When Learning Stops

Groups devoted to learning must take steps to avoid stagnation.

Learning rarely follows a linear, upward progression. People forget what they once knew; institutional memory fades; obstacles of all kinds block individuals and groups from making progress. Sometimes an initially successful program or approach stops delivering results. When that occurs in a business setting, managers are bound to ask, What happens when the learning stops? This question was posed by Ian ­Stuart, an associate professor of supply chain and quality ­management at the University of Victoria, British Columbia, and Paul Deckert, a manufac­turing and logistics manager at Rockwell Auto­mation Inc., Ontario, Canada, in a recent paper of that title.

The authors were following up on research they discussed in an article published in the summer 1998 issue of Sloan Management Review, “A Leveraged Learning Network” (written with co-authors David McCutcheon and Richard Kunst). In it, they wrote about Allen-Bradley Canada, a manufacturer of electric control panels also based in Cambridge, Ontario, and part of Rockwell Automation. In 1990, Allen-Bradley faced severe resource constraints, an increasingly competitive marketplace and a product line perceived by customers as overpriced and supported by weak customer service. Some companies in those circumstances would pressure their suppliers and distributors, the authors note, but Allen-Bradley did not have the clout to force price reductions or service improvements. Instead, it allied with a small group of its key suppliers in a “leveraged learning network.” The members’ goal was to bring their manufacturing operations collectively up to world-class standards. The High Performance Manufacturing Consortium, as it came to be known, would focus on improving its members’ performance in such areas as number of product rejects, percentage of on-time deliveries and amount of unscheduled downtime.

The consortium’s principal organizing mechanism was its special interest groups. Members of a group would support a particular management theme (such as team-based problem solving), gain and share concept knowledge, and then customize and apply the concept in their own manufac­turing plants. These organized opportunities to learn from one another were critical to the consortium’s cohesion. And over a six-year per­iod (1992–1997), the results were impressive. The data analyzed in a detailed scorecard indicated that the consortium’s 12 companies went from an average of about 25% in meeting world-class standards to about 70%.

But could such progress be sustained? Stuart and Deckert reviewed detailed performance data, conducted one-on-one interviews and attended quarterly meetings of the consortium in order to find out.