The oven beeps, you open the door, reach in and grab the cookie sheet. A searing pain shoots up from your burnt hand! You put on an oven mitt and try again. From that point on you always use an oven mitt when grabbing things in the oven.
That is a learning cycle, and one you may have personal experience with.
Learning cycles are made up of a plan, an action, a review of the results and an update to the plan going forward. We are very familiar with learning cycles in our day to day life, we call it learning from experience, trial and error, feedback loops, whenever we say “I’ll never do that again!” we’re referring to a particularly traumatic learning cycle.
We have all gone through millions (maybe even billions) of learning cycles in our lives. Most of what we know was learned in this way. Even the things we learn from books are just summaries of other people’s learning cycles. It is staggering to think about. Just try to imagine how many simple learning cycles were needed to get us to something like your smartphone.
Learning cycles in business
In business the idea of the learning cycle has been part of management science for as long as there has been management science. Walter Shewhart and his champion Edwards Deming introduced the Plan, Do, Check, Act cycle in the 1950s which later became an important part of the Toyota Production System. Six Sigma’s continuous improvement is an implementation of learning cycles, as is agile development and the lean startup methodology. The idea has been applied to organizational control and improvement over and over again.
But why do we need all these implementations of learning cycles if it is something we all already do naturally? The reason is that while we are naturally very good at simple learning cycles, more complex problems require some higher-order thinking and organization to take advantage of. For example if we eat something that instantly makes us sick all of us are naturally equipped to learn from that experience, but if eating something contributes to us becoming sick over many years we need science, statistics and millions of dollars in research to figure it out. The scientific method by the way is another implementation of a learning cycle.
How to use learning cycles
So how do we make sure our organization is learning effectively?
We don’t need millions of data points or sophisticated statistical analysis and we definitely don’t need artificial intelligence. We can use Shewhart and Deming’s simple Plan, Do, Check, Act cycle.
Start by getting together with your employees and working out what their process or approach looks like today. Then work together to establish a best first guess for how to do things better. This is a great activity for one-on-ones.
Take action, interact with customers, sell, whatever it is. Remember that learning cycles are the same thing as learning by doing. At a certain point you need to stop learning from books and experts and start learning from your own work.
The easiest way to close a learning cycle is to just put a time frame on it. Every two weeks hold another one-on-one to review how the last plan went and discuss potential improvements to it. Don’t let a lack of sophisticated analysis get in the way of new ideas. Data are useful, but you don’t need them for every type of learning cycle (remember the oven).
Take some of the best ideas and update the plan. You’re now back at step one, that’s why it’s called a learning cycle.
That's it, that is all you need to start your team on a learning path. A simple learning cycle like this can be implemented at your organization with a few calendar invites and a word document. It’s a great practice for regular communication between managers and employees.
Why wouldn’t you harness the learning of your whole team?