connections between the teams/processes. A service-level agreement (SLA) emphatically does not do that - it specifies an intended outcome (the service level), but not how exactly the connection should work. The rules for a learning organization do: they describe how activities, connections, and paths over which customer value flows (think "traceability"!) should be designed, run, and improved.

2. Homeostasis (self-correcting ability).

We are used to seeing problem solving as an improvement technique, as a transition between two relatively stable, static periods - a transition between the old, problematic way and the new, improved way:

  • We analyze the current way in which all sorts of things go wrong;
  • With problem solving, we design and test a change;
  • If successful, we will implement the better practice.

For the record, there's nothing wrong with that; it's a great way to improve.

Another role for problem solving

But the rules deploy problem solving completely differently. A recurring magic word in the rules is "self-diagnostic. All processes (teams), connections and flow paths must be "self-diagnostic. With that, literally everything we do becomes infused with jidoka and everything we do becomes an experiment. Takt, standardized work, continuous flow, supermarkets and heijunka leveling schemes are not actually improvements at all but problem indicators, alarm bells, forms of jidoka, a continuously running experiment. And every missed stroke, every exceeded stock level, every unrealized leveling scheme, in short every failed experiment, every refuted hypothesis leads to learning. The key word here is "every": by viewing "work" not as a stable period until the next improvement project, but as a literally continuous sequence of experiments, every disruption is immediately noticed and remedied.

Not every system has this self-correcting ability - the tendency to be resilient in the face of disturbances. But in systems that do have it, systems theory calls it homeostasis. In Lean , this takes shape as ubiquitousjidoka including problem solving - but everywhere and always in all work, not projects.

3. Adaptation (Targeting).

Homeostasis prevents us from slipping, but does not yet ensure progress. For that, the rules provide another element. They prescribe that everything (activities, connections and flow paths) must be improved. Of course, we all try to do that, so it seems nothing special. However, the rules also provide a clear definition of "improve" by specifying in which direction we must improve. By doing so, they specify what is an improvement (in the right direction) and what is not. You can also say: they tell whichchangesshould be retained asimprovementsby specifying what the ultimate goal, 'perfection', means for each activity:

  • 100% perfect quality;
  • on demand (i.e., only when the next step requires it);
  • in batches of one (i.e., piece processing without any changeover time);
  • with immediate response times (i.e., no waiting time for the next step);
  • without any waste;
  • with physical, emotional and professional safety.
Copyright © Mike Rother

We never achieve this ideal. But we do need it to improve in a clear direction (how many conflicting projects are there in your organization?) Such incremental adjustment toward an ultimate goal of a system is also called adaptation within systems theory. In Lean , this takes shape as kaizen - but real kaizen, not those brainstorms, workshops and suggestion boxes called "kaizen.

The rules

So what are those rules? You obviously don't hold it in excitement by now 🙂 but I'm going to disappoint you. They are somewhat academic, formal and abstractly worded. Many terms are used in a very specific, technical sense and therefore need explanation and clarification. Then I will lose all readers 🙂 and this column is already way too long! By the way, they are not a secret, they have been public and easy to find online for decades. It's just impossible to 'just snap'. So I won't go into the details here. But when an organization manages to get the rules into the daily routine of team leaders and middle managers, emergent learning occurs. The organization as a whole starts learning to become much more effective on an ongoing basis, transcending all our pathetic little departmental ant perspectives.

Lean as a learning organization

People have been talking about learning organizations (and systems thinking, for that matter) for a long time. Everyone wants to be a learning organization, but it always remains unclear exactly what we mean by it. Under the guise of "learning organization," we free up some training budget and buy beautiful scaled agile frameworks, and culture programs, and big data, and apps, and analytics, and "smart technology," and machine learning, and other promises from a slightly too confident consultant.

John Shook: I wish I knew more about learning.
John Shook and his book Managing to Learn

If it seems too good to be true, it is. The toys I mention are not necessarily evil, but you don't get a learning organization by spending some money. Toyota's insane, decades-long sustained growth and improvement are rooted in simple patterns of behavior for individuals: the rules. They have led Toyota to become the first and still the best learning organization. "Toyota has learned to learn," as John Shook said in Managing to Learn. I don't care whether or not Toyotas are the best cars. Cars don't interest me at all. Yawn. Toyota is the organization that learns best thanks to emergence from simple behavior, and in doing so provides its employees with a lifetime of inspiring, meaningful work.

"Lean, the real Lean, is the only working operationalization of the learning organization.

Lean is not a process nonsense for staffers or feel-good Post-It® workshop consultants. It is an unprecedented genius way to create emergent organizational learning from simple behaviors of individuals, via homeostasis (immediate, non-project self-correcting ability) and adaptation (the actual non-workshop journey toward perfection).

But then there is work to be done. It takes more than obligatory day-starts, a mile of brown paper and 37 workshop-facilitating belts. Even this column is not enough; the rules are still too abstract to "just implement" (because how do you know if you have implemented them correctly?) and, of course, this is just a summary. But we have all the puzzle pieces. We know how to put systems thinking and homeostasis and adaptation into practice, and it is dead wrong and sad that we are so desperately trying to convince ourselves that we are really, "really, really" doing it already. We do our best, that is not in dispute, but what we do is not automatically Lean because of our sincere intentions or because we do our best and we label the result as 'Lean'. If there is anything worth giving your organization as a gift, it is to learn to put these rules into practice.

Become an ant colony. And organize the behavior in your organization to find your closest food pile. I would love to help you! 

Marcel Aartsen is Senior Lean advisor at the Lean Management Institute

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