Even the best intentions and methods for continuous improvement culture can easily fail if you fail to consider and understand how adults in your organization learn. Malcolm Knowles, a pioneer in the field of adult learning, identified several principles that are critical to all adult learning:

  • Adults are autonomous and self-directed.
  • Adults need to know how the learning experience will help them reach their goals.
  • Adults need to connect learning to this knowledge/experience base.
  • Adults are goal-oriented.
  • Adults must see a reason for learning something.
  • Adults focus on the aspects of a lesson most useful to them in their work.
  • Adults should be treated as equals in experience and knowledge, and allowed to voice their opinions freely.

Simply stated, adults learn best when they can see the effects of the knowledge they must acquire. When initiating change toward cultivating a continuous improvement culture, the following steps of action learning build a firm foundation for lasting effects.

  1. Build a Case for Action. Before taking action, managers must thoroughly explain why the changes must take place. Whether the motivation is competition, financial incentives, customer satisfaction, or an updated appraisal practice, it is essential that the employees understand the business reasons for action.
  2. Gain Knowledge. Trainers transfer knowledge, and this is an essential step. But inherent in the acquisition of knowledge is the necessity for subsequent behavioral change.
  3. Agree on New Behavior. The next step is to determine what this behavior change will look like. With manager approval, the team brainstorms ideas for what measurable improvements should take place on a day-to-day basis.
  4. Apply & Practice New Behavior. Behavioral change does not come from theorizing. Instead it demands a process of trial and error, making mistakes, learning, and moving forward. It is simple: take a step toward the change you want to see. Then move to step five.
  5. Receive Feedback. Building in the steps taken, a trainer or coach now steps in to help team members analyze their own performance and experiences.
  6. Gain More Knowledge. At this point the steps become obviously cyclical. Upon trying new behavior and receiving feedback, the team can determine if they are reaching their goals, and learn more about how to further adjust to improve performance.
  7. Positive Reinforcement. As teams continue with this cycle of knowledge and application, they will begin to see the actual impact. This positive reinforcement strengthens the learn behavior and legitimizes the process.

The strength of cyclical action learning is not found in its originality, but in its flexibility and inherent inclusion of all involved.

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