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Continuous Improvement


What is a 'Learning Organization'?
The Importance of Learning
The Steady Process
The Learning Cycle
The Process
What Type of Learning?
Characteristics of a 'Learning Organization'


The animal welfare environment is a fast-changing one, where we are faced with an ever-complex range of problems and opportunities. Our opponents are better resourced in so many ways. Our ‘competitors’ are always trying to steal advantage from us. This makes it vital that we continue to make the most of our scarce resources, and our most valuable asset – our staff. Continuous improvement (or ‘learning’) and Kaizen are ways of achieving this, without a damaging ‘revolution’.

What is 'Learning Organization'?

A ‘Learning Organization’ is an organization that learns and encourages learning among its people. It promotes exchange of information between employees hence creating a more knowledgeable workforce. This produces a very flexible organization where people will accept and adapt to new ideas and changes through a shared vision.

"A Learning Organisation is one in which people at all levels, individuals and collectively, are continually increasing their capacity to produce results they really care about." Senge

Key aspects of a ‘Learning Organisation’ are that it established procedures to:

  • Apply techniques to measure the organization's strengths and weaknesses, successes and failures
  • Identity areas for improvement within the organization
  • Set organizational policies and approaches to all aspects of management
  • Implement techniques to improve organizational effectiveness.

The Importance of Learning

The importance of learning was first put forward by the Chinese philosopher Confucius (551 - 479 BC). He believed that everyone should benefit from learning:

"Without learning, the wise become foolish; by learning, the foolish become wise."
"Learn as if you could never have enough of learning, as if you might miss something."

Reason for the growing emphasis on organizational learning is because of the increased pace of change. Classically, work has been thought of as being conservative and difficult to change. Now, there is such a fast-changing environment that ‘business as usual’ is no longer an option.

As various management writers put it:

"Organisations must develop a capacity for fast-paced innovation... learn to love change" Peters
"As the competitive environment becomes more complex and variegate, the need for greater genetic variety - a broader range of managerial beliefs, and a greater repertoire of managerial actions - grows apace" Hamel and Prahaled
"Top companies seem to organise around people - honoring these needs - feeling of control, something to believe in, challenge, lifelong learning, recognition" Waterman

With the pace of change ever quickening, the need to develop mechanisms for continuous learning and innovation is greater than ever.

The Steady Process

If the changeover to a ‘Learning Organisation’ happened overnight, the environment around the workers would be complex and dynamic. This would cause fear, uncertainty and confusion, which would hamper learning and openness to change. So it can only be introduced into an organization that is prepared to reach a balance between change and stability, i.e. a balance between the old and the new. Thus, part of the senior management’s job involves innovation, but more is process review and some is maintenance. For middle managers, jobs consist largely of process review and maintenance, and for workers, mainly maintenance, with some process review. The core stability is maintained through a steady review and introduction process, supported by staff and management development.

The Learning Cycle

Evaluation is necessary for an organization to learn from its mistakes and also to appreciate its successes. Discussion and contribution in a team framework is vital, followed by assessment and planning. Each team member should be encouraged to assess his/her own performance. This requires continuous feedback and assessment, which is commonly depicted using the ‘Learning Cycle’ model below:

Animal welfare organizations can be very poor at evaluation, instead dashing from advocacy campaign to advocacy campaign. This may give the feeling of constant activity, but it completely misses the important chance to learn and improve upon experiences.

Your M&E is an important part of your organizational learning and continuous improvement. If your organization encourages learning this will create more knowledgeable staff and a flexible organization where people will accept and adapt to new ideas and changes through a shared vision.

The Process

An organization that learns and wants its people to learn, should try to follow certain concepts in learning techniques and mold itself to accommodate for a number of specific attributes. These include:

  • Thrive on Change
  • Encourage Experimentation
  • Facilitate Learning from the Surrounding Environment
  • Facilitate Learning from Employees
  • Reward Learning
  • A Sense of Caring and Mutual Support
  • Communicate Success and Failure

What Type of Learning?

A ‘Learning Organisation’ is not simply about 'more training'. While training does help develop certain types of skill, a ‘Learning Organisation’ involves the development of higher levels of knowledge and skill. This includes four levels of learning:

  • Learning facts, knowledge, processes and procedures. Applies to known situations where changes are minor.
  • Learning new job skills which are transferable to other situations. Applies to new situations where existing responses need to be changed. Bringing in outside expertise is a useful tool here.
  • Learning to adapt. Applies to more dynamic situations where the solutions need developing. Experimentation; and deriving lessons from success and failure is important here.
  • Learning to learn. Is about innovation and creativity; designing the future rather than merely adapting to it. This is where assumptions are challenged and knowledge is reframed.

Characteristics of a 'Learning Organization'

Some of the key characteristics of a ‘Learning Organisation’ are given below

A Learning Culture

An organizational climate that nurtures learning.

  • Future, external orientation - these organizations develop understanding of their environment; senior teams take time out to think about the future. Widespread use of external sources and advisors e.g. consultants
  • Free exchange and flow of information - systems are in place to ensure that expertise is available where it is needed; individuals network extensively, crossing organizational boundaries to develop their knowledge and expertise.
  • Commitment to learning, personal development - support from top management; people at all levels encouraged to learn and learning is rewarded.
  • Valuing people – ideas and creativity are stimulated, made use of and developed. Diversity is recognized as a strength. Views can be challenged.
  • Climate of openness and trust - individuals are encouraged to develop ideas, to speak out, to challenge actions.
  • Learning from experience - learning from mistakes is often more powerful than learning from success. Failure is tolerated, provided lessons are learnt

Key Management Processes

Management processes that encourage interaction across boundaries. These are infrastructure, development and management processes, for example:

  • Strategic and Scenario Planning - approaches to planning that go beyond the numbers, encourage challenging assumptions, thinking 'outside of the box'. They also allocate a proportion of resources for new challenges.
  • Competitor Analysis - as part of a process of continuous monitoring and analysis of all key factors in the external environment, including political factors.
  • Information and Knowledge Management - using techniques to identify, audit, value (cost/benefit), develop and exploit information as a resource.
  • Capability Planning - profiling both qualitatively and quantitatively the competencies of the organization.
  • Team and Organisation development - the use of facilitators to help groups with work, job and organization design and team development - reinforcing values, developing vision, cohesiveness and a climate of stretching goals, sharing and support
  • Performance Measurement - finding appropriate measures and indicators of performance; ones that encourage investment in learning.
  • Reward and Recognition Systems - processes and systems that recognise acquisition of new skills, team-work as well as individual effort, celebrate successes and accomplishments, and encourage continuous personal development.


Another very similar concept to a ‘Learning Organisation’ is Kaizen. This is a key Japanese management philosophy that means ‘improvement’. Kaizen strategy calls for never-ending efforts for improvement involving everyone in the organization - managers and workers alike.

In practice, Kaizen can be implemented in organizations by improving every aspect of the work process in a step-by-step approach, while gradually developing employee skills through training education and increased involvement. The principles in Kaizen implementation are:

  • Human resources are the most important company asset
  • Processes must evolve by gradual improvement rather than radical changes
  • Improvement must be based on statistical/quantitative evaluation of performance (quite difficult to apply in the animal protection environment)

Support throughout the entire structure is necessary to become successful at developing a strong Kaizen approach. Management as well as workers need to believe in the Kaizen idea and strive toward obtaining the small goals in order to reach overall success. Therefore, all members of an organization need to be trained in a manner to support this. Resources, measurements, rewards and incentives all need to be aligned to and working with the Kaizen structure of ideas.

The Kaizen Mindset includes the following:

  • Not a day should go by without some kind of improvement being made somewhere in the company
  • Mission-driven strategy for improvement - any management activity should eventually lead to increased mission achievement
  • Quality first: professionalism and quality as goals
  • Recognition that any organization has problems and establishing culture where everyone can freely admit these problems and suggest improvement
  • Problem solving is seen as cross-functional systemic and collaborative approach
  • Emphasis on process - establishing a way of thinking orientated at improving processes, and a management system that supports and acknowledges people's process-orientated efforts for improvement
  • A positive, win-win attitude, not a blame culture

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