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Why Skill-Based Learning is Harder Than You Think

by Joel Gross
August 1, 2014

Why Skill-Based Learning is Harder Than You Think

by Joel Gross
August 1, 2014 | Comments (5)

What if surgeons learned the skills necessary to operate in the same way we attempt to develop problem solving skills in our people?

“Good morning. My name is Dr. Gross and I’ll be operating on you today. Don’t worry, you’re in good hands. My day job is in accounting, but I was recently hand-picked by my management to pursue a Green Belt in surgery because I’m told I’ve got ‘potential’. I have completed more than two weeks of classroom training where I learned from some of the most expensive surgical consultants in the world.  Rest assured, I am willing and able to use each and every tool in the surgical toolbox.

Today, I’ll be using the standard, 5-step surgical framework known as DMAIC, which stands for Don’t-Move-And-I’ll-Cut. Unless, of course, something goes wrong in which case I’ll insist that we follow PDCA – Please-Don’t-Call-Attorney! You look tense. Shall we get started?”

Developing strong problem solving skills throughout the organization is critical to building a lean culture. Yet, most organizations never come close to achieving this “everybody, every day” ideal. Most of us know little about how people develop complex skills like problem solving. For most of us, how learning works is a black box in which we find ourselves feeling around in the dark. 

Thankfully, cognitive development researchers do know something about this. Research illuminates our core learning mechanisms for processing new information and developing new skills. (We can think of this research as something we’re already quite comfortable with in the lean community: a process that can be continually refined and improved over time). 

Informed by the work of Dr. Monisha Pasupathi (The University of Utah), what follows is a simplified, but I hope useful model I use for how we as humans transform new information into knowledge and new capability:

Step 1: Encoding of New Information

In this first step, our brains capture sensory information and encode it for short-term storage in a part of the brain known as working memory. This temporary stop on the learning path allows us to work with the new information. The degree to which we retain new information depends on two factors: 1) the extent to which we can connect that information to what we already know, and 2) how much we expect to need it in the future. 

The theory that our minds are a blank slate is a myth. Without anchoring new stimuli to our existing knowledge, there is no learning. But when our learning process is focused upon the actual problems that we face in the familiar context of work, the more connections our brains can make to it and the more “sticky” that information becomes. 

Simply making connections, however, is not enough. Our brains must believe we’ll have a future need for this new information. Learning that occurs passively, without our engagement, like most forms of classroom-based learning, rarely ever convinces our subconscious self that that information needs to be retained. However, by elaborately encoding new information (actively thinking about how new information will be used) we increase the degree to which we retain information long-term.

Step 2: Recall Learned Information

Storing new information is not enough either; we must be able to recall new information when we need it. Optimizing our recollection begins before information is ever encoded.

The Generation Effect shows that our recollection improves significantly when we consciously set expectations about an outcome or a new piece of information, versus having new information simply dictated to us and trying to absorb it. When we make a prediction, like establishing a standard, we are able to compare our current understanding to our perception of reality. Any differences help make visible the limits of our understanding. Then we update our mental models accordingly, increasing our ability to recall information in the future.

A second way in which we can improve our brain’s ability to recall information is to ensure that the original encoding is transfer appropriate. We are most likely to recall prior knowledge when it is learned in a manner similar to how we will use that information in the future. For example, learning about problem solving from a book or in a class doesn’t usually help us develop problem solving skills. For this, we need to practice solving problems. Similarly, improving our proficiency with PDCA requires practice planning, doing, checking ,and acting. It’s a slight difference, but an important one: we do not learn to become lean. We learn from, as Jim Luckman wrote recently, becoming lean.

Step 3: Re-Encode to Deepen Understanding

Whenever we recall information, we have opportunity to strengthen our mental connections and apply what we know. Again, the difference between our predictions and perceptions allow us to update our mental models by re-encoding new information made visible to our brains. Repeated recall and re-encoding is what allows us to develop expertise. 

Maximizing learning is a matter of maximizing the number and diversity of ways we connect with learned information. The number of times we recall and apply what we know is what helps us learn. How that repetition occurs has a big impact on the effectiveness of the re-encoding process. It’s important that the repetition is spaced apart in time. The establishment of habits and routines that we practice in a repeatable, consistent fashion – such as leader standard work or A3 management – makes it clear to our brains that this information will be vital for future application.

So what does this all mean for effective problem solving? To sum up:

Skill development (as opposed to knowledge development) requires practice in order to re-encode the breadth of connections needed for proficiency. Skill-based learning can’t be achieved passively; it requires active practice with consistent, meaningful, and timely feedback from an outside source (i.e. a coach). Moreover, in the same way that playing catch in the backyard may not improve our ability to catch pop flies or ground balls, developing a new skill that is variable in nature requires practice under variable conditions. 

Maximizing learning with regard to problem solving requires that we connect new information to what we already know, elaborate about how that information will serve us in the future, and use it to generate new expectations about our world. We then need to actively test our understanding through repeated application in the presence of clear feedback spaced across time under varying conditions.

Unfortunately, most of us try to learn and attempt to help others learn using the classroom-centric, tool-based models of skill development. The one that emphasizes certification and limited real-world, hands-on experience. Real lean thinking requires something different.

How do we use what we know about learning to improve how we develop better individual and organizational problem solving skills? I can tell you what I think, but as we know, this doesn’t help anyone learn anything. So what do you think? How have you applied these ideas in your organization or plan to apply them?

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
Keywords:  learning
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Christin Spurlin August 01, 2014
1 Person AGREES with this comment
This is a great article, very insightful. I think as Lean leaders, we have to be able to connect with and understand the people we are working with in order to make the principles of Lean not just understandable, but necessary to them. As the article points out, everyone learns better when the brain can relate to the information being processed and can recognize it as important for future use.

So if we teach people the principles of 5S, for example, and then ask them to apply it to their workplace, without ever connecting with why they need it, why would they care or accept the information we are giving them?

Instead, if we engage our people, and perhaps find out that teammates are accussing each other of "hording" supplies, we can work with them to see the root cause of the problem, settle the differences between them and help the team determine the best place to store the supplies so they are readily available and shortages can be quickly identified and resolved. Now you've given the team the ability to see the argument as an operational problem and taught them a valuable tool that can help create standards for the team, resolve problems and improve teamwork. Now the skill (and the improvement) can be owned by the team members and you'll have other opportunities down to the road to use this problem as a template for future problem solving.

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Joel Gross August 01, 2014
Christin - I could not agree with you more.  The first step in the learning process is being able to connect to the new information.  That means understanding both why it is iimportant and how it will affect us personally.  Without this connection, the question is not "why would they care?", it's actually "how can they care?"  Until these connections are able to be formed, they can't.  

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bob daffin August 03, 2014
Great article! 
i've been studying the Mind-Brain connection for several years to help organizations imolement and sustain. This aligns, and is quite helpful.

Our work is not very useful if we can't help folks actually accomplish the great ideas they develop during events.

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bob daffin August 03, 2014

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Joel Gross August 03, 2014
1 Person AGREES with this reply

Thanks for the comment!  My sense is that, if we truly believe that developing people's thinking is critical to becomming lean, we ought to know how, as humans, our thinking works (or, in the case of our cognitive biases, how our thinking fails to work).  As such, the mind-brain connection has become a staple of my research interest, my personal blog (thekaizone.com) and my lean practice/experimentation. 

I'm interested to know what sorts of things has your own research on the topic helped you to learn?

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