The best methods and the best of intentions can easily fail unless we take into account how adults learn in our organizations. During World War II a process that has become known as Training Within Industry (TWI) and its component Job Instruction (JI) were developed and then adopted by Toyota as it developed its system of production.

For management development Toyota and other Japanese companies added the role of the sensei or coach. These methods are effective because they are consistent with action-learning that recognizes the reality of how adults learn.
Malcolm Knowles, who pioneered the field of adult learning, identified the following principles as critical to adult learning:

  • Adults are autonomous and self-directed. They need to be free to direct themselves. Their teachers must actively involve adult participants in the learning process and serve as facilitators for them. They must show participants how the learning experience will help them reach their goals.
  • Adults have accumulated a foundation of life experiences and knowledge that may include work-related activities, family responsibilities and previous education. They need to connect learning to this knowledge/experience base.
  • Adults are goal-oriented. Instructors must show participants how this class will help them attain their goals.
  • Adults are relevancy-oriented. They must see a reason for learning something. Learning has to be applicable to their work or other responsibilities to be of value to them.
  • Adults are practical, focusing on the aspects of a lesson most useful to them in their work. They may not be interested in knowledge for its own sake. Instructors must tell participants explicitly how the lesson will be useful to them on the job.
  • As do all learners, adults need to be shown respect. Instructors must acknowledge the wealth of experiences that adult participants bring to the classroom. These adults should be treated as equals in experience and knowledge, and allowed to voice their opinions freely.

Another way of saying this is simply to say that adults arent good at sitting at a desk and obediently following instructions and learning theories or abstractions. Learning has to make a difference to them, and they have to put it into action. I think the same could be said for children, but we dont need to argue that point.

Much of my own training is focused on the development of both work and management teams to engage in effective continuous improvement, problem solving, and to become a high-performing teams. What has proven most effective is to apply this action-learning model to team development. The eight steps illustrated here constitute a cycle of learning and continuous improvement. In many ways they correspond to the PDCA cycle of improvement. However, they are a bit more specific to the actions required for effective learning and incorporate the role of sensei or coach.

The steps illustrated in yellow are primarily knowing/gaining knowledge steps. The steps in purple are more experiential and have more impact on how the learner feels. Knowledge and emotions are equally important in gaining sustained change in individual behavior or in the culture of the organization.

Too often our training methods focus more on knowing, and too little on the emotive aspect of learning, which is more likely to occur from experience. Often we assume that if they know, they will do, and this is a false assumption.