How to learn like an ant

Social and organisational learning is so easy that even ants can do it, and we can learn from the principles they apply.

If you look at an ant trail from the nest to a source of food, it is pretty direct. The food may have been found by a random foraging ant, but pretty soon the whole colony has been alerted to the food, and developed a path that approximates to the quickest route between the food and the nest.

So how do ants collaborate to build the “best route”? Do they design it, or do they evolve it through continuous improvement? And if the latter, exactly how are these continuous improvements made? How do ants LEARN to make a straight path?

  1. When ants move, they leave a scent trail behind. It’s a fading trail – immediately after depositing, it starts to fade. Initially their trail is pretty random, and may zigzag all over the place. Other ants follow the trail, following the strongest scent, but not 100% faithfully. There’s a little bit of variation built in.
  2. Because of that variation, ants will sometimes find a shortcut, and cut out one of the zigzags. Wherever they cut the corner and get there faster, their scent is stronger, and becomes the dominant trail. Other ants follow them. If their new way takes longer (a longcut), their scent has faded, and others don’t follow. For the ants – faster is better as it is more efficient.
  3. So the improvements in the trail are reinforced, and the trail gets progressively better and straighter. Over time, the trail becomes straight.

For ants, the organisational memory lies in the trail itself, embedded in the scent. For organisations, the organisational memory lies in the processes. We can follow the principles of Ant-learning, if we replace the scent-trail with the operational procedures.

  1. We record our knowledge in operational procedures, which represent our current best approach to doing a particular task. Initially the procedures may not be particularly effective, and people are allowed to vary from the procedures if they find a better way.
  2. The variations are recorded as process improvements or lessons learned and embedded in improved procedures, like the new scent trail along the shortcut.  There needs to be some way to know whether the new variations are better. Perhaps they improve efficiency, or quality, or cost, or customer satisfaction. You need to be able to tell what “better” looks like.
  3. Other teams follow the new better procedures (like the ants following the stronger scent) so that these become the dominant procedures – until the next improved variation is found. Over time the procedure becomes optimal. 

You can see this learning process at work in any continuous improvement process, whether it is a drilling crew improving their rig procedures, a lean manufacturing team improving their manufacturing procedures, or an Army improving their doctrine. They all learn like an ant – recording and embedding the improvements until the trail is straight.

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Personal learning, KM and the 170:20:10 rule

The 70:20:10 rule is commonly quoted, as in this video by Steve Trautman, as representing the three ways in which people learn.

  • 10% of our learning, comes from formal training
  • 20% of our learning comes from structured mentoring, from a senior to a junior, or teacher to learner
  • 70% of our learning comes “On the job”. 
In the video, Steve suggests that this on-the-job learning happens by osmosis – “they go to work, they hang out, they are in the space, and they learn”.

The dictionary calls osmosis “the process of gradual or unconscious assimilation of ideas, knowledge, etc”. Well, in KM its not gradual, it’s “just-in-time”, and it’s conscious, not unconscious. The use of Knowledge Management can deliver on-the-job learning in a far more effective way than just osmosis.

  • Reflective team learning practices such as After Action Review and Retrospect allow people to discuss what have been learned, and become conscious of learning, thus accelerating personal learning. 
  • Good knowledge bases form an explicit learning resource for people to learn on the job.
  • A community of practice forms a tacit learning resource for people to learn on the job.
So instead of knowledge “just happening to flow”, as in the random movement of molecules through a membrane which we call osmosis, the KM processes and framework become a sort of “ion pump for knowledge” (one for the cell biologists there).

So maybe we can change the 70:20:10 rule. If KM is better than osmosis, maybe its a 170:20:10 rule, and people learn twice as much.

  • 10% of our learning through formal training
  • 20% of our learning through mentoring and coaching
  • 170% of our learning through KM processes and tools. 

A combination of formal learning and development, mentoring programs and Knowledge Management therefore covers, and expands, the entire spectrum of learning.

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KM and Hansei, where "no problem" becomes a problem

Effective learning within an organisation requires consistent and rigorous self-analysis, in order to pick up learning points and points of improvement. In Japan, this process is known as Hansei.

Hansei, by Jim O’Neil, on Flickr

Although alien to many in the west, Hansei is an important part of the Japanese culture. Han means “change” and Sei means “to review”, so the whole thing means “introspection” or “reflection for the purposes of change”.  This translates into a behaviour , instilled from childhood, of looking for mistakes, admitting responsibility, and implementing change.(When Japanese children do something wrong, for example, they are scolded and are told: hansei shinasai – Do hansei!).

Hansei can become very public, as the footage of the crying Toyota CEO shows. As a response to poor safety performance, the CEO admitted responsibility, apologised, promised change, and wept – behaviour lauded in Japan but deemed strange in the West. In the West we would probably avoid responsibility, deny the mistake as “fake news”, and insult our detractors.

Hansei is at the heart of Kaizen – the “learning from experience” approach seen in Japanese industry. It may part of the reason why Japanese companies succeed so well at Kaizen as a core component of Knowledge Management, while other cultures struggle. Where a European company might see lesson-learning as a witch-hunt, for example, a Japanese company would see it as a way to put right the embarrassment of self-acknowledged failure. Where a US company might fear a blame culture, Hansei means that individuals already accept any blame and if they fear anything, they fear the lack of ability to make restitution.

How do we develop Hansei?

In non-Japanese cultures we have not been brought up with Hansei. Seeing our leaders accepting full responsibility for mistakes and sincerely, with emotion, promising change is something exceedingly rare (name me one example!).  However this is a behaviour we would dearly love to promote at work, so that mistakes are not hidden, but lead to learning and change.

So here are six things we can do to begin to develop Hansei behaviours.

1. We can understand the current culture, and recognise the barriers. One of the 10 cultural barriers is defensiveness – an unwillingness to take responsibility and examine your mistakes. Our cultural assessment service allows you to see whether this is a major barrier in your own organisation.

2. We can build reflection into the work process. After Action Review, for example, is a Kaizen activity that can be embedded into the working pattern, to trigger reflection and change on a regular basis.

3. We can adopt no-blame learning processes. The Retrospect is widely recognised as a no-blame lesson-learning process for use at the end of projects or project stages. The open questioning within the Retrospect gives people the opportunity to examine what went wrong, and to suggest how this might be improved.

4. We can ask the team leader to set the tone. If we are concerned about lack of openness in a Retrospect, we can work with the team leader before hand to identify an area where they can openly admit to making a mistake, and explore how to avoid this happening again. When the leader sets the tone, the rest of the team may follow.

5. We can ensure all learnings lead to action. We must make sure that everyone present in a Retrospect or After Action review can see that their admissions, introspections and lessons will lead to action. Lessons will not just rot away in overstuffed databases, but become embedded in changes to process. Knowing that your mistakes can be turned into successes for others can make Retrospects into something like group therapy. This is the positive outcome of Hansei.

6. We can become intolerant of complacency. Another of the 10 cultural elements, complacency is the feeling that “we did alright, there was no problem, we don’t need to change anything”.  Here is what the Toyota website says about “no problem”:

“Even if a task is completed successfully, Toyota recognises the need for a hansei-kai, or reflection meeting; a process that helps to identify failures experienced along the way and create clear plans for future efforts. An inability to identify issues is usually seen as an indication that you did not stretch to meet or exceed expectations, that you were not sufficiently critical or objective in your analysis, or that you lack modesty and humility. Within the Hansei process, no problem is itself a problem“.

This type of thinking – where “no problem” is seen as symptom of a lack of introspection and a lack of analysis, and something to challenge rather than to feel smug about – may be what separates the  true learning cultures from the also-rans.

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More on learning from success and failure

Here is a useful boston square on learning from success and failure

I blogged earlier this month about “Win or lose, you should always learn“.  However the learning strategy you employ depends very much on whether you are in a fail-safe environment or whether (as in the Apollo 13 tagline) “Failure is not an option”. 
There is a lot of praise on the internet for learning from mistakes, almost to the effect that  it seem that if you don’t fail, you can’t learn. Learning from mistakes is imperative for sure, but in some contexts, where mistakes are costly or fatal, they should be avoided at all costs. In these contexts the focus should be on learning from the experiences of others (both successful and unsuccessful) to eliminate your own mistakes as much as you can, and when you do eventually encounter the mistakes, to know how to recover quickly.. 
The Boston Square above breaks out these scenarios.
  1. In  failsafe environment, study carefully the root causes for your own success and failures (and those of others) to continuously improve and finally succeed. 
  2. When failure is not an option, study carefully the root causes for your own success and that of others, to avoid failing, and study even more carefully the root causes for failure of others, and the mitigations they used to address that failure, to minimise failing yourself and to recover quickly if you do.
I make the point about root cause – it is not enough to replicate the actions of others if you want to succeed; you need to understand the root causes behind success if you want to replicate it on your own context. 

For a final word on the matter, here’s a quick video from Jack Ma.

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Win or lose, you should always learn

People often make a big thing about learning from failure, but learning from success is just as important, and can often be overlooked.

The impetus to revisit this topic came from a one-liner post on LinkedIn by Oleg Vishnepolsky reading “Sometimes I win, sometimes I learn.”

My reply was “Win or lose, you should always learn”.

Sometimes it seems as if learning is reserved for failures. If there is a safety near miss, or an incident in a hospital, or technical non-conformance, then learning swings into action. When all goes well, learning is an afterthought. And it is certainly true that individuals learn much better from their mistakes, as a result of the emotional charge and the emotional scars that failure brings.

However you can argue equally strongly that success is a better teacher, because a fail mode only tells you one option not to try; it does not tell you how to succeed. So as well as learning from a hospital incident, you should learn from, and emulate, those hospitals that never had an incident, or those suppliers whose technical products always conform. This is the principle behind positive deviance – the idea that there are always positive outliers; individuals, groups or companies that perform far better than their peers, and which should be the first place you look to for learning.

Which is the better approach – learning from success, or learning from failure?

This is of course another one of KM’s “false dichotomies”. Someone in NASA once said (and I can’t find the source of this quote I am afraid) that “in NASA we say there are no successes or failures, there are only Events. We learn from Events.” The whole concept of success and failure is irrelevant to learning. Most events, most projects, are a mix of both, and we need to learn from both.

Learning from failure helps you learn how not to fail, learning from success helps you learn how to succeed. You need to decide which is more important. 

At a corporate level, or as a society, we collectively make the biggest learning steps when we finally succeed. Think of Edison and his light filament; when did he do the most learning? When he tried each of the 99 options that didn’t work, or when he found the one that did? Now obviously he learned from both, but let’s look at the value of that knowledge to others.

If you were a light bulb maker, which of these two statements from Thomas Edison would be of most value to you?

  1. You can’t make a light bulb filament out of cat hair 
  2. You can make a light bulb filament out of tungsten 
Obviously, the second one. He learned from the first, but all of us have learned from the second.

And here are a couple of quotes from the Business insider article mentioned earlier about some of teh risks from learning only from failure;

When you continually focus on failure, you actually create an environment where people are afraid to share their successful actions, lest they appear to be bragging, making light of an otherwise bad situation, or taking advantage of someone else being called out for their failures. This keeps truly useful learning from becoming a part of your organization’s practice. 

More existentially, continually focusing on failure is disastrous for morale. It’s one thing to avoid sweeping toxic stuff under the rug, but it’s another to always leave a stinking pile of crap in the room. 

Fortunately, it’s very easy to make a cultural shift here. You just need to ensure that at least some of your “after action” reporting, whether it occurs in meetings or memos or informal hallway chats, is dedicated to what went right. Even an event that was largely a failure probably has some small successes that need to be shared.

 This is why, in the Retrospect meetings that Knoco often facilitates, we give equal discussion time to success and failure. An in some cultures such as the UK culture (where people are always happy to talk about failure) we start by discussing the successes, lest these get ignored.

The implication for Knowledge Management

The implication for Knowledge Management is this:

You need to learn from both success and failure, but you need to learn much more carefully and deliberately from success, because: 

  • success can be less obvious – you may have to look for those positive deviance examples;
  • learning from success can be more difficult (it is easier to isolate what went wrong than what went right); and
  • ultimately, success is what you want others to replicate.

As an example, let’s look at the typical systems set up to learn from safety incidents. Most of these systems have detailed root cause analysis when there is a near miss or an incident, and the lessons from these are sent around the organisation so others can learn from this safety failure.

However it is far more important to learn from the (positively deviant) factory or plant that never has an accident, and never has a near miss. That is the factory everyone needs to emulate, which means they need to carefully understand WHY they are so safe, and then learn from this.

We know that it is human nature to learn best from mistakes, but we don’t want to be at the mercy of human nature. We don’t want people to have to screw up in order to learn. We don’t want failures and screw ups if we can possibly avoid it, because mistakes and screwups can cost money, they can cost lives (in certain cases), and they can cost careers if they are big enough.

Learning in a KM Framework

The ideal situation, in any mature KM or lesson-learning framework, is that you learn as a matter of course from every event, whether you deliver failure, success or a mixture of both (and it usually is a mixture).

Learning, as in lesson identification meetings such as After Action reviews and Retrospects, should be a routine exercise, regardless of success or failure. Address both, learn from both, and give particular attention to understanding the causes of success.

Fail fast and fail often is a good mantra, so long as it leads to success, and it is the success that is the greatest learning opportunity.

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A simple picture to link KM and continuous improvement

Knowledge Management is the discipline that drives continuous improvement. Here is a diagram that makes this clear

We are all familiar with the link between Knowledge and continuous improvement in our personal lives, as demonstrated by the familiar saying “Practice Makes Perfect”. The more we do something, the better we become. The more experience we have, the higher our performance.

This can also be true for Organisations, provided we apply KM. Organisations can also find that Practice Makes Perfect, and that the more experience they have the higher their performance.

The diagram here shows how – feel free to use with acknowledgement.

The two crucial elements are as follows.

1) There needs to be a learning loop in operation. Knowledge must be applied to activity and to problems, and must be reviewed and gained from activity, problems and experience. The challenges for an organisation are two-fold – firstly finding a way to gain knowledge from experience (through effective lessons capture for example), and secondly being able to find the knowledge from the past (practices like Peer Assist help here). This is one elements of Knowledge Management already. 

2) The second element is to embed new knowledge into processes, procedures and structures. This is represented by the blue wedge in the diagram marked KM. Without this embedding step, the new knowledge is lost over time as human memory fades, or as lessons become buried within lessons databases, and performance slips back down the hill. The embedding KM wedge makes sure that performance gains are maintained (through the use of Lessons Management Software for example).

This combination of the KM components of learning loop and embedding means that

  • the more experience an organisation has, the more it learns
  • the more it learns, the more it improves its knowledge base
  • the more it improves its knowledge base, the more it improves its processes, procedures and structures
  •  the more it improves its processes, procedures and structures, the more it improves performance.

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"Speed of learning" as a competitive advantage

In today’s rapidly changing world, the speed at which your organisation learns can be a competitive advantage.

The world is changing, and the rate of change is speeding up.

In the past, when progress was slower and the rate of change was lower, an organisation could compete on its products, its patents, its reputation and on its people.

However the rate of change is increasing, and companies need to adapt. Markets are changing, customers are changing, expectations are changing, regulations are changing, the world is changing, and it is changing faster and faster. If companies are to adapt, they need to unlearn old habits and learn new ones. And in a competitive world, the fastest learner wins.

The analogy is with the aerial dogfights in the first world war.  There, the maneuverability of the aircraft was key. If you could maneuver faster than the opposition, you could get inside their turning circle, and shoot them down.

Today, the learning agility – the intellectual maneuverability – of a competitive organisation is key.

If you can get inside the opposition’s learning circle, you can shoot them down.

So how fast is your learning circle? How quickly does the organisation learn from experience?

  • How long does it take for a new lesson from experience to become embedded into the way you work?
  • How long does it take a question in a Community of Practice to be a) asked and b) answered?
  • How long does it take a piece of new knowledge to show up in the company knowledge base, and how long does it take for this to be re-used and applied?

Do you even know? Do you have the metrics to measure your speed of learning, as an organisation?

Contact Knoco if you need help with tuning up your learning circle!

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The four most costly words in KM – "this time it’s different"

“This time it’s different” can be the four most costly words in project knowledge management, if they are used as a reason not to learn from the past.

Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity was “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”.

And yet, any analysis of a collection of corporate lessons will show the same mistakes being made time after time. So organisations obviously DO “do the same thing over and over again and expect different results”.

Are organisations insane?  Or is there another factor at work?

The factor may well be what the Farnam Street blog calls the “This time it’s different” fallacy. I quote from the blog –

“This time is different” could be the 4 most costly words ever spoken. 

It’s not the words that are costly so much as the conclusions they encourage us to draw. We incorrectly think that differences are more valuable than similarities. After all, anyone can see what’s the same but it takes true insight to see what’s different, right? We’re all so busy trying to find differences that we forget to pay attention to what is the same.

Different is exciting and new, same is old hat. People focus on the differences and neglect the similarities. In projects, this becomes the “my project is different” fallacy that I described here. People look at their projects, see the unique situations, find the differences, overlook the similarities to all similar projects on the past, and assume that “this time it will be different”.

It never is.

The same old mistakes will creep up on you and bite you in the bottom, as they always do.

Instead of assuming “this project is different”, perhaps we should start with the assumption that “this project is just like any project. It involves building and understanding client requirements, choosing and forming the team, selecting and managing sub contractors, balancing the innovation against the risk, communicating within the team and with the client, keeping the client requirements always in mind, managing quality, managing cost, managing time, managing expectations, managing risk, and so on”.

Then look for the lessons that will help you with all those tasks, and will help you avoid all the old pitfalls. As the Farnam Street blog says,

If you catch yourself reasoning based on “this time is different” remember that you are probably speculating. While you may be right, odds are, this time is not different. You just haven’t looked for the similarities.

A great antidote to the “This time it’s different” fallacy is that good old, tried and tested mainstay of Knowledge Management, the Peer Assist. Once a project team gets into a room with a bunch of people with experience, the conversation automatically focuses on the similarities. “Yes, we’ve seen that, we’ve been there, here’s what we learned” and it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain that “This time it will be different”.

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Operationalising Lessons Learned in a small organisation

Here’s a really great video on a small organisation operationalising a lessons learned process

The organisation is Boulder Associates, an Architect and Design firm with a couple of hundred staff working out of a handful of US locations. The video was recorded at the KA-connect conference in San Francisco in 2018; an annual knowledge-focused conference for the AEC community organised by Knowledge Architecture.

The video is of a 27 minute presentation given by Todd Henderson and James Lenhart of Boulder Associates, and thanks Todd for the namechecks!

They make the point that collecting lesson is not the purpose of lesson learning, and they drive lesson learning through just in time delivery, using checklists as the final destination for the learning. Their combination of spreadsheet, tracking dashboard and checklists is a very simple, very appropriate system for an organisation of this scale.

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Why admitting mistakes is so hard, and what we can do to counter this

It is part of the human condition to deny our mistakes, but that makes it hard for us, and for our organisations, to learn.

make no mistake by Meshl
make no mistake, a photo by Meshl on Flickr.

I can recommend a really interesting book called “Mistakes were made – but not by me – (why we justify foolish beliefs, bad decisions and hurtful acts)”.

The book is about cognitive dissonance – how people square their self-image of being a good, competent and smart person, with the realisation that they can make mistakes – sometimes pretty big mistakes.

The way most people deal with this problem is to maintain the self-image and explain away the mistake.

“It wasn’t really a mistake” – “Of course I didn’t see the stop sign, it was in such a stupid place” – “The sun was in my eyes” – “Nobody told me it was wrong” – “He pushed me” – “I don’t see why I should say sorry, he started it” – “I’m not wrong, aliens really DO exist; the government is covering it all up” and so on.

They didn’t REALLY make a mistake; they were smart people all along. It wasn’t their fault.

This cognitive dissonance works particularly strongly in cultures that are intolerant of mistakes, and to be honest, that’s most cultures. As the playwright Lillian Hellman says about US culture, for example

“We are a people who do not want to keep much of the past in our heads. It is considered unhealthy in America to remember mistakes, neurotic to think about them, psychotic to dwell on them”.

Knowledge Management, however, requires that organisations, and the people within them, learn from experience, and 50% of experience comes from Mistakes. KM, if it is balanced, must allow learning equally from failures and from successes. Somehow this very powerful driving force of cognitive dissonance, present in every culture and every human, must be allowed for, sidestepped and redressed.

How do we do this?

Firstly, there much be a very conscious top-down drive for a culture that allows learning from mistakes. Call it a no-blame culture, call it an organisational learning culture, call it openness – it needs to be a clear and conscious expectation. This sets up a counter-dissonance. “I am a smart person. But I made a mistake. But the company expects me, if I am smart, to admit mistakes. Hmmmm!”

We all know the story told about Tom Watson Sr, the first president of IBM.

A young worker had made a mistake that lost IBM $1 million in business. She was called in to the President’s office and as she walked in said, “Well, I guess you have called me here to fire me.” “Fire you?” Mr. Watson replied, “I just spent $1 million on your education!”

That is a very powerful story that sets up a counter-dissonance.

Or look at the NASA approach, of getting senior leaders to publish stories entitled “my best mistake”.  I suggested this to an organisation recently, and the head of KM actually said “you will NEVER get leaders to publish their mistakes”. And yet that’s just what they did at NASA.

Or look at the Japanese attitude of Hansei. Although alien to many in the west, Hansei is an important part of the Japanese culture. Han means “change” and Sei means “to review”, so the whole thing means “introspection” or “reflection for the purposes of change”.  This translates into a behaviour , instilled from childhood, of looking for mistakes, admitting responsibility, and implementing change.(When Japanese children do something wrong, for example, they are told: “Hansei shinasai – Do hansei”!). Hansie also contains the thought that “to say there were no mistakes, it itself a mistake”

Secondly, we use objective facilitation.

Take lessons-identification meetings, for example. The temptation, when scheduling a meeting for a project team to identify lessons from experience, is for the project leader to lead the meeting. However the outcome, most of the time, is that the project team made No Mistakes. Sure, mistakes were made, but not by the project team!

You see this, for example, when the lessons coming from the team are like this ….

We ordered a set of number 6 widgets, and when they arrived, they were very poor quality. We had to send them all back, which delayed construction by a week.  The lesson is not to use that supplier again”.

So the fault was with the supplier.

However a good objective facilitator would dig deeper. They would ask – what were your quality control procedures? What was your ordering philosophy? Did you wait for the widgets to arrive before doing quality control? If so, why did you leave it until the last minute, so that re-ordering caused delay? Did you just assume that everything would be top quality?” The lesson would be more about quality control procedures and mental assumptions, that it would be about suppliers and vendors.

Any good system of lessons identification and lesson-learning has to use objective external facilitation, if you are to overcome the tendency to say “mistakes were made, but not by my team.” That’s why an increasing number of companies are calling us in, for example, to provide that skilled external evaluation as part of their lesson learning system.

This is even more the case with high level review and learning. As the authors of the book say,

“Few organisations welcome outside supervision and correction. If those in power prefer to maintain their blind spots at all costs, then impartial review must improve their vision ……. If we as human beings are inevitably afflicted with tunnel vision, at least our errors are more likely to be reduced or corrected if the tunnel is made of glass”.

This goes for teams and individuals as well as organisations – impartial assistance is vital.

So, set the high level expectation for openness, and use external facilitation to probe the blind spots.

We all make mistakes – mistakes have been made, often by us, and those mistakes are an opportunity to learn and improve, despite our best efforts to pretend that they never happened.

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