The Power of Learning Culture

The focus in my civilian career has been to help with learning and culture change in a lean environment. I have been a consultant with many tier-one manufacturers and now work directly for Volvo. One common element in these companies is that whether intentional or not, all organizations have a learning culture. The more common term used is “learning organization.” I first became aware of this when I was consulting with Ford, which was implementing the Ford Production System (FPS —similar to the Toyota Production System). One of the resources was the “Fifth Discipline Fieldbook,” a practical workbook based on the earlier book “The Fifth Discipline” written by Peter Senge from MIT.

Each plant had a unique individual learning culture. That culture was shaped by geographic location, organizational history, and the ability of the local leadership to drive the culture change. Strong union influences often affected change implementation. If the changes were perceived as being favorable to the people and the future security of the local organization, the culture supported the openness to learning. If the local leadership was not on board with the changes, compliance was often the case rather than successful implementation.

One factor that was always true was that each organization was already a learning organization. The methods and practices may not have been formalized, and there may have been no structured learning plans, but they each had an organic process in place that created a form of learning. People learn by observation and practice. Behaviors are the strongest indicators of the impacts of a learning organization. In some cultures, effective communications existed because people understood that free-flowing communications were important to success. In others, a lack of trust caused breakdowns in communications. These behaviors are learned and are quickly spread throughout organizations. Silos and shelters were evident in some groups, and in many cases they were caught in a downward spiral.

To impact existing learning organizations and create a more focused effort, several factors should be considered.

1) Recognize that the learning organization is already in place and has its own structure. Who are the key players? What forms of communications are in place? What are the concerns that drive the organization’s work? What influences can be tailored to blend with the existing structure in a way that’s balanced?

2) Identify a sense of urgency. Most organizations flow with a sense of urgency. Channeling that urgency creates a positive learning culture. Survival doesn’t have to be about doom and gloom if it is accompanied by a sense of higher purpose and ultimate success.

3) Leadership. The appointed and the “natural” leadership within any organization must be able to create a sense of shared vision and purpose. Energy that is wasted on internal struggles diverts the strength away from shaping the new learning culture. Conflict that destroys or at least hampers that shared vision reinforces the negative learning culture and impedes any new improvements. A successful group will learn to manage the natural tension and create a long-lasting learning culture together. But it takes the one element few seem to want to invest in: Time.

My current company is undergoing a global transformation to a lean culture. As a member of the working group that helped to launch the initiative, I have had many chances to see the learning organization effect on a global scale. The program is based on best practices learned from other world-class lean manufacturing organizations combined with our unique corporate culture.

The effects of geography, language, culture and local leadership styles are key elements in the progress toward a single global system. We have benefited from very visible support of our CEO. An internal academy was established and has been enhanced with an operational development focus. The program has a central electronic information resource available. As the corporation has grown, we have expanded that knowledge base. That is essential, since the company has a very strong global footprint that encompasses every continent.

The tools are there, the support is strong, and resources have been allocated. But in the end, success will be measured by how well the individual organizations adapt to the unique challenges of their individual learning organizations. In the past year, I have had a chance to work with groups in three countries and have been reminded how much we all have in common in our need for better ways to build our learning organizations. I strongly believe that we will overcome those challenges and ultimately share the successes that we are all working toward.

—The author of this article, Bob MacPherson, is manager for production support at Volvo Parts Remanufacturing Group in Middletown, Pa. He has been in the transportation industry for more than 14 years after completing a career in the U.S. Navy. MacPherson has a B.S. degree in workforce education from Southern Illinois University. Contact him via e-mail at bob.macpherson@volvo.com.

The focus in my civilian career has been to help with learning and culture change in a lean environment. I have been a consultant with many tier-one manufacturers and now work directly for Volvo. One common element in these companies is that whether intentional or not, all organizations have a learning culture. The more common term used is “learning organization.” I first became aware of this when I was consulting with Ford, which was implementing the Ford Production System (FPS —similar to the Toyota Production System). One of the resources was the “Fifth Discipline Fieldbook,” a practical workbook based on the earlier book “The Fifth Discipline” written by Peter Senge from MIT.

Each plant had a unique individual learning culture. That culture was shaped by geographic location, organizational history, and the ability of the local leadership to drive the culture change. Strong union influences often affected change implementation. If the changes were perceived as being favorable to the people and the future security of the local organization, the culture supported the openness to learning. If the local leadership was not on board with the changes, compliance was often the case rather than successful implementation.

One factor that was always true was that each organization was already a learning organization. The methods and practices may not have been formalized, and there may have been no structured learning plans, but they each had an organic process in place that created a form of learning. People learn by observation and practice. Behaviors are the strongest indicators of the impacts of a learning organization. In some cultures, effective communications existed because people understood that free-flowing communications were important to success. In others, a lack of trust caused breakdowns in communications. These behaviors are learned and are quickly spread throughout organizations. Silos and shelters were evident in some groups, and in many cases they were caught in a downward spiral.

To impact existing learning organizations and create a more focused effort, several factors should be considered.

1) Recognize that the learning organization is already in place and has its own structure. Who are the key players? What forms of communications are in place? What are the concerns that drive the organization’s work? What influences can be tailored to blend with the existing structure in a way that’s balanced?

2) Identify a sense of urgency. Most organizations flow with a sense of urgency. Channeling that urgency creates a positive learning culture. Survival doesn’t have to be about doom and gloom if it is accompanied by a sense of higher purpose and ultimate success.

3) Leadership. The appointed and the “natural” leadership within any organization must be able to create a sense of shared vision and purpose. Energy that is wasted on internal struggles diverts the strength away from shaping the new learning culture. Conflict that destroys or at least hampers that shared vision reinforces the negative learning culture and impedes any new improvements. A successful group will learn to manage the natural tension and create a long-lasting learning culture together. But it takes the one element few seem to want to invest in: Time.

My current company is undergoing a global transformation to a lean culture. As a member of the working group that helped to launch the initiative, I have had many chances to see the learning organization effect on a global scale. The program is based on best practices learned from other world-class lean manufacturing organizations combined with our unique corporate culture.

The effects of geography, language, culture and local leadership styles are key elements in the progress toward a single global system. We have benefited from very visible support of our CEO. An internal academy was established and has been enhanced with an operational development focus. The program has a central electronic information resource available. As the corporation has grown, we have expanded that knowledge base. That is essential, since the company has a very strong global footprint that encompasses every continent.

The tools are there, the support is strong, and resources have been allocated. But in the end, success will be measured by how well the individual organizations adapt to the unique challenges of their individual learning organizations. In the past year, I have had a chance to work with groups in three countries and have been reminded how much we all have in common in our need for better ways to build our learning organizations. I strongly believe that we will overcome those challenges and ultimately share the successes that we are all working toward.

—The author of this article, Bob MacPherson, is manager for production support at Volvo Parts Remanufacturing Group in Middletown, Pa. He has been in the transportation industry for more than 14 years after completing a career in the U.S. Navy. MacPherson has a B.S. degree in workforce education from Southern Illinois University. Contact him via e-mail at bob.macpherson@volvo.com.

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