Ever since 1990, when Peter Senge, et al, published The Fifth Discipline and every manager in America put this book on his/her office shelf, organizations have been aspiring to be and claiming to be “learning organizations”. Of course, nobody wanted to admit that they weren’t a learning organization. It sounded so good. I don’t believe most of these organizations understood then or understand today what that claim implies. They might engage in activities that sound like organizational learning such as strategic planning (usually top-down), working in teams, using 360 leadership assessment tools, drawing links and loops for every business process, and maybe even challenging mental models by walking up and down the Ladder of Inference. And they might have an extensive catalog of courses offered by a Department of Learning managed by a CLO. For most of these organizations, however, learning is reduced to a set of tools, tips, and training events. For them, OL has become a collection of faddish activities, not necessarily producing learning and not necessarily contributing to performance improvement.
One organization that appears, from my outsider vantage point, to have become a truly learning organization is Toyota. Organizational learning has become embedded in its culture. From executive suite to factory floor, learning is constant and ubiquitous. The foundation for this learning is The Toyota Way, described in detail in Jeffrey K. Liker’s 2004 book by that name. According to an article in the December 3rd issue of BusinessWeek, Toyota’s All-Out Drive to Stay Toyota, organizational learning appears to be alive and well throughout that company. New managers, regardless of how experienced in the auto industry or in Toyota, are taught and re-taught The Toyota Way starting on the factory floor. Retired Toyota engineers are brought back to coach and mentor these managers on a day-to-day basis. Senior management meets with new hires to tell them the Toyota story and pass down their wisdom. Senior managers are given the learning task of finding a solution to a major problem and presenting that solution to the CEO. Roving experts keep the focus on quality, coaching all 31,000 factory employees, new hires, and veteran managers. Underlying all of this training, action-learning, coaching, and mentoring is a fundamental belief in continuous improvement by constantly learning what will work better and proving that this is the case.