Managing the learning curve

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One of the biggest impacts to organizational effectiveness is the learning curve.  Our ability to rapidly orient people and change assignments has dramatic impacts on effectiveness, costs and quality.   There are two types of skills that are required to work within an organization:  (a) the first is core technical or management skills and the second involves (b) knowledge of organizational processes, decision criteria, priorities and expected behavior.

Most people already have the required technical or management skills.  If not, there are classes or mentoring to address this issue.  Also, these types of skills do not vary across organizations.  A capable manager in one organization can use those same skills in a different organization.

The biggest challenge is related to learning organizational processes and expected behaviors.  Many organizations do not document this knowledge or their processes.  Teaching this undocumented knowledge to others requires “behavior mentoring” which disrupts the existing staff and the new people until they adjust their “habits” to match the informal processes and behaviors.  This approach results in a lack of consistency, affects quality and productivity, and increases the demands on the management team.

The best solution is to standardize behavior that requires people to follow documented processes, standards, and templates for applying core technical and management skills.  Let me use airline pilots as an example. Pilots have the skills to fly an airplane but they do not depend on memory or habit for routine processes like take-off and landing and they certainly do not learn these skills by being mentored by another pilot.  Pilot’s follow formal documented checklists that are specific to that type of airplane. When they switch to a different type of airplane they follow the checklist for that airplane and they do not depend on memory or hait bacause failure to remember a routine task such as lowering the landing gear can have fatal consequences.   In spite of these checklists, it is non uncommon for pilots flying airplanes with retractable landing gear to froget to lower the landing gear.

This sounds like a simple solution.  Why do organizations depend on habits and routines and fail to document processes, check-lists, decision criteria, models, etc.  The answer is quite simple. Documenting and enforcing business processes is tedious and requires up-front investment of management time.  As a result, much of our training challenges are related to training people to intuitively react the way that we would in response to a given situation. In the long run, it is much easier to document the desired behavior into a process or checklist and simply have people follow the checklist.  There will always be decision points but these can also be facilitated with standard decision criteria. This will make training easier, minimize our dependence on subject matter experts, and also reduce the risk of loss of knowledge as people retire or resign.

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