Investigations conducted by many organisations have become burdened with pre-conception and hindsight bias that constrains useful and insightful learning. In most people's experience, the underlying purpose of an investigation is to find error, and identify who is responsible for that error, which is often followed by corrective action that is retributive. Current investigations are insufficiently curious about work.
A learning team is a structured appreciative inquiry method, designed to engage curiosity to facilitate team-based enquiry. Learning Teams can be small and localised and can have application only at an individual site or have very broad and widespread application across the business unit, or the whole enterprise. Learning Team groups have been small to quite large in the number of participants (up to 16 people) - however, 8-12 people seem to work best, with a mix of frontline and supervisory personnel and a mix of disciplines.
The process is typically conducted over one and a half days, with the first half day involving the Discovery process - where we look at the activity in the field i.e. work as it is done. After a "soak" period overnight, the second day involves a facilitated process which is very interactive and where personnel analyse what we have seen in the field to determine what helps and hinders the work. Finally, through group exercises and facilitated discussion, groups develop improvement ideas to address any identified issues. Factors influencing success are also highlighted for discussion and potential application at other sites or more broadly across a business unit or the entire enterprise.
Art of Work conducted learning teams for Aurizon across their three business units of Bulk, Coal and Network and across 8 depots located in Queensland, NSW and WA, with topics ranging from "Train Driving in Adverse Conditions”, “Shunting in Yards” to "Communications with Network Control". Some of the learning teams included personnel from multiple depots and one included a competitor with whom Aurizon shared rail facilities.
Art of Work also trained 20 of Aurizon's own employees to take over the facilitation of the learning team process, thereby ensuring the company is self-sufficient to continue to conduct learning teams across the business, as and when needed.
Sigrid Groenhout, Project Manager Seamless Safety at Aurizon, gives us some insight into the project and her experience.
What was your understanding of learning teams before this project?
Learning teams are a fantastic opportunity to engage with our frontline to understand the practicality of how we plan work. We hadn’t used learning teams in Aurizon prior to engaging Art of Work, but have found them a great tool.
How would you compare learning teams with the investigative methods traditionally used at Aurizon?
At Aurizon we tend to solve problems in an office or with a small group of leaders. We do not instinctively engage our frontline in the problem-solving process and as a consequence, even with the best intentions, the improvements we believe we are making to the business don’t always realise their full potential.
What was the greatest challenge when organising learning teams across the company?
The greatest challenge we had with learning teams was keeping our senior leaders out of the room. They were very excited to participate in the process and identify work challenges.
Why did you decide to train Aurizon employees to facilitate learning teams?
We believe that learning teams will become an integral part of how we work and how we engage with our teams. Having facilitators across the business will give us the flexibility to conduct learning teams in a range of locations on a variety of topics.
What advice would you give to organisations that are considering undertaking the learning team process?
Learning teams have two objectives: the first is to build improved trust and engagement with the frontline and the second is to make changes to improve work practices and safety. My advice would be to not make the mistake of focusing on only one of these outcomes.
Our challenge with learning teams has been implementing some of the great ideas that were generated in the room in a timely manner. For complicated improvements, we were working on a plan to resolve the issue but not consistently sharing progress with the learning team participants, which has the potential to erode the engagement benefits of the learning team approach.