Facilitating Learning & Improvement Introduction

A paper by this author titled “Increasing Organizational Capacity for Learning & Improvement” focused on organizational defenses and was shared with a number of colleagues and customers. The work of Chris Argyris in his Harvard Business Review article from 1991, “Teaching Smart People How To Learn” and his 1990 work “Overcoming Organizational Defenses - Facilitating Organizational Learning” was a foundation for interventions and consulting through dialogue. This paper is a supplement and follow up to the earlier work and focuses on how to facilitate dialogue and learning in meetings and workshops. This is useful in routine staff meeting, complex problem-solving meetings or workshops to develop new processes, products, services or technology as solutions to organizational needs. We start with dialogue to clarify our purpose with three basic questions: 1. What are we trying to accomplish? 2. How will we know that a change is an improvement? 3. What changes can we make that will result in improvement? These questions come primarily from the work of the Associates of Process Improvement (API), a collection of quality experts, thinkers and practitioners of profound knowledge, as defined by W Edwards Deming. They call these three questions “the model of improvement”, when used in conjunction with the Plan-DoStudy-Act (PDSA) cycle of learning and improvement, so described by W. Edwards Deming. In practice, there are numerous synergies between the work and philosophies of Deming, Argyris, Russell Ackoff, API and others. The work of the Achieve Global organization and the fundamentals they teach through the Zenger-Miller facilitation methods are a way to extend these ideas of learning and improvement methods by skilled philosophy, practices and methods of facilitating meetings and workshops. The following pages help us with an overview of the work and provide us with standards for success, along with basic principles and methods. This structure will help facilitate meetings, change, improvement, and in the process, transform our organizations and us. These methods are part of a system designed for flexible implementation to build the skills of the participants and transfer these skills to their workplace. The model that follows enables implementation of high impact learning and improvement. In the following pages are an integrated view of these concepts from Argyris, Deming, API and Zenger-Miller: facilitating learning and improvement through dialogue. Included within are first hand observations of facilitations that help teams organize meetings and workshops to improve the processes and work they do together. Where appropriate, I will note other references to the published works and will list them in an index of references at the end.

-Dennis M. Sergent

A New System of Quality in Process Interactions

There is a model and a method to create a systemic view of any organization. We can use the scientific method and engagement with the people who know it best, the subject matter experts who work in the system. This concept has a foundation in both knowledge and experience to define and manage systems and their performance. This moves management of organizations from complexity to clarity around a system with an aim and common purpose, with shared values and action in concert with the aim and purpose of the system. The foundational references and sources to understand the elements of this system model are integrated with process and methods to uncover what we really know about our systems. Two fundamental references are the work of Russell Ackoff in systems thinking along with the work of W. Edwards Deming in his definition of the Deming System of Profound Knowledge ® or SoPK. Deming's diagram "Production Viewed as a System" forms this model and comes from both "The New Economics" and "Out of the Crisis". Also the work of Associates in Process Improvement (API) and their "Quality As A Business Strategy" has advanced the work of Ackoff and Deming in defining and managing systems through the linkage of processes within systems. We connect with other people, through their brains and their intellect that shape their actions. We connect people with each other and a common aim and purpose in the organizations we belong to. We make it possible to see these connections and interactions between our work and that of others with purpose and value to the system that we are all part of. Collaboration and helping others in a team is a high purpose of all human endeavors and it brings dignity and joy to all who contribute to a common aim and purpose. We engage with each other as the human beings we are, and recognize the hope we can become better each day in some way, with common aim and purpose that is bound in a shared future. Our most profound safety as human beings comes from engaging with others in designing and implementing a better future than any present difficulty we face. As both Peter Drucker and Abraham Lincoln said, "The best way to predict your future is to create it!” and our obvious choice is to work together with others in the pursuit of improvement to our present circumstances as we can best define them. When we collaborate with others, we make our social system better and stronger than the competing system - which may be as destructive from inside complacency as from outside competition. This model and method corrects what is fundamentally wrong with managing “parts” of systems, the chaotic way that most organizations are managed. This way of thinking provides a way to break out of the management of parts and more to management of the interactions in the system. To be successful, all organizations must provide services and products whose value to customers is greater than the cost to produce and deliver the service or product. This method also includes the use of a common software application as a tool to connect these important ideas in a comprehensive view of the complicated systems we are responsible for. This tool connects the flow and relationships between value adding activities in the system and processes or value streams that impact the aim and purpose of the system. A template of this tool and rudimentary instructions can be obtained from the author for adaptation to any system and organization.

-Dennis M. Sergent

Increasing Organization Capacity For Learning & Improvement Introduction

In 1991, an article by Chris Argyris "Teaching Smart People How to Learn" started me on a path of inquiry and learning over a decade by testing the philosophy, principles and practices from his book “Overcoming Organizational Defenses”. Practicing these ideas has positive impacts on organizations when we start to remove fear from our social systems and organizations to discuss what concerns us in productive reasoning practiced together with others. 

What follows is primarily drawn from his 1990 work “Overcoming Organizational Defenses - Facilitating Organizational Learning”, supplemented in part by professional observations of the results of these methods when practiced in small groups, larger teams and in facilitated classroom settings. This book is a way out. 

There are also numerous documented synergies between Argyris’ work and that of Peter Drucker, Warren Bennis and W. Edwards Deming, especially with respect to the presence of fear in organizational cultures. Their work is tightly integrated in Argyris’ work with a view of the systems and values that underlie organizations of all types. I will note here my first hand observations of systems where I have facilitated the use of Argyris’ work, especially in helping these organizations increase their capacity to learn and improve whatever it is they do together. Where appropriate, I will note these similarities with references to these other works. 

Beginning a Discussion and Changing the Status Quo 

Patterns of organizational defenses work against learning and improvement. There must be a high level of trust to mitigate the fear and the lack of trust in most organizations that gets in the way of learning how to improve. To deal with that issue, we must openly discuss the issues that create fear and mistrust. 

We must not cover up these issues by making them undiscussable. Doing so only activates the downward spiral toward more fear and dysfunction. Trust, learning, and improvement requires that we discuss issues openly and productively, setting aside old habits that create fear and destroy trust. 

We must begin a dialogue around the systems we’re in, so we can move from a system of control to commitment. We complete this through discussing shared goals, values and traditions by participation of team members, and this helps us move individual and team perspectives from me to we. 

The shift from a control model to a commitment model takes time and work, more work for people who cling to the old control model and structures that they are accustomed to hiding behind. The commitment model exposes our human flaws and that can be uncomfortable at first. While liberating new capacities of individuals .

-Dennis M. Sergent

Value Stream Mapping & Facilitation Introduction

This paper is a supplement to a 2004 paper by this author, “Facilitating Learning and Improvement” with a narrower focus on the process of value stream mapping and how to facilitate it with subject matter experts (SMEs). As usual, we start a PDSA (plan-do- study-act) cycle of learning and improvement with team dialogue to clarify our purpose of a value stream mapping session with three basic questions: 

1. What are we trying to accomplish? 2. How will we know that a change is an improvement? 3. What changes can we make that will result in improvement? 

These three questions are “the model of improvement”, when used in conjunction with the Plan-Do-Study-Act (PDSA) cycle of learning and improvement. They come from the work of the API (Associates of Process Improvement). 

What are we trying to accomplish? Our aim is to create a graphic, a picture to understand a process better, to see where value flows to satisfy the customer need. 

How will we know that a change is an improvement? When we document it visually, we see where value flows and see the parent and child relationships between steps in the process, we will have a baseline to measure all changes from. 

What changes can we make that will result in improvement? Documenting a value stream in a disciplined method allows us to use a common language for all further discussions about improvement by converting team member opinions into thoughts through team consensus and team decision-making. This can later be converted to knowledge through the PDSA cycle of learning and improvement. 

In this paper, we document a model of value stream mapping that works for facilitator, customer and subject matter expert alike. We know that mapping processes helps subject matter experts know and understand their work and their system better. Thus, we believe it will aid their improvement efforts. What we think must change to create that improvement will be to increase the knowledge of facilitators of value stream mapping with a disciplined philosophy and method. 

Quality deployment flowcharts (QDFs), process maps and value stream maps (VSMs) are a fundamental way to enhance our understanding of our organization and the value our team’s work brings to our customers. It can be the start of new learning and an infusion of new energy into any on-going continual improvement efforts. They help us document a picture of a process that all can refer to with the data to understand our system and team, suppliers, internal resources and customers. We have a fold out supplement depicting the VSM process that can be shared on request.

-Dennis M. Sergent

Argyris, Deming and Transformation Abstract

My study of transformation in organizations has brought me to understand much of W. Edwards Deming’s System of Profound Knowledge (SoPK) and the synergies between the work of Dr. Deming and many other authors. 

Chris Argyris’s work resonates strongly with Dr. Deming's philosophy and themes on transformation. Like many philosophers and social scientists, Argyris has perspectives about organizational transformation through understanding systems, the people in them and the power of shared purpose. 

Any leader of a learning organization can encourage a team to begin with knowledge and start the practice of productive dialogue. This requires "discussing the un-discussable" as Chris Argyris described ways to counter the common defensive routines in organizations. The key in this process is leadership's demonstrated commitment to productive reasoning and dialogue, to remove fear and embarrassment by new learning and improved productivity for their whole enterprise, starting with themselves. 

In the context of his studies and writing, it seems the common purpose in each of the Argyris case studies was to transform the organization under study by transforming the leaders. In his practice and writings, Argyris provided us hard evidence of many of Deming's points and provides actionable solutions. I propose to share a number of these solutions from Argyris and evidence from others as well. 

-- Dennis M. Sergent - October 1, 2013 

Check the Horizon Often


Is There Bad Weather Ahead? 


Every year or so, we hear about climbers or hikers who are caught unexpectedly in storms and suffer accidents or loss of life. In his book Deep Survival, author Laurence Gonzales says one of the highest survival rates in these situations is among children.  "The secret may . . . lie in the fact they do not . . . have sophisticated mental mapping ability . . . . and so do not try to bend the map.  They remap the world they're in".  Their survival depends on their ability to change to fit the new circumstances.


Many managers and leaders focus on the mission or the task at hand, which is essential for great execution.  Those efforts can become meaningless if we miss the fact that bad weather is coming up, so we need to look often for the context provided by the horizon.


One customer start-up we know was in a very competitive environment with high margins.  Their strategy was sound for the environment they were in and they grew accordingly.  But, they were blindsided by events they didn't see coming.


First, an alliance between two competitors was focused on driving margins lower to make the service a commodity. The new strategy then became one of survival for the start-up and a new owner.  We helped them sort out the pieces to maintain the level of service their customers came to expect, helped them sell some of their business assets and protect the people who made them succeed.  They changed and adapted with the new situation.


We make a point of helping customers check the horizon - to regularly ensure they are on course and looking to the horizon to check for both direction and bad weather.


What are your experiences?  What questions do you have for me?

~ Dennis Sergent


Need to get out of a rut?


Attention To The Basics Can Make A Big Difference Fast


Early in my career, I encountered the first of many situations where a valuable lesson could be used over and over again in the telecom and consulting fields.


In the mid-1970s, the state public utility commission confronted Michigan Bell over the service levels provided.  A quality of service investigation found that none of the 341 local exchanges' met overall service objective levels or better. For whatever reasons, the company had not met these standards, but now had serious issues. The known set of 10 criteria was the standard used to investigate and measure, and a program to correct every issue was quickly developed.


As a reasonably new technician, I had found that attention to the most basic elements of the system could pay off quickly with results.  While more experienced technical managers were delving into technical issues, I proposed that one area of concerns could be addressed first.  I suggested improved communications, fixing process issues, and changing the consequences of performance.  I soon got the assignment as a supervisor to apply this idea to a subset of the exchanges, which had never been acceptable for even a month.  With the help of the whole service team and a focus on the basics, we changed course and went from bottom quartile to top quartile results in less than a year.  The idea was then implemented statewide to significantly improve results.


This pattern of paying attention to the basics has provided results in numerous other situations and organizations since then.  As consultants to your business or enterprise, we make sure the people, processes and technologies work together in the best possible way with experienced leadership, effective organization and proven communications. 


It doesn't matter how you got in the rut, but how you can quickly get out.


What are your thoughts about focus on the basics?  What questions do you have for me?

~ Dennis Sergent

You can see it, but can you get there?


A Clear Goal Is Essential, But Getting There Is Complicated! 


Native Americans had an approach to this problem that was quite different than modern Americans would use.  They would paddle across the lake, portage the canoe across the land and then get back in the canoe to go to the next stop on the journey.  Today, we could use more and different people, processes and technology to make the exact same journey.   But which is better depends a lot on the situation and circumstances.


In a previous assignment, we were asked to help a start-up team to plan for the operation of a new long-distance carrier.  The goal of "what" was clear - and planning how we would enter the business and operate in that very competitive environment made us bend some assumptions.  We led a team in the task of defining the "how" and developed a plan that threw out conventions to be higher quality and lower cost by paying our operations force more than the norm.


This counter-intuitive approach demanded a broader range of skills and performance levels in the new operations environment.  We redefined the assumptions about the jobs - and needed not just functional specialists, but broader skills to support technical, managerial and customer service needs in each of the processes. Compensation for such skills cost us more in annual salary and benefits.  So how did we save money?


When we focused on the skills needed in the processes, it became obvious that we didn't need to hand off issues - anyone was capable of handling any issue.  It wasn't easy to find and hire, train and retain the right people to fill these positions, but we did.  And we saved the organization millions of dollars a year by eliminating handoffs.


We also found that as the leadership and competitive situation changed, the issue would be revisited, over and over again.  And, the original plan had to be modified in some ways to deal with the new competitive and technical environment.


We demonstrated that there are many ways to get where you want to go, and some of them are made complex by our assumptions, some by our choices, and some by the environment we can't control.  It's good to be adaptable in your thinking and flexible in execution of the plan.  And, it's great to get the whole team to the destination together.


What are your similar experiences?  What are different solutions you’ve implemented?  What questions do you have for me?

~ Dennis Sergent

Milestones on Your Journey


Does This Milestone Track Progress On Your Journey?


In our journey to fulfill our mission, we need to keep the milestones in our sight, and measure our progress from start to finish, from one marker to the next.  The marker above means one thing to a sailor who left Chicago and another to someone who left Detroit.  It is the same milestone, but the meaning depends on where you have been and where you need to go.


One organization we know needed an alternate supplier of a technology platform to deliver their internet-based services.  They had already decided to purchase, but needed a set of operating requirements to make sure their investment would be well spent.  Their critical milestones were to write the requirements and conduct a field trial of the new technology in their environment, so they could implement it nationwide.


We helped them write their operating requirements with the help of their various functional teams and also tracked the supplier's answers to how they would meet those same requirements.  The field trial assessed how well the technology actually met those requirements and was extended by several attempts to modify it with hardware and software "fixes".  The organization ultimately concluded that the supplier could not meet their requirements and therefore could not help them on their journey to an alternate supplier.


As internal or external consultants to your business or enterprise, or as leaders in your system, we bring focus to stakeholder needs, plus those of customers, owners and team. We help the team make needed progress and act on all stakeholder concerns with relentless follow up to ensure the whole team is focused on the same purpose.  When a milestone indicates that you and your supplier are on a different path, we act to keep your needs first.


What is your experience?  What questions do you have for me?

~ Dennis Sergent