Developing Improvement Capability: Part 3 – What is the best way to learn to improve?

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by David M. Williams, PhD

As organizations pursue quality as a business strategy, they quickly realize a need to develop improvement capability across the workforce. This requires understanding what people need to know, who needs to know what, and what is the best way to learn.

This is part three of a four-part series. You can read part one here, part two here, and part four here.

What is the best way to learn?
When developing improvement capability, a key priority is aiding people to learn the theory behind a tool or method, how to apply it with fidelity to the problem of today, and how to be confident to adapt to varying contexts going forward.

One trap many organizations fall into is doing more training than improvement. The theory being if people learn the basic tools and methods they will translate this into rigorous improvement work and results. Investment in training alone, or loosely linking to projects, leads to a lot of activity and cost but not a lot of measurable improvement. 

The Associates in Process Improvement built on the work of Bruce Joyce and Beverly Showers at the University of Oregon and their study of types of training and their effectiveness. The table below shows how various training modes support knowledge and skill-building and future application. 

Effectiveness of Various Training Models
Training Mode Understanding of Material (Knowledge) Ability to Demonstrate New Tools and Concepts (Skills) Ability to Apply to New Situations (Application)
Lecture, information transfer 80% 10% 0%
Demonstration. modeling 100% 30% 0%
Practice, exercises 100% 70% 20%
Exercises in application 100% 90% 50%
Coaching and review 100% 100% 80%
Table 14.3 from Langley et al. (2009) The Improvement Guide (2nd Ed). P. 339 

All early improvers will require learning about improvement science and the various tools and methods, and this may include training. Training alone does not produce improvement or measurable results. To avoid the activity trap and build true capability, selecting strategic projects with clear aims, doing the work at the point-of-service, and supporting with coaching is the most effective approach to adult learning, skill building, and achieving results.

In part four, I’ll look at how to think about scaling up improvement capability.