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Action Learning

Beyond Kaizen-- Action Learning


Action Learning LogoAction learning promotes individual and organizational learning through small teams. These teams address real problems and learn from their attempts to change things.

The most important aspect of Action Learning is its ability to promote cultural change. The surface simplicity of Action Learning can mask its real power. It not only provides learning for individuals and the organization. It also solves intractable problems and generates significant changes in corporate culture.

Action Learning shares many characteristics with Kaizen events and process improvement teams. Indeed, some process improvement teams or Kaizen teams are, in fact, Action Learning teams. Figure 1 shows the general process. Click here for a comparison of Action Learning, Kaizen and Task Forces.


The benefits of Action Learning come at two levels. At an individual level, people learn through doing. They learn about technical issues such as workcell design. They learn about team processes and how to function in teams. They also learn leadership and cooperation skills. Action Learning gives team members confidence in their abilities to learn while promoting an appropriate humility about their actual knowledge.

At the organizational level, companies need to learn coping skills for new problems. The rate of change in the external environment is accelerating and has been for several decades. It is only likely to accelerate more.

For survival, organizations must learn at least as fast as the pace of change and, preferably faster. they must become learning organizations or lose competitive advantage.

Existing knowledge about how things work, or are supposed to work, often misdirects inquiry rather than facilitates a solution.

Action Learning promotes the kind of Corporate Culture that allows companies to survive in these changing environments.

Action Learning Cycle 

Figure 1 the Action Learning Process

Reg Revans was careful not to define Action Learning in a rigid way. He left the concept open for growth, experimentation and development. Others have attempted more definitive models. As a result, Action Learning teams operate with a wide variety of formats on a wide range of problems. However, most practitioners would agree on this summary of basic elements.

Revans’ Learning Formula

Reg Revans described Action Learning with the formula L = P + Q, where Learning (L) occurs through Programmed knowledge (P) and insightful Questioning (Q).

Traditional instruction, or “programmed knowledge” is appropriate when we are faced with puzzles, i.e., challenges that have a right answer. However, when we are faced with “problems”, challenges that have no right answer, we need critical reflection or questioning insight. Action learning encourages such reflection by providing the support to enable people to learn from challenges as well as from themselves and the group itself.

There are substantial benefits of learning on all these multiple levels.

Learning Teams (Sets)

Action Learning is always a team effort. Revans referred to these teams as “sets.” Team concepts had not been developed when Revans did his original work. The problem often lies outside the expertise and knowledge of some or all of the team members. This is an important part of the learning experience. A team consisting only of experts in the area of the problem would be unlikely to question basic assumptions and mental models.

Real Problems

The team is given a real problem and they are expected to solve it. Contrived classroom exercises are not compatible with Action Learning. The problem should also be a challenging problem, e.g. one of those recurring, intractable problems that seem to haunt organizations, a problem where many people think they know the answer but all their answers are different.

Learning Dominates

The problems and situations undertaken by an Action Learning team are genuine, important and difficult. However, the  learning experience should be the primary goal. Solving the problem is a happy but collateral result. This is primarily what distinguishes Action Learning from the typical Kaizen Event or task force.

Problem Solving Procedure

The team needs a formal problem solving procedure, another adaptation from the early Work Simplification movement, figure 3. The formal procedures prevent a rush to judgment or knee-jerk responses. They structure the process and focus attention towards the immediate task. A number of such procedures are popular as part of TQM and Six Sigma. In essence, they are similar and most provide an adequate framework.

Problem Solving Procedure

Figure 3 Problem solving Procedure

Reflection Is As Important As Action

In figure 1 "Reflection" is one of the four essential elements of the Action Learning cycle. This is where the team and its individual members review their activities and internalize their approaches to solving the problem. Reflection consists of both individual and group exercises. Some of the questions that are considered might be:

Such questions may appear simplistic and, indeed, they can have simplistic responses. However, when properly guided by an effective facilitator, these questions lend power and depth to the group's answers.

These questions focus on individual learning. Other questions would be asked of the group and answered by the group. Such group questions have long been used in Team Development to promote learning of group processes.

Always Start With Questioning

At the beginning of an Action Learning project, the most important questions concern the purpose. People embroiled in the process every day rarely ask the first three questions in the "why" category. Yet they are often the most important. It is surprising how many times we find that a whole series of work activities are unnecessary or how often activities simply do not accomplish their purported purpose.

The "questioning Attitude" was formalized by Ralph Barnes in the 1930's and popularized by Allan Mogensen in the 1940's and 1950's. It encouraged the repeated asking of questions about every aspect of a problem situation. Figure 2 presents the more useful questions.

When the purpose is necessary, the final question in the "Why" category, "What would make it unnecessary," is often the most intriguing. This is a question that leads backwards to root causes that often lie outside the apparent scope of the project. It is also one of the "Lateral Thinking" techniques promoted by Edward DeBono and can lead to breakthrough solutions.

Then, question categories of Place, Sequence, Person and Means apply later in the problem-solving process.

Five W's-Who,What,When,Why,Where & How

Share The Knowledge

For many reasons Action Learning teams share their knowledge with the remainder of the organization. They usually do this through group presentations. The presentations and reports are not necessarily at the end of the project. The group may make interim presentations so that others in the organization can follow the logic, advance their own thinking and contribute valuable information.

Those outside the group cannot gain the full learning without the actual experience. However, they can gain some insight. The most important result of sharing is to build enthusiasm and support for the process within the organization and to encourage others to participate in future sessions. This is also part of the recognition and reward structure for the group itself. Sharing the knowledge promotes the change in corporate culture that is, probably, the most significant benefit of Action Learning.

The Beginning

Action Learning LogoSince the Action Learning team is new, it is important for the group to spend time getting to know each other and develop group norms. This process need not be as lengthy or elaborate as it would be with a self-directed work team. The team may also need formal training in certain areas such as workcell design or process improvement.

Fixing The Problem Versus Learning

Several thousand years ago it was pointed out that teaching a hungry person to fish was better than giving them a fish to eat. Not much has changed in that respect.

The primary goal of Action Learning is the learning experience. Solving the problem is important but secondary to learning. It is easy for the group and easy for management to get caught up in the problem and shortcut the learning component.


The Active Learning team establishes a timeframe for the project in the early planning stage. This timeframe should allow for learning processes includes formal reflection and informal internalization of knowledge between sessions.


Facilitation practices in Active Learning vary widely and there is a range of opinion about their best role. Some facilitators are active in the beginning and then fade away as the group progresses. Others stay with the group throughout the project. However, some things are generally agreed.



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