HOW PEOPLE LEARN
People learn in many ways. People learn from observation (including reading, listening), and they learn a lot by doing. You can make a great argument that some of the most powerful learning happens when people make mistakes, since they are forced to correct those mistakes, in what seems like a very wasteful algorithm (mistake, then correct, yields approximately 50% efficiency). But over time, people generally get better at things. They learn what works, and more importantly, they learn what doesn’t work. The human tendency toward laziness works in our favor here. We may not like performing tasks, but we certainly don’t want to do them twice to get the desired outcome!
Perhaps Sir Arthur Conan Doyle said it best (through Sherlock Holmes, in The Sign of The Four - 1890), “Eliminate all other factors, and the one which remains must be the truth.”. So if we take this axiom as fact, it leads us to believe that when we understand those ways NOT to perform a task, what are left are viable ways of performing. And as we compare those viable alternatives, we ‘learn’ which are better and more efficient.
Doyle and Holmes aside, there is real learning going on here. Over time, people get to know not only what works and what doesn’t work, but they learn what works BETTER. And they use these better methods. This is why someone with 15 years of experience can be more productive than someone you just hired. He knows more, he’s experienced more, and he puts that experience into practice. But what seems obvious at this point begs the question: If we can measure the learning curve, and we can predict the learning curve, can we IMPROVE the learning curve?
LEARNING CURVE THEORY
Current learning curve theory holds that each person has a distinct learning curve factor. I submit that a person likely has several learning curve factors, which are subject- or situationally-based. For example, if you ever watch the FOOD CHANNEL, or the COOKING CHANNEL, you can watch the Iron Chefs (those at the top of their craft) cook things they’ve never seen before, but they do an excellent job. That is because they are great chefs, and they’ve honed their skills over time, and understand various techniques which serve them well even in unfamiliar territory. But even if they’ve driven a Ford for many years, I doubt if their auto maintenance skills would help them change the spark plugs on a Ferrari. They’re like a fish out of water outside of their area of expertise, as all of us are.
We all have our areas of expertise. We don’t often stray from them, because on most functioning teams, our weaknesses are usually made up by someone else on the team (as we complement their weaknesses). But the team ‘learns’ as well. It has a learning curve, and this curve can be significantly changed over time, creating a team which learning at a much higher rate. Improving a teams learning rates can be an important factor in the long-term success of any company. But how is this done? What can we do to improve? This is the age old question, isn’t it?
ANATOMY OF A TEAM
In today’s competitive environments, we don’t often have the luxury of having teams full of specialists. At best, we create teams of generalists, with each team member having certain strengths (and thereby, weaknesses) which differentiate the team members.
Since each team member has an individual learning curve (in their areas of expertise), plus additional learning curves for more mundane tasks, it makes sense that improving these individual curves will positively affect the learning curve of the team. But it is just human nature that, especially in our individual areas of expertise, we really DON’T want to share a knowledge that will diminish our relative value to the team (or the company!). So let’s focus on the other more ‘mundane’ tasks. Perhaps that’s where we lose a lot of productivity anyway!
What do we mean by the more ‘mundane’ tasks? For our purposes, I’m talking about processing email, writing reports, developing presentations, processing expenses, and general office maintenance tasks. We all have to do them, even if we have an Admin Assistant helping out. If you look at your work distribution during the day, you’ll likely find these tasks taking inordinate amounts of time!
In their 2001 book, The Idea Generator: Quick and Easy Kaizen (2001), Bodek & Tozawa show how everyone, at every level, can contribute to workplace improvements. They even provide visual forms, which allow associates to share and value their improvements for all to see.
Bodek and Tozawa actually go the shop floor, where they find hundreds of examples of people improving their work environments, WITHOUT incentive. They suggest that improving our environments is part of the nature of being human. I suggest that it is the elusive mechanism in the learning curve. And I further suggest that this mechanism can be exploited to improve team productivity, and company profitability.
Consider one of the more ‘mundane’ tasks one might perform in MS Excel. When developing a report, it is often useful to combine data, a graph, a graphic, and even some text. MS Excel seems like the natural place to do this, since the data can be linked to the graph, so if the data changes, you don’t have to waste time exporting the graphs, graphics, and text to another application. But I want to focus on the more ‘mundane’ task of entering data into an MS Excel cell.
There are lots of ways to do this: Using a text box comes to mind. However, you can just enter text in a cell. However, it is difficult to format that text. And if you want to put in line breaks, going cell to cell is also problematic. However, there is a simple technique that can be used. When in the cell, hitting ALT+ENTER gives you that line break you’re looking for. This simple technique can save lots of time, and relatively few know about it! Microsoft (and all other PC applications) are riddled with these features, tens of thousands of them. Some of know these ‘tricks’, others have yet to learn them.
If you have some of these tricks up your sleeve, why don’t you take more time to share them? Certainly, when you do, many of your colleagues ‘Ohhhhhh, and Ahhhhh’ over them. Some write them down, others swear they will. Those that use them have just changed their own learning curve, albeit on a small scale. Those who forget, well, they don’t get anything out of it, do they?
One simple technique for capturing these learnings, and sharing them with the team, I call an Improvement Card (or iCard, for short). When you discover a particularly neat technique for saving time, write it down it this simple format:
- What is the simple/new process?
- How much time does it save per instance?
- How many times do you do this per week/month?
Add your name and a date to this, and post it outside your office or cubicle, and you’ve just SHARED an idea that others WILL copy. If you share one iCard idea per day, you’ll have shared over 250 improvements in a year! Here is what your iCard might look like:
Three of these can easily fit on A4 or 8-1/2”x11” paper. If you post a few of these, people WILL stop and read them. I set a personal goal of posting at least 3 a week. When my wall gets too full, I pull some down, and post newer ones. Just think of the impact that thousands of small improvements can have on productivity. Think of how they can improve your personal productivity. This new capacity gives you more time to do those tasks that are your core, your competitive advantage!
Many organizations ask their workforce to share these iCard type of improvements. And as simple as they seem, they have tremendous effects. Norman Bodek told me once that Kodak paid workers $25 for each improvement, without regard to validation or verification. This shows the belief they have in the learning power of their workforce. However, there are some traps that should be avoided:
SHARING ‘IDEAS’: The iCard is not the forum to put forth suggestions about process changes, or how others affect your productivity. This is not a forum for ideas, it is a forum for improvements. Strive for the types of improvements you naturally do on a daily basis. They are small, and they rarely extend beyond the edges of your desk. And it is something you’ve already accomplished, not something you’re planning.
BIGGER IS BETTER: We are not looking for the next big improvement. People don’t usually share these small improvements, partly because they don’t want others to know why they are so productive, and partly because they are frankly embarrassed that they didn’t already know some of these things. Let your guard down. It’s the small things that matter!
START A DATABASE: Some leader is going to get the bright idea to put these items in a database, a SharePoint site, or somewhere on your network (keyword indexed). This is not a productive idea. The power of these improvements is that they are shared LOCALLY. If it is impactful to you, it is likely impactful to others on your team. The importance of these ideas is inversely proportional to the distance from your workplace!
GOOD FOR YOU, NOT FOR ME: iCards work best when EVERYONE participates, from the boss down to the new guy. Everyone has something to share, and everyone has something to learn.
ONLY SHARE THE ‘GOOD’ IMPROVEMENTS: Actually, the more, the better. Set goals around the improvements. At first, require 1 per week. Then 2, then 3, then one each day. They should realistically only take 60 seconds to complete and post. If it takes more time than that, you still have more to learn!
MAKE THEM PRETTY: No, done by hand is the best way. Quick and ugly. If someone is making them look good, they are likely taking too long to develop them.
I’M OUT OF IMPROVEMENTS: If you’re out of improvements, it means you don’t have anything further to contribute. Horse hockey! If you can’t think of one to share today, go look at some of the others, and steal some to post yourself!
THESE ARE MINE, THOSE ARE YOURS: As it turns out, each of us has a slightly different sphere of influence. So we can ‘steal’ someone else’s iCard, and make it our own. Different people will read different sets of iCards, so by stealing and sharing, we increase our circles of influence.
Try iCards on for awhile. Companies that try it love it, and start to create sharing and learning cultures. Don’t underestimate the power of small and frequent improvements. They can actually add up to much more than you think!
Keywords: bodek, competitive, competitive advantage, continuous improvement, efficiency, icard, icards, improvement, improvement cards, improvements, individual learning curve, knowledge, knowledge sharing, learning, learning curve, productivity, team learning curve, workplace
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Bill Kluck is the Founder and Director of Operations for The Northwest Lean
Networks, a professional society which connects the community of lean professionals worldwide. Bill has over 20 years of experience implementing lean in a wide variety of industries, both public and private. He has trained thousands of team members in various lean strategies and techniques, and has overseen financial impact in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
Bill is currently the Director of Operational Excellence with The Coca-Cola Company, in Atlanta, Georgia. His main focus is building transformational change and
evolving business culture.
Bill earned his Bachelor of Science in Industrial Engineering from the University of Washington, an MBA from Seattle University, and holds several continuous
improvement certifications (including a Six Sigma Master Black Belt, and a Master’s Certification in Lean Methods).
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