Vaccination, Knowledge Reuse and Organizational Learning

Animals and other organisms that are capable of learning acquire problem solving ability in several ways. They may do so through trial-and-error, via observation and social learning, or even from the sudden appearance of insight on how to solve a complex problem after a period of conscious or subconscious reflection. The acquisition of knowledge or behavior to overcome obstacles, to avoid dangers or to obtain a desired goal is key to a creature’s survival and success.

We also learn at the microscopic level. When our bodies encounter a brand-new disease, our immune system may not initially know how to solve the problem. With help, a healthy body can often fight off a new disease. When we do, our body “learns” how to fight this new virus, toxin or microbe better in the future. Our immune system develops antibodies. We store this problem-solving knowledge for reuse, to recognize the and attack the invader in the future.

When we vaccinate, we inject a weakened or dead microorganism into the body so that our immune system can fight it off. Our immune system learns in this safe environment. As a result of vaccination, we strengthen our protection against a specific disease. Developing problem solvers within a lean organization works in a similar way to vaccination.

Rather than solving problems for their team members, lean leaders encourage their team members to find and fix problems on their own, in a safe environment. This may involve giving team members a “weakened” problem. This may be a simple problem at first, progressing to challenging targets. It may be a problem with known solutions or best practices known to the leadership or engineers, but which the team members must discover on their own. This process of learning has the similar effect as a vaccine. The team members learn how to solve problems and are better prepared to do so again in the future.

Within an organization there are times when we face large, complex or novel problems. This requires a different type of response than simple bottom-up problem solving. Often with leaders and experts must properly frame the problem, take a firmer hand in guiding the team, and steer their efforts away from known failure modes. How can Lean organizations develop stronger responses when facing novel and complex problems?

One method that comes to us from the lean product development domain is the capture and reuse of knowledge. As design issues are broken down, technical challenges are researched and overcome, cost-performance tradeoffs are balanced, and interactions between new systems and components are understood, knowledge is created. Some of these specific-case lessons are converted into general design principles. This may take the form of knowledge briefs, A3 project insight summaries, yokoten reports or simply checklists. These lessons aid in anticipating issues, estimating workload and planning for novel challenges in the future.

Most businesses don’t have a robust and deliberate process for knowledge capture and reuse. As a result, they rely on informal, tribal knowledge at best. We may hold beliefs and tell stories about results of previous experiments, problem solving results or innovation wins and losses. Folk remedies. We have reusable medical knowledge in the form of vaccines for our bodies to fight off diseases. At the biological, mental and organization levels, the discipline of turning novel experience into reusable knowledge helps us face novel challenges.

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