The Power of  Operational Learning

The Power of Operational Learning

"Alex, step away from your brother."

A few years back, I was sitting in my living room when I heard two of my teenage boys arguing with each other in the dining room. I couldn't hear what they were saying, but I could tell from the tone of their voices that their interaction was not friendly or cooperative in nature.

From my comfortable chair in the living room I could see that they were facing each other and standing about 2 feet apart. All I could see were their heads and shoulders because of the island countertop in the kitchen, but that was all I needed to see in order to tell that the situation was going to escalate if I didn't intervene.  

I did what any good dad would do and I used my authoritative "command-and-control" voice and told them to "knock it off!" They paused momentarily, looked at me, looked back at each other but still didn't move. Still believing I could resolve this from the living room, I said even more firmly, "Boys, step away from each other." Once again, they looked at me and then looked at each other but still didn't move.  

Now, I believed that they were challenging my authority. I said it one more time with as much authority and firmness as I knew how to project from my comfortable chair in the living room. This time I was very specific when I gave the order, "Alex, step away from your brother." Alex was older than Joe and therefore, in my mind, the one who should respond the quickest and set the example of how a "good" son should respond. Unbelievably, they looked at me and then looked back at each other and still did not move.

At this point, their defiance was obvious to me and I had no choice but to get up and go in to the dining room and straighten out the situation. My teenage boys had challenged my authority and clearly had crossed the line. It was very frustrating to have my sons blatantly challenge my authority. I am pretty sure that my blood pressure was up at this point due to their failure to respond to what I believed were clear and specific instructions.

As I stood up to go straighten out matters, I could see their whole bodies. Immediately, the situation became clear to me. The reason they were standing there about two feet apart was because they were holding a TV between them. The reason they were holding the TV between them was because about 30 minutes prior I had asked them to carry the TV upstairs to their den. The reason they were arguing with each other was because neither one of them wanted to go up the stairs backwards.

They actually were trying to carry out a request that I made earlier. I simply had forgotten that I had told them to do it. Now, had it been an end table instead of the TV, they probably would have stepped away from each other and let it crash to the ground. But they wanted that TV upstairs and so now they were perplexed and conflicted because they could not understand why I was insisting that they step away from each other. They weren't being defiant; in fact, they could not figure out what to do, thinking that I saw the whole picture. At some time during this event, they must have thought I had lost my mind. What do they do? Well, fortunately I saw the whole picture in time.

What I really needed was better understanding of the conditions around this event. I needed better operational intelligence. Had I seen more than just their head and shoulders or had I asked them questions instead of giving commands, there would have been a lot less confusion on their part and a lot less anger and frustration on my part.

Even more importantly, I could have resolved the entire situation from my comfortable chair in the living room.  

Operational Intelligence

Does this sound similar to situations we have in the workplace? It does for me. As a matter of fact, there have been many times in my career when I have made a command decision without enough information and the people who worked for me looked at me like I was crazy. I was giving direction without having all of the pertinent information, and the people who worked for me were conflicted as they tried to decide whether to follow my instructions or to somehow help me realize that I didn't have all the information.

How often do workers find themselves following the instructions or commands of their leader and think to themselves, "This is a terrible idea. It's not going to work the way our boss thinks it's going to. Should we say something to him?" Or even worse, maybe the worker doesn't even care enough to say anything or worry about whether he is successful or not, perhaps because we have failed to respond too many times in the past to his concerns. I fear this happens all too often and that decisions are made without enough operational knowledge, or as I like to call it operational intelligence.

As leaders we believe we are paid to know what needs to be done and to make decisions, so that's what we do. We even are trained to avoid bringing our manager a problem unless we already have a solution. It's baked into our leadership mindset. If making decisions is what I'm paid to do, then that is what I'll do. Then, we wonder why our operations are not getting better and we keep having the same sort of issues over and over again.

I find there is a need for much better operational learning in most organizations. Operational learning is very different from organizational learning. Organizational learning is more about leadership classes, presentation skills, business and interpersonal training and so forth. Organizational learning is important and there are volumes of books written on the subject. Operational learning, on the other hand, is focused on how work actually happens. It's about the complexity of work, the adaptive nature of workers attempting to complete their tasks and about how failure and success really occur in the field where the work is completed, not how we think it occurs.

Ask the Experts

I falsely believed that because I had been at a site for many years and held numerous positions – a design engineer, technical support leader, maintenance leader and even safety leader for eight years – that I have a deep understanding of how work gets done. Not true. As a matter of fact, it turns out that I only know the surface-level information for the most part.  

If I take time to ask meaningful questions to the employees who are performing the work, I find that they have an amazing capacity to teach me and that I have much to learn. When something goes wrong or when it goes right, those close to the work understand best how it happened. If I humble myself a little and ask the guys close to the work, they can and will teach me about the complexity of their work and help me understand how much adaptation it takes for them to get their work completed every day.

If my basic assumption shifts a little and I decide to believe that fundamentally, people come to work to get work done, then I become less focused on what I believe is bad behavior.

Instead, I become more interested in learning about operator struggles and frustrations. If I value the folks who actually are doing the work and I respect that they know things I will never know unless I ask them and they tell me, I find a more collaborative approach begins to surface. If I am more focused on learning instead of giving direction, I find that those who are close to the work are very willing to teach me.

How I think work gets done – based on plans, procedures and policies – actually is quite different from how work really gets done. If I find that someone is not following my procedure, instead of asking them why they aren't following the procedure, I now ask if the procedure can even be followed as written. It's a pretty fair bet that the procedure is incomplete and insufficient to fully define the work. There are so many variables that come in and out of the work process that never can be captured by our planning and assessment tools.  

I am not saying that planning and assessments don't help; they do. However, they seem to be missing most of the variability that real workers deal with every day, all day. Learning more from those close to the work seems to significantly increase my ability to understand how undesired events occur and also how successful work happens. I need to be a better learner, and I find that when I ask better questions this begins to happen. It's a skill I have been able to develop – the skill of listening and learning.  

If I believe I already have the answer, I stop asking questions, I stop listening and I certainly stop learning. The power I have is to ask better questions and those better questions come from an understanding that I don't, in fact, have the answer. I don't know how work really gets done.

I don't know the amount of operation struggle and adaptation going on in the field. I don't know what the best solution is and I don't know why Alex is not stepping away from his brother. I need to learn in order to find out and not just give the command louder and with a more authoritative voice and attitude. Indeed, I am glad that the boys did NOT obey my command. It would have cost me $200 if they had!

Bob Edwards has worked for one of the world's largest corporations, at medium-sized companies and has been self-employed. He draws on his life experience from the military, working in industry, outdoor adventure sports and raising a family of 12 kids. Edwards is a leading expert on human performance learning teams. Edwards has a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from Tennessee Technological University and a master's degree in Advanced Safety Engineering Management from the University of Alabama Birmingham.

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