2019, Volume 4, Issue 1 - Summer 2019

Lifelong learning: Is your organization curious enough to keep learning?

By John Chaput

From the moment we’re born, we begin learning. We master the basics first: breathing, seeing, crying, eating, and so on. Then we start learning because we are curious, and our world expands around us.

Much of what we learn when we are young is retained pretty much instantly. As we get older and our learning becomes more sophisticated, we need more effort and repetition to retain the things we have experienced or been taught.

I’m sure we can all remember studying for the moment we will be asked in elementary school to recite our multiplication tables or a poem. How much effort does it take to successfully write a university or college exam? What about learning a new business process or technique? These are examples of how learning gets more difficult over time.

Lifelong learning means having curiosity to explore new methods, processes, and possibilities while gaining a new perspective and being open to change. It means listening with the intention of understanding; asking genuinely inquisitive questions that lead you to new ideas and experiments. It means having empathy towards the experiences and beliefs of others. These things build a strong dialogue within a group or team in a safe environment where learning is not just a collateral outcome of problem solving but a deliberate part of the process.

I feel many people equate ‘learning’ to only what we receive through our formal education system, but it’s so much more. In fact, the learning we get from our institutional education represents only a fraction of what we learn on regular basis.

Think about it; what have you learned in the past year, the past month, yesterday, or since your breakfast this morning? Learning is everywhere. To truly embrace learning is to recognize 1) learning is continuous, and 2) we must act on what we learn and apply it.

A never-ending journey

Learning is a never-ending journey that leverages past knowledge, experiences, and perspectives, so learning is always personal and is constantly evolving. We cannot get to the next step without first learning the previous step. This process gives us the ability to make better decisions and more importantly ask better questions to get better answers to inform our decisions.

Humans cannot stop learning, because we are naturally curious animals. Our curiosity ties directly into the sphere of knowledge, where the more we learn, the more questions we have. As our sphere of knowledge grows, we become aware of more things we did not know before which leads to more questions. We can see greater possibilities and understand the limitless reaches of our imagination.

Albert Einstein said:

“I am enough of an artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.”

Pause for a second and think about that. Do we learn because it’s prescribed, or do we learn because our desire to understand is driven by our human curiosity?

We have an inner drive to continually change and grow, stemming from our imagination. I believe one of our drivers to learn is the need to satisfy and feed our imagination.

Learning is living, and living is learning

Author Tom Clancy said: “Life is about learning; when you stop learning, you die.” What does that mean? Why would we die if we stop learning?

We can frame it as this: In the absence of learning, there is an absence of creativity which disables our imagination. Without learning we cannot explore our imagination, therefore creating a void in our human curiosity and rendering us essentially dead to the world around us. We are meant to create, explore, debate, and adjust; all of which are elements of learning and living!

Best-in-class organizations and truly innovative companies are good at tapping into the imaginations of their team members through creating learning environments. I’ve always been a believer that the ultimate organization is a problem-solving organization. This is achieved through the belief (not instruction) that we need to learn and grow through everything we do at all levels of the organization. That’s really the fundamental of problem solving.

When you think about problem solving it’s about three things: learning, creating, and doing. Learn about our problems (their significance, root cause, and fixability), then create a new way to improve or modify the ‘doing.’ After you set forth and ‘do,’ you have to learn if the solution is working as intended and adjust if it’s not. It’s the basics of Deming’s Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle.

Enable, inspire, and trust

We need to continuously find ways to enable and inspire learning. Whether it’s within ourselves or outwardly as a leader. You don’t have to be a formal leader to create a learning environment; you simply need to open the door to feedback, ideas, and discussion. We are all leaders in some way.

Just as we teach in Continuous Improvement, and particularly within Lean, trust the process. Since learning is a process, as leaders we want to establish environments where lifelong learning is the expectation. We need to understand then trust the process. This means understanding that learning in your organization is an evolution and you have to start with building a strong foundation.

The learning evolution in an organization might start with getting all staff speaking the same language through group-based lean training, which will lead to a better understanding of business opportunities through identification of business wastes. Then that could lead to more questions – more why’s – being asked by virtue of growing the sphere of knowledge.

For some organizations, it could be a matter of understanding how inclusive your team truly is; learning the barriers and behaviours preventing people from moving into effective positions regardless of gender, race, or background.

Yet for other organizations, perhaps it’s hitting the reset button on culture. If the desire is to have a culture of innovation and creativity, for example, learn about where you are today. What does the end goal look like, and what’s the first step in setting that foundation? Does it mean leadership training and reflection related to innovative cultures, followed by strategy development and deployment (AKA Hoshin) with the leadership team? You need to learn and evolve together.

One step at a time

Just like learning leads to great skills, understanding what needs to be learned, and in what order, is critical. Understand that businesses grow in sophistication one person and one experience at a time.

Whether you’re a formal leader or a new entry-level employee, be curious and be inquisitive. Seek tools and direction to put your imagination to good use and support the same for those around you. You have a responsibility – a duty, even – to share and support learning as your sphere of knowledge grows.

I encourage you to focus on a simple four-step learning plan:

• Ask yourself ‘What did you learn yesterday?’

• Set a goal to learn something simple related to your situation today

• Seek and learn

• Repeat every day for the rest of your life

John Chaput is Director, Business Development for CME Manitoba. With 25-plus years’ experience in manufacturing and business transformation, John has worked globally to support teams in their pursuit of excellence.