The Practice of Learning Teams

Foreword by Dr Todd Conklin

The enemy of the question is the answer

Please allow me to begin the foreword of this fine book with a foundational and important statement: The enemy of the question is the answer. We, as organizations and individuals, are not curious enough if we believe we know the answer.  There is no need to seek information if we believe we already have the information. The “pull” to know is based upon not knowing – and this idea, at least at first pass, is somewhat counter-intuitive. After all, we all live in a world where the assumption often is our leadership must know best…and sometimes leadership knowledge is exactly what our organization needs.

Organizations often find themselves in an internal battle for effectively learning from themselves. Leadership sometimes feels victimized by their ability to get accurate and honest information from the organization. Getting accurate and helpful information is not an easy task and therefore organizations have traditionally struggled in their improvement and corrective action activities. Leaders are not satisfied, and organizations are not improving; both outcomes are less than satisfying for everyone involved. Our traditional solution has been to “try harder” to get the answers we need often by seeking information that confirms what we already think we know. If we don’t get the information we want and need, we assume the problem is in the information collected. That, we are learning, is almost never the case.

This problem is often seen as a function of not getting good enough answers. “We did not get the answer we needed.”  If people would just tell us the answer, we would be fine. We have created a place for workers to tell us what they know – “my door is always open”… “workers need only walk in and tell me what they know”.  We push our organizations for quick answers – we want to know what to fix as soon as possible.

We know that blaming the answer is not really the problem.

Answers are simply reflections of the questions that organizations are asking. If you want better answers, you must first learn how to ask better questions. Learning is not about getting answers. Learning has never been about getting answers. Learning is a direct function of the method by which we gather information. 

We don’t need to get better answers. We need better questions – asked in a better way.
The biggest deterrence to learning is the belief you already know the answer. Organizations have long thought that answers, like other important business decisions, must come from management. In many cases, leadership is a great place to gather information about an organization. Leaders have access to much information of which the workforce simply does not have access. Leaders know much about their organization – with a rather large exception. Leaders are not usually well versed in the daily operations of production. 

After all, if you want to know how work is done you must ask a person who does the work. Leaders know how work is managed; workers know how work is done. This separation of intelligence must be recognized and understood.  The world’s experts in how your work is done don’t plan, design, schedule, and lead this work…these experts do this work. 

Getting access to this information is not as simple as a cursory opportunity for workers to drop by your office and tell you what is happening. Organizations must first create an environment where workers feel valued and safe to share what is sometimes uncomfortable and difficult information.  Organizations must learn how to ask questions differently in order to gather a better and more accurate understanding of operational situations that could be causing unknown problems in production. 
Learning, truly learning, is pretty messy. Organizations have tried for a long time to understand and streamline their ability to understand their own operations. The problem with learning is that learning appears to be neat and easy – learning is neither neat nor easy. Learning means taking the time and creating the space for workers to help the organization understand the problem – and then and only then – address the solution. 

Organizations have to know that there is much the organization does not know about daily operations in order to create an environment where the organization can learn. Organizations need to be curious – much more curious then they have ever been before. Curious organizations are successful organizations. My definition of operational excellence is built around this very idea of organizational curiosity. Operational excellence is the degree to which the organization learns from itself.  Having the ability to learn from normal, daily work is a powerful tool in creating effective and stable performance for your organization.

The key question is: How on earth do you do this type of learning? How do we change years of traditional top-down answer givers giving answers to the organization? How can we access workers not as the problem to be fixed, but as the problem solvers to be asked for their intimate access to an organization’s normal and undiscovered problems?

When the New Zealand/Australian gang came to me and wondered if they could create a book about operational learning teams by using an operational learning team, I was taken by the idea. I was excited to hear this news. Not only were these smart and interested people willing to take on this organizational learning challenge, but also, they wanted to discover this information by using the very tool for which they are trying to create a practice. 
Imagine using the tool you are studying to gather information about the tool?
How interesting to use the learning method you are studying as the frame for doing the study? Talk about the ability to micro-experiment an idea – this was perhaps going to be either the greatest idea ever or the worst waste of time of the year. What an amazing way to dig deeply into the power and potential that this practice can have for an organization.

It ended up being one of the best ideas ever conceived for the data collection and analysis for a book on operational learning.   It worked great!

“The Practice of Learning Teams” will become a powerful resource in changing the way organizations learn and improve their operations. This book is easy to read and full of great concepts that can be used as soon as you read them. I love a book where you read an idea in the morning and try the same idea that very afternoon.   

Sutton, McCarthy, and Robinson speak with individual experience and depth while creating a common voice on the practice of improving an organization’s ability to do better operational learning. Having three authors gives us, the readers, a varied and more diverse understanding of this topic. 

You will learn how learning teams work. You will also learn how to make these teams function in your organization. Most importantly, you will discover how learning teams co-create information that is deeper and richer in understanding your operations.

You have just picked up a book that is the recipe for operational excellence. You are about to learn how to become better at learning about your organization – its successes (of which there are many) and its failures (of which there are few).  Best of all, you will learn in a way to increase engagement and involvement – you will learn, while honoring the workers who are the experts at doing the work.

Become a curious organization. Enjoy this book, “The Practice of Learning Teams”, but more importantly, be bold and try out these practices and observe how much better and more stable your organization will become. Most of all – enjoy this journey – you will be forever thankful that your organization found “The Practice of Learning Teams”.

Todd Conklin, 2020
(c) Pre-Accident Investigation Media

About Dr Todd Conklin

Todd Conklin spent 25 years at Los Alamos National Laboratory as a Senior Advisor for Organizational and Safety Culture. Los Alamos National Laboratory is one of the world's foremost research and development laboratories; Dr. Conklin has been working on the Human Performance program for the last 15 years of his 25-year career. It is in this fortunate position where he enjoys the best of both the academic world and the world of safety in practice. Conklin holds a Ph.D. in organizational behavior from the University of New Mexico. He speaks all over the world to executives, groups and work teams who are interested in better understanding the relationship between the workers in the field and the organization's systems, processes, and programs. He has brought these systems to major corporations around the world. Conklin practices these ideas not only in his own workplace, but also in the event investigations at other workplaces around the world. Conklin defines safety at his workplace like this: "Safety is the ability for workers to be able to do work in a varying and unpredictable world." Conklin lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico and thinks that Human Performance is the most meaningful work he has ever had the opportunity to live and teach.