Systematic Organizational Learning:
Your Key to Baldrige Excellence
by Craig A. Anderson
In last month's newsletter we stressed that any organization serious about
competing for an industry, state, national, or international Baldrige-based quality
award must demonstrate "clear evidence of organizational learning in all key
areas." Simply put, the Criteria are now structured to not allow any "wiggle room"
here. The language in the Scoring Guidelines is clear: to enter the 50% to 65%
scoring band (the de facto lowest possible competitive band), Examiners must
find evidence that a "fact-based, systematic evaluation and improvement process
and some organizational learning ARE IN PLACE for improving the efficiency and
effectiveness of key processes." (For comparison, the non-competitive 30% to
45% scoring band asks organizations to demonstrate "the beginning of a
This is a real challenge for most organizations; the notion of a systematic
evaluation and improvement process can be a formidable barrier. Be clear what
Baldrige is looking for here. Organizational learning is NOT what the training and
development organization (normally buried somewhere deep inside the HR office,
but that is another story for another newsletter) puts together for employees, but
rather it is the Plan-Do-Study-Act cycle being brought to life every day. In other
words, systematic evaluation and improvement means that you PLAN your
actions, DO them, STUDY the outcomes, and ACT to either revise your actions,
deploy them, accelerate them, etc. The overall impact of systematic evaluation and
improvement is an organization that builds cycles of learning into everything it
does. The result is vastly improved performance and competitive positioning.
Sounds good, you say. OK, here are some specific recommendations for making
sure that you go beyond the beginning of a systematic approach to embed
learning cycles into your core work processes.
Make Learning Your Mission
Learning must be your mission, your passion. It does not matter what business you
are in, if you are not improving, you are in danger of being reengineering,
restructured, relocated, replaced, etc. On the other hand, once you grasp that the
most important factor is your RATE of improvement, the sky is the limit. Like the
great W. Edwards Deming told the leadership of Toyota in 1954, it does not
matter where you are today relative to GM and Ford, what matters is that you
improve faster than they do. This year Toyota will pass GM to become the largest
(and most profitable) automobile manufacturer in the world.
Define The System
Your learning mission gives you a direction. Now you need a system to implement.
Only senior management has the position and authority to create this system,
which will direct the efforts of all components toward the achievement of the
learning mission. Take nothing for granted; ensure that everyone in the
organization understands how his/her role supports this system. All employees
have the capability to collect and analyze data that will point the way toward
improvement. Senior leaders must be consistent in their approach to
organizational learning. The goal should be to create a culture where the LACK of
an improvement cycle stands out as an obvious gap.
Embrace the Truth
A fact-based, systematic evaluation and improvement process will reveal
enormous amounts of new knowledge about the work you do. You will find people
that are not performing within desired ranges. You will find processes that are
"stuck on stupid", generating outcomes that do not have a customer or purpose.
You will find (very) unhappy customers, stakeholders, employees, partners, and
collaborators. You will find ugly gaps between your best and worst performing
components. The point is, each bit of new knowledge gives you the opportunity to
get better, IF you embrace what the evaluation and improvement process tells you
in a spirit of openness and constructive improvement.
Avoid Window Dressing
Avoid window dressing. Yes, it is important to solve problems, but stamping out
fires and taking short term actions without a deeper understanding of the
systematic causes is a road to disaster. I know it sounds crazy, but we have run
across organizations that have been making the same fundamental mistakes for
decades. It is clear that experience alone teaches nothing. Experience in
conjunction with a systematic approach to evaluation and improvement, however,
teaches more than we can imagine.