Why Organizations Do not Learn? Part IV of IV

BY FRANCESCA GINOBRADLEY STAATS - 2017-08-04

In our previous post we learnt how the Leaders are biased towards fitting in. How one makes a significant effort to learn and adhere to written and unwritten codes of behavior at work. But there’s the catch: Doing so limits what people bring to the organization and how employees are less likely to be themselves and to draw on their strengths. Here, in this post we will talk about how Leaders are biased towards experts and think that they are the best source of ideas for improvement.

Bias Toward Experts

Beginning in the early 20th century, the scientific management movement introduced a rigorous approach to examining how organizations operate. In the process, though, it solidified the notion that experts are the best source of ideas for improvement. Today companies continue to call in consultants, industrial engineers, Six Sigma teams, and the like when improvement is needed. The bias toward experts creates two challenges.

Challenge #1: An overly narrow view of expertise.

Organizations tend to define “expert” too narrowly, relying on indicators such as titles, degrees, and years of experience. However, experience is a multidimensional construct. Different types of experience—including time spent on the front line, with a customer or working with particular people—contribute to understanding a problem in detail and creating a solution.

A bias toward experts can also lead people to misunderstand the potential drawbacks that come with increased time and practice in the job. Though experience improves efficiency and effectiveness, it can also make people more resistant to change and more likely to dismiss information that conflicts with their views.

Challenge #2: Inadequate frontline involvement.

Frontline employees—the people directly involved in creating, selling, delivering, and servicing offerings and interacting with customers—are frequently in the best position to spot and solve problems. Too often, though, they aren’t empowered to do so. Even in organizations that espouse “lean thinking”—a process-improvement approach that is intended to involve all employees—standard work practices seldom change, and only expert recommendations are implemented.

The following tactics can help organizations overcome the tendency to turn to experts.

Encourage workers to own problems that affect them.

Make sure that your organization is adhering to the principle that the person who experiences a problem should fix it when and where it occurs. This prevents workers from relying too heavily on experts and helps them avoid making the same mistakes again. Tackling the problem immediately, when the relevant information is still fresh, increases the chances that it will be successfully resolved.

For example, at Morning Star’s tomato-processing facilities, individuals are expected not only to meet specific targets for themselves but also to look for ways to improve their work and the overall performance of the operation. When something goes awry on a worker’s watch, she is responsible for fixing it. That might involve enlisting others to help or even going out to purchase new equipment (although there are understood limits to what workers can spend without authorization). The company encourages problem-solving behavior not only through its culture but also through its compensation practices: Pay is based both on meeting goals and on improving over time.

Give workers different kinds of experience.

In our research at a Japanese bank, we looked at how data-entry workers performed when they were doing the same task repeatedly (“specialized experience”) and when they were switching between different tasks (“varied experience”). We found that over the course of a single day, a specialized approach was fastest. But over time, switching activities across days promoted learning and kept workers more engaged. Both specialization and variety were important to learning.

In addition, giving workers new types of experience and greater depth within each of them is valuable. One of us (Brad), along with Jonathan Clark and Robert Huckman, studied the operational performance of radiologists who read digital images (X-rays or CT scans) remotely for hospitals. Although a doctor’s total experience mattered, another important predictor of performance over time was how often that individual worked with a given hospital. As the radiologist gained experience with a particular hospital, he could respond more quickly to its requests and help it improve its processes.

Yet another factor that affects improvement is team members’ familiarity with one another. In studies across settings—including software development companies, consulting firms, health care organizations, and laboratories—we’ve found that working repeatedly with the same people can enhance coordination, optimize the use of valuable expertise residing within a group, speed the response to new circumstances, and improve how people combine their knowledge to solve problems effectively. In light of research showing that software teams were more likely to deliver projects on budget and with higher quality when their members had prior experience working together than when they did not, Wipro began staffing its projects accordingly.

Given such findings, leaders should strive to deepen their understanding of the kinds of industry, customer, and team experiences that affect their operating environments. They should then use this information to develop employees, track their experience portfolios, and deploy them strategically. Companies may have to change their enterprise systems, analytics capabilities, and staffing models. But the investment will help them build a richer understanding of how to improve learning and performance over time.

Empower employees to use their experience.

Organizations should aggressively seek to identify and remove barriers that prevent individuals from using their expertise. Solving the customer’s problems in innovative, value-creating ways—not navigating organizational impediments—should be the challenging part of one’s job. Ethan Bernstein found that employees at a leading global manufacturer were working less productively when managers were watching them (see “The Transparency Trap,” HBR, October 2014). The company claimed to be in the “lean camp,” but its practices suggested otherwise: For example, workers were not sharing their ideas for improving processes with others. Bernstein’s innovative solution was to put curtains around a factory production line so that employees could work in privacy. The result: Productivity increased significantly. Leaders should identify ways they can truly empower employees—whether by giving them more privacy, publicly acknowledging their contributions, or providing monetary rewards.

It may be cheaper and easier in the short run to ignore failures, schedule work so that there’s no time for reflection, require compliance with organizational norms, and turn to experts for quick solutions. But these short-term approaches will limit the organization’s ability to learn. If leaders institute ways to counter the four biases we have identified, they will unleash the power of learning throughout their operations. Only then will their companies truly improve continuously.

Acknowledgement      : Harvard Business Review, Nov 2015

In case you missed it, my last post was Why Organizations Do not Learn? Part III of IV

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Gemba Kaizen