Learning for Improvement and Innovation - ASQ

Learning for Improvement and Innovation


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Kim I. Melton, North Georgia College & State University

Robert Cole’s article could be summarized as a restatement of the need for learning to take place in order for organizations to survive in a rapidly changing environment with complex interactions. Cole does not raise the survivability issue directly, but clearly deals with the issue when he points to the need for shorter cycle times in development, recommends involving customers early in the process, and distinguishes the current environment from one of managing in a world where the “future is laid out.” This is not a new concept. Senge (1990), de Geus (1997), and others have emphasized managing for survival (as opposed to short-term goals such as the quarterly profit). They factor in the role of learning and extend the concept from individual learning to organizational learning.

Many of the distinctions that Cole makes between improvement and innovation have parallels in other areas. Watzlawick, Weakland, and Fisch (1974) call for a distinction between first-order change (change within a given system, which itself remains unchanged) and second-order change (change in the system itself). Cole’s call for a move to “continuous innovation” appears to be a call for second-order change for some organizations. Similarly, Argyris (1991) points to two different forms of learning—single-loop learning (that focuses on solving the problem at hand) and double-loop learning (that focuses on recognition that “the very way they go about defining and solving problems can be a source of problems in its own right”). In this same article, Argyris discusses the need for people to experience failure in order to learn and the need for double-loop learning to know how to deal with these failures. The focus on defect prevention, equated to continuous improvement by Cole, is an example of single-loop learning. The shift to continuous innovation described by Cole requires questioning the underlying way that business has been done and thus calls for double-loop learning. In the case of first/second-order change and single/double-loop learning, the issue is not an either/or proposition but rather an iterative (but not necessarily alternating) process between the two. Survivability of organizations will depend on a similar view for improvement/innovation as described by Cole.

Cole repeatedly references a quality culture that is dedicated to defect detection and elimination in upstream production in order to eliminate problems downstream. Although this is part of a quality professional’s role, this is a very limited (and incomplete) job description. Deming (1994) emphasized the role
of the plan-do-study-act (PDSA) cycle in the improvement/innovation process. He insisted on the use of the word study instead of check (PDCA) to emphasize the role of learning in the process. As part of the plan step, he discussed “the 0-th stage,” which includes the idea-generation step and theory formulation. The study step is dependent on this step. Without some theory (maybe as simple as a hunch about what experimenters think they might see), the study step becomes one of describing what is seen rather than developing explanations that can be applied in future iterations or fed back to revise previous steps—that is, learning is missing or delayed without some comparison to expectations. The repeated use of the PDSA cycle for learning need not be slow or drawn out. In fact, the Institute for Healthcare Improvement has seen large-scale improvement through its process of rapid-change improvement with collaboratives from multiple locations allowing for changes to be evaluated in multiple settings simultaneously (Nolan et al. 1996). In addition, Deming warned that “you never understand a theory until you know where it does not work.” Such a statement can be consistent with Cole’s suggestion that errors should be exposed and that learning can result from those errors. Cole’s four manifestations of probe and learn, with the addition of an explicit theory development/statement step, would be consistent with this expanded view of quality.

Overall, Cole’s discussion is in line with a distinction between customer-driven and customer-focused organizations. The big distinction between these two orientations is in the area of new and emerging products, services, and technologies. The customer-focused organization responds to customer feedback in a timely manner, but does not depend on the customer to generate the new, innovative ideas (that is, to drive all action). As Cole notes, with emerging products the market is ill defined, the technology for delivering the product may still be in the development stage, and customers may not even know if they will want the product. It is through successive small-scale experiments with early versions of a new product that organizations and prospective customers learn. During this learning process customers provide feedback for continual improvement. The organization may use this feedback to make changes that would be classified as first-order changes, or through evaluation of the underlying hints included in the feedback, the organization may make changes that result in innovation relative to previous products.

When organizations shift from customer driven to customer focus, the boundaries of the system for improvement shift. This shift results in new channels for communication of feedback and will require new views for accepting and responding to the feedback. Such changes will be necessary for survival but will require changes in many other organizational systems—for example, performance appraisal systems and procurement systems. The desire to change to a probe-and-learn approach is a positive choice. Actually making the move will require large organizational changes—some of which have yet to be recognized.


Argyris, Chris. 1991. Teaching smart people how to learn. Harvard Business Review (May–June): 99–109.

de Geus, Arie. 1997. The living company. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

Deming, W. Edwards. 1994. The new economics. Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Center for Advanced Engineering Study.

Nolan, Thomas W., Marie W. Schall, Donald M. Berwick, and Jane Roessner. 1996. Reducing delays and waiting times throughout the healthcare system. Boston: Institute for Healthcare Improvement.

Senge, Peter M. 1990. The fifth discipline. New York: Doubleday Currency.

Watzlawick, Paul, John Weakland, and Richard Fisch. 1974. Change. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.


Kim I. Melton is an associate professor and the Dillard Munford Chair in Management at North Georgia College & State University. She is author of Introduction to Statistics for Process Studies and serves on the editorial review board of Quality Management Journal. Her research interests include statistical thinking, statistical applications related to quality, and the application of quality theories in business education. She has provided consulting and training for organizations in education, manufacturing, health care, service, and government. She is a Senior member of ASQ, a member of INFORMS and the American Statistical Association, and has participated in a number of Deming User/Study Groups.

Melton earned a Ph.D. in management science from the University of Tennessee. She may be contacted as follows: Department of Business Administration, North Georgia College & State University, Dahlonega, GA 30597; 706-867-2724; E-mail: kmelton@ngcsu.edu.

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