ASQ - Team and Workplace Excellence Forum

Online Edition — September 2003

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BRIDGES: Internal Consultants for Change and High Performing Work Cultures
In A Nutshell
Proven Strategies on Service and Life
Leading Wholeheartedly: A Quality Approach
Respectful Confrontation for Superior Results

Features

Articles in Brief
The Help Desk
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September 2003 News for a Change—Home Page

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The Help Desk
Action Learning in Action: Variation on a Theme

Action learning is a concept originated by Reg Revens; it incorporates tenets of learning while doing real work in the organization. It combines myriad theories associated with education, teaming, problem solving, etc. It has a proven track record as a tool for performance improvement as demonstrated by Noel Tichy and the GE Crotonville experience. Users such as Michael Marquardt also have organized it as a disciplined body of knowledge.

In practice, I find that although a facilitator may want to use action learning in its pure form, that generally does not happen; however, parts of the concept are adaptable in most every situation where teams are resolving issues, analyzing problems, developing strategies, etc. It becomes a valuable tool for getting to a solution and promotes deep learning.

While assessing the strategic planning process at the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC) (see the article, “Using the Baldrige to Assess Strategic Planning: A Case Study,” in the Summer 2003 issue of The Journal for Quality and Participation), we did a variation on the theme of action learning. Several action learning components and tools were used in PBGC’s process, and some of them are described in more detail in this article.

Key for action learning is that the learning must be as important as the solution. In the case of PBGC, the members wanted to learn about the Baldrige criteria, but their actual goal was to assess their strategic development and deployment system.

Using real work:
We designed the 15-week, four-hours per week working sessions around the “real work.” Instead of learning about the Baldrige with lectures, etc., we just plunged into the assessment after a quick overview of the criteria.

Doing and then reflecting on the learning:
At the end of each session, however, we linked the learnings from that experience to Baldrige. About four weeks into the work we had a mini-lecture, Baldrige 101, and the members were given samples of Baldrige applications.

Ah-ha’s:
The highlight was hearing and seeing the ah-ha’s, another action learning component such as, “Ah, that’s the difference between approach and deployment!” We used the David Langford version of the “Ah-Ha Sheet” from his book, The Tool Time Handbook (see Figure 1). It has a place for capturing the bright idea or blinding glimpse of the obvious, but more important, it also notes the “so what” part of an idea—a place to write what actually will be done with the idea.

Baldrige capability matrix:
PBGC also used the Baldrige capability matrix, based on Langford’s work. Figure 2 shows the complete matrix. This self-assessment can be taken at the beginning of a work session and at the end. It can be used during the session to reflect on one’s understanding, know-how, and wisdom of any given topic.

Learning logs:
We generally opened the work sessions by recording notes in learning logs, such as the one shown in Figure 3. These contained three or four guided questions that direct thinking about the content topic and the learning. They helped transition from individual daily work into teamwork on the Baldrige assessment. A key to learning logs is that they are written by individuals without discussion or talking. The goal is to write for the entire time (we started at about four minutes and went to about 10 minutes). The actual logs are designed with an “add-to” or comment section for continued reflections as the day or weeks progressed.

One-minute assessments:
This technique asks what works and what needs improvement. It also asks participants to write down three questions that they still have in their minds. The skills of inquiry and asking good questions are the heart of action learning. Two possible questions used might be, “What was the most important thing you learned during…?” and “What important questions remain unanswered?”

One-on-one taped interviews:
Interviews taped in a studio environment unexpectedly turned out to be a tool ideally suited for the reflective mode of action learning. The original purpose of this activity was for each person to summarize the project in terms of what went well, what had been learned, what should be done differently in the future, etc., for conference presentation. The interviews actually helped synthesize and crystallize the thinking and behaviors of the team members.

Other action learning tools include pop quizzes and storyboarding (see a sample in Figure 4). Additionally, PBGC used detailed summary reports for its work sessions and established a “parking lot” to ensure that all issues were addressed without getting the group off schedule.

From PBGC’s experience, it’s clear that action learning tools can transform a work experience, taking it beyond the completion of a series of tasks and accomplishment of an outcome to a lifelong learning experience.

MARY-JO HALL is a professor at Defense Acquisition University, where she addresses the human side of program management, individual development, teaming, leadership, and organizational performance/ results. She also directs work force development and guides the human capital strategies. Hall has served as an examiner, senior examiner, and alumni examiner for the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award program. She can be reached at 703-805-4943.

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