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How to Accelerate Learning on Your Team

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How to Accelerate Learning on Your Team
by: 
Elizabeth Doty
from: strategy+business



Shorten the loop.
According to scholars such as David A. Kolb and Walter Shewhart, real-life learning occurs in a loop. Like scientists, your team needs to be able to form an idea, run an experiment, check whether they moved the needle, and reflect on what to take away. Learning stalls when we don’t close this loop quickly enough. To speed the time to “aha,” try making feedback more timely and systematic. For example, agile software developers and design thinkers shorten the loop through rapid prototyping. With statistical process control, operators track key metrics hour by hour and respond in real time to problems by adjusting machines or scheduling maintenance.


Think like an architect.
Experts in designing public places think about how space itself can help direct traffic flows. Similarly, the ideal feedback system channels timely, useful information directly to those
most able to act on it. Like good signage, it should be vivid and tangible — which is why lean practitioners insist on low-tech “visual controls.” For example, one leader I worked with drastically shortened delivery times by having high-level professionals review and correct their own errors, rather than having junior staff handle fixes for them. By contrast, data that is too aggregated, delayed, or abstract is less actionable, because employees cannot connect the dots to their work.

Look upstream.
Do your teams know whether they are delivering on key promises to customers or other stakeholders? Most companies don’t have real-time data on how well they are doing at critical “moments of truth” with their customers — precisely when it is most difficult to deliver consistently. Shining a light on these upstream drivers can accelerate your team’s learning and improve downstream financial results. For example, an apartment company found that annual renewal rates were driven by the customers’ initial move-in experience. The company then developed measures to provide rapid feedback about the quality of each customer’s move-in experience, improving execution, renewals, and financial performance.


Gather feedback on how the system is doing, rather than rating individuals.
Organizations miss important insights when they evaluate individuals in isolation, rather than looking at how the system is operating as a whole. This involves shifting to a process view and challenging your assumptions about what is causing the problem. Kaoru Ishikawa’s fishbone diagram can help expand your thinking — the potential causes branch out from the central problem. In today’s continually shifting organizations, you may find the key lesson is knowing others’ roles, agreeing on handoffs, harmonizing methods, or clarifying specifications.


Create forums for team learning.
When you create concrete processes for sharing knowledge, conducting after-action reviews, reflecting on data, or exploring root causes as a team, everyone learns. As Étienne Wenger found in his research on “communities of practice,” these forums allow your top performers to push their creative problem-solving skills, while your novices learn from peer-to-peer interaction with experts. For these to work, it is critical to shift from judging people’s competence to thinking together about what works, in an environment of openness and support.


Evolve your system over time.
As a favorite professor of mine once said, adding data is like lowering the water level in a river — it surfaces the rocks. Rather than attempting to tackle all of the issues at once, he recommended chipping away at them gradually. It takes time for people to trust the data, diagnose underlying issues, and address them. And at the same time, they still have to run day-to-day operations.



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