The “Big Three” auto CEOs drove to Washington, D.C., hat in hand, and pleaded for $34 billion from Congress. U.S. taxpayers will have to do something for these companies, given the number of jobs that could be lost, but I think the auto execs (including the UAW President) and congressional leaders are focusing on only part of the problem, and not the most important part. If these companies truly want to compete and be sustainable in the 21rst century, they will have to do more than layoff employees, close plants, refinance debt, merge with other companies, and make more fuel efficient cars. They will have to become learning companies. I don’t mean companies that train their employees. That’s sooooo last century. I mean companies that have a culture of learning in which change is constant and creativity and innovation are the coin of the realm.

My experience from consulting in these companies is that employee learning and development are equated with classroom instruction and, more recently, eLearning modules. The execs talk about Lean Manufacturing and systems thinking and high performance teams and continuous improvement, but this is all rhetoric. These principles have not been integrated into the day-to-day functioning from the C-suite to the plant floor. They have little in the way of feedback mechanisms to tell them what employees are learning, how they are applying that learning, and what else they need to learn to be effective. They don’t have supervisors who coach, develop, and support the learning of their direct reports. They don’t have an environment that motivates union and non-union workers to do their best and help the company do its best.

Of course, financial problems need to be addressed. But as long as the focus and energy is on monthly sales numbers and quarterly profit, and not on creating a culture in which everyone is constantly learning and improving performance, long term success of these companies is highly unlikely.