This post continues the Ten Strategies for Integrating Learning and Work series.   Last post I discussed communities of practice and social media, two strategies focused on collaboration and networks where learning and knowledge are a natural byproduct.  This post shifts focus to how structured problem solving and Action Learning approaches can intimately wed learning with working.   I’ll discuss strategies 6 and 7 from the list.  Each uses problems and work tasks as the subject matter for learning, reflection and behaviour change.


1. Understand the job
2. Link Learning to Business Process
3. Build a performance support system
4. Build a community of Practice
5. Use social media to facilitate informal learning
6. Implement a Continuous Improvement framework
7. Use Action learning
8. Organizational learning Tools
9. Design Jobs for natural learning
10. Bring the job to learning

6. Implement a Continuous Improvement Framework

Continuous Improvement Frameworks seem to come and go in waves  (TQM, Six-Sigma, Lean, process re-design and others).  There are many reasons why these programs endure or fail that are beyond discussion in this post but when they succeed natural learning is a key outcome and success factor.

Continuous Improvement methods are based on the concept of Kaizen.   Kaizen is essentially the discipline of making planned changes to work methods, observing the results, making adjustments and standardizing on the improvements–repeated continuously in a pursuit minimizing errors and improving quality.   When applied to the improvement of work methods it mixes personal learning, productivity and innovation.

Kaizen methodology includes making changes, observing results, then adjusting and standardizing the improvements.  Changing, reflecting on feedback, adjusting behaviour…this is the stuff of personal learning.  When applied to work methods it mixes personal and work based learning to the benefit of both.

Brian Joiner in Fourth Generation Management (an excellent resource on management practices grounded in continuous improvement) identifies learning as both a foundation and important outcome of continuous improvement methods.  He states:

Together with an understanding of the links between quality and productivity and of systems thinking, rapid learning [through continuous improvement] helps to create a foundation for translating theory into effective action.  Rapid Learning is the best survival skill we can grow in our organizations”

Kaizen is essentially the Scientific Method built into jobs and workflow.  W. Edwards Deming translated the method to the Plan-Do-Check-Act Cycle that is at the heart of the Toyota system and most Quality approaches since the 1950’s .


The PDCA cycle is as much a natural learning cycle as it is a work improvement methodology.  But it is the “check” step that is the real driver of learning.  It requires a meaningful measurement and feedback system.  Without it improvement is nearly impossible.

Joiner again:

“Performing a check is something few organizations do regularly or well. Instead they execute the plan and do…with an emphasis on DO!…what many people think of as decision making.  By getting conscientious about check, by treating decisions as experiments from which we must learn, we get all the components of PDCA to fall into place.”

7. Use Action Learning for management and professional development

Action Learning is essentially the PDCA cycle applied to personal effectiveness.   Personal Kaizen if you will.  It involves teams or individuals learning from experience.   Again the emphasis is on observing results from action and making adjustments.  Action learning is very popular in the UK and is growing in North America for management and professional teams that want to use real work as vehicles to learn more effective practcies.


The method has many variations but the general process as described by the World Institute for Action Learning is based on six important components. They are:

1. A Problem (project, challenge, opportunity, issue or task)
The problem should be urgent and significant and should be the responsibility of the team to resolve

2. An Action Learning group or team.
Ideally composed of 4-8 people who examine an organizational problem that has no easily identifiable solution.

3. A process of insightful questioning and reflection
Action Learning tackles problems through a process of first asking questions to clarify the exact nature of the problem, reflecting and identifying possible solutions, and only then taking action. Questions build group dialogue and cohesiveness, generate innovative and systems thinking, and enhance learning results.

4. An action taken on the problem
There is no real meaningful or practical learning until action is taken and reflected on. Action Learning requires that the group be able to take action on the problem it is addressing. If the group makes recommendations only, it loses its energy, creativity and commitment.

5. A commitment to learning
Solving an organizational problem provides immediate, short-term benefits to the company. The greater, longer-term multiplier benefits, however, are the learnings gained by each group member and the group as a whole, as well as how those learnings are applied on a systems-wide basis throughout the organization.

6. An Action Learning coach
The Action Learning coach helps the team members reflect on both what they are learning and how they are solving problems. The coach enables group members to reflect on how they listen, how they may have reframed the problem, how they give each other feedback, how they are planning and working, and what assumptions may be shaping their beliefs and actions. The Action Leaning coach also helps the team focus on what they are achieving, what they are finding difficult, what processes they are employing, and the implications of these processes.

You can see the how the process builds on the natural cycle of taking action on a problem, observing and monitoring the consequences and impact of the actions, making adjustments and trying again.  Action learning works because it integrates learning and work.  It brings immediate meaning and context learning while improving real time performance.

  • Solve Complex Urgent Problems
  • Develop Skilled Leaders
  • Quickly build high performance teams
  • Transform Corporate Culture
  • Create Learning Organizations



The strategies of Continuous Improvement and Action learning are two sides of the same coin.  Both are based on the natural cycle of acting, observing and reflecting on feedback and adjusting behaviour based on results.  Continuous improvement is focused on improving process and work methods with learning as a byproduct and Action learning is focused on personal learning with business improvement as a byproduct.

Posts in the “10 Strategies for Integrating Learning and Work” series:
Part 1:
  • Strategy 1:  Understand the job
  • Strategy 2:  Link Learning to business process
  • Strategy 3:  Build a performance support system
Part 2:
  • Strategy 4:  Build a community of practice
  • Strategy 5:  Use social media to facilitate informal learning
Part 3:
  • Strategy 6:  Implement a continuous improvement framework
  • Strategy 7:  Use action learning
Part 4:
  • Strategy 8:  Use Organizational Learning practices
Part 5:
  • Strategy 9:  Design jobs for natural learning
  • Strategy 10:  Bring the job to the learning
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This blog contains perspectives on the issues that matter most in workplace learning and performance improvement.  It’s written by Tom Gram.

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