What Is Collective Learning?: A Discussion from the Deep Change Field Guide

By Robert E. Quinn

This is the third of a series of three posts drawn from Chapter One of  The Deep Change Field Guide: A Personal Course to Discovering the Leader Within. In these discussions, we investigate both the barriers to deep change and the ways in (for a further introduction to this blog series, view the first installment). Here is what Chapter One suggests:

  • Change attempts often fail because of the assumptions we make.
  • We often find ourselves in situations that require us to adapt, but choose to distort reality and deny what the world is telling us.
  • To be excellent, we have to be at the edge, a place of uncertainty and learning.
  • When we are committed to a higher purpose, we move forward through the fear of conflict. As we do, we learn and we see in new ways

In the first discussion, we discovered why factoring in company culture is critical. In the second discussion, we looked at the role of authority. Now, we explore how managing those two factors creates a synergy one expert calls “collective learning.”

Discussion 3: What Is Collective Learning?

Collective learning. That’s something Jeff Liker knows a lot about. He’s seen it in action at Toyota again and again, and he has described it in The Toyota Way, and The Toyota Product Development System, and Toyota Under Fire.

Jeff, who is among the foremost experts on Toyota, describes the collective learning process as one in which two or more people learn in real time as they move forward together. In this process, the culture is such that everyone learns from everyone else. The notion of authority fades into the background.

One of Jeff’s favorite examples is the story of a manufacturing firm that hired a Toyota expert as a consultant to improve its processes.

After touring the manufacturing site, the consultant said, “You have three shifts with a total of 140 employees. I suggest that we reduce to two shifts with a total of 10 people while maintaining the current level of productivity.”  Naturally, the managers’ first question was “How?”

The consultant’s answer? “I do not know.”

I don’t know. Not the typical consultant’s response. A normal consultant would have offered a suggestion even if he had to make it up. Consultants have a profound need to look like experts, a trait they share with the rest of us. We are afraid of what will happen if others find out we do not know all the answers.

“We will have to learn our way to our goal, the Toyota consultant said. “I would like you to concentrate your efforts on eliminating the inventory backlog. In a few weeks, I’ll come back and see what you have learned.”

The people in the manufacturing firm worked hard to do as he said. They met often. They experimented. They listened to each other. In the process, they learned to interact as equals. They generated a number of innovations and were excited to share them when the consultant returned.

The consultant reinforced their efforts and then turned their attention to another part of the process. This pattern continued for two years. At the end of that time, the firm was down to two shifts and had reduced the work force from 140 to 15.

All without establishing a plan before moving forward. As they looked back, it was clear that they had shared a vision, and they pursued it as a team in the process of collective learning.

They could not have achieved the same result by following a linear process articulated ahead of time by an expert who then measured and controlled what happened. Adaptation was an essential element. They tried things, evaluated the results, and then made adjustments and tried again. As they communicated with one another, their assumptions changed.

Together, they learned the way to their goal. They built the bridge as they walked on it. It was a process of deep change.

As you consider the collective learning process, ask yourself these questions:

Why are people often uncomfortable with a change process that involves setting a goal and deciding over time how to accomplish it instead of following a checklist?

  • Control over the collective learning process comes from trust. Have you ever been a part of an organization that was full of trust? How did that high level of trust change the way people interacted with each other?
  • What are some things people in organizations can do to increase trust so they can engage in a collective learning process?