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A Quick Guide to Learning Teams & Learning Explorations

An abridged excerpt from 10 Ideas to make Safety Suck Less, Learn Deliberately and Often from those that GSD



Focused and less focused methods for learning

A learning team can be defined as a way of looking at safety, quality, and operational excellence differently – by involving and empowering those that do the work – to drive improvements at both the worker and organizational level (Sutton, McCarthy, Robinson, Conklin, 2020). Learning explorations can be described as more of a “freestyle” and organic approach – based upon the general concepts and principles of learning teams – that allows organizations to seek out (while learning a lot along the way) opportunities for deeper and more focused operational learning.

I tend to apply these methods loosely based on what we are looking at and based on the outcomes we are hoping to achieve. Often, learning teams are used to explore problems or betterment opportunities, seeking out valuable learning rich and contextualized information, in hopes of generating fixes for particular pain points, issues, or problems. Learning explorations should be viewed as more of a less granular starting point – the casting of a wide net – to discover opportunities that we should seek to learn more about. While some fixes are usually captured, formal problem resolution is not the end goal of a learning exploration. I typically lean towards the use of more structured and formal learning teams around things like events, operational surprises, the solving of specific pain points or problems, and other more specific examinations – while utilizing these even less rigid and less focused learning explorations to take a broader view of things like current organizational reality, lived experience, organizational stories and lore, effectiveness of overall approach, and other less specific areas of interest. Often, learning explorations result in the use of more focused and specific learning teams to solve problems or explore things deeper, based on the learnings gained during the explorations.

Some key operational learning principles and concepts

According to The Practice of Learning teams (Sutton et al. 2020), there are five core principles of learning teams:

  • Seeking to understand work-as-imagined and work-as-done provides valuable contextual information

  • Groups outperform individuals in problem identification and problem solving

  • Workers have the best knowledge and understanding of the problems they face

  • The more effort put into seeking to understand the problem, the better the solutions that emerge

  • Providing “think” or “soak time” for reflection drives learning and improvement

We are seeking to learn from those that GSD (get shit done) because only they have true knowledge and experience of how things happen in real life – we are hoping to tap into reality. The people that do the work best understand the work. They know where things just do not work, where they must make do, where they must stretch, and where our systems underperform, create headache, or must be worked around. Since we simply cannot understand the reality of work, we must deliberately seek to learn from those that do. We seek out this vital operational intelligence because we understand that people are the solution, and that we need to ask them what they need to be successful (Dekker, 2014). Without this ‘looking glass’ into the reality of work within our organizations, we are practically operating blind.

We have an image of what work looks like, how work should go, how successes are created, and how events occur, engrained in our minds. The problem is that how we imagine things happening, and how things actually happen, are two vastly different things. The fact of the matter is that we will never, with 100% accuracy, understand how things get done within our work worlds. But we should seek to understand it better by allowing those that do understand (the people that do the work) to teach us the reality they face daily – we should seek this learning deliberately and frequently. The better we understand the realities of work, the better our work worlds can become.

Learning team basics

So, you want to conduct a learning team, now what? Before we examine the “how to” of performing learning teams, allow me to insert a warning here – something I have seen occur in many organizations. Do not overcomplicate the process or get too hung up on structure – a bit of the idea here is that these approaches are less formal, less rigid, less linear, and more open and real. Do not allow your organizational desires for uniformity and repeatability to stand between you and real learning. Avoid falling into the traps of over proceduralization, of seeking absolute control over the process, of killing learning and innovation via the application of strict rules. Avoid bastardizing this simple and immensely valuable tool into something that it is not – at all costs.

The most basic steps used to conduct a learning team can be described as 1) learn, 2) soak, and 3) solve. These steps are commonly expanded into five steps.

The five steps of a learning team:

  1. Prepare

  2. Learn

  3. Soak

  4. Improve

  5. Act


After identifying the need for a learning team, you will need to take some time to adequately prepare. During this time, you should gather any supplies that you think will be needed (I am pretty fond of flipcharts), along with compiling any required information (such as event information, technical data, manuals, etc).


This first meeting of your team should only be about learning as much as you possibly can. At this point in the process, we should be purposefully avoiding diving into “fix it” mode. This sessions time should be dedicated to the team discussing and discovering how work actually gets done.


This reflection point is one of the more vital parts of the learning team process (Sutton et al., 2020), do not skip it. As people, we need time to soak information up and to allow for ideas and other information to bubble up to the surface. In practice, I typically separate the first and second meetings by about a day. Too much time between meetings results in forgetting or losing track of vital information or ideas – placing the meetings too close together does not allow for enough time to think. This time between meetings can vary – focus on trying to find “the sweet spot.”


In this second session, after a brief review of all that has been learned so far, you will begin to move the conversation towards improvement – taking all that you have learned from the first session and turning it into real ideas on how to render things better.


Now we begin to turn these ideas into actions that add defenses, remove error inviting situations, fix problems or pain points, and make things better. Whatever method your organization normally uses to track and complete actions will typically work here, just do not allow a burdensome action tracking process to dissuade people from using or participating in the learning team process.

How these five steps play out…

When to use learning teams

Learning teams can be used anytime that you need to learn more about something. Things like events, interesting successes, and particular pain points, are all great areas to dig in deep and seek to gain a better understanding. Learning teams can practically be used anywhere, but we must acknowledge the realities of time, budget, and resources that we face within our organizations. A problem I often see is that, once the power of learning teams is recognized within an organization, there is a desire to do a learning team for nearly everything. A healthy dose of prioritization is key to not going “learning team crazy.”

Another key item I have found helpful in the avoidance of going “learning team crazy” is the embracing of micro learning teams – the allowing of smaller and more organic worker led learning teams to solve crew or group problems. Many organizations dissuade these occurrences due their independent nature – fearing that the learning team will not follow their process or that they will not share learning throughout the organization. You should not only permit these micro learning teams, but you should also encourage them. Their independent nature – something most organizations cite as negative – is exactly what makes them highly valuable. Additionally, do not get so hung up on the sharing of learnings that you cause learning to not occur. The people that work within your work world will share information – information that they deem to be worthy of sharing – with others throughout your organization. I have witnessed it time after time, a group or crew of workers proudly sharing up through the organization how they have made things better. Will you know about every learning opportunity or learning team that occurs? No – you would not know that information even with the tightest grip of oversight and control. Do not panic, embrace some of this “not knowing,” encourage your employees to go out and learn, and reap the rewards.

Let’s take a look at a few areas in which the application of more formal learning teams would be appropriate:

Event learning teams

Keeping in mind that a learning team is an operational learning tool that brings those that are closest to the work together to describe how work is actually being accomplished in the field (Edwards and Baker) – a post-event learning team brings together (appropriate) stakeholders and employees connected to the event, to seek to learn the story of how each person saw the event, the story of complexity and normal variability, and the story of normal work, to improve our understanding of processes and systems (Sutton et al., 2020).

Post-event learning teams should not:

  • Look for blame

  • Act as investigations

  • Focus on monocausality

According to Edwards and Baker, our goal must be to learn enough that we can understand the perspectives of those we are learning from – that we could easily see ourselves in their shoes. By understanding the conditions the involved employees were presented with, the information and local indications they had, the tools and equipment they were using, and the pressures they were under, industrial empathy is created (Edwards et al.).

Interesting successes

As organizations, we spend a lot of time focused on trying to understand how things go wrong, investing vast amounts of time and resources into these pursuits. We seem to be far less curious about, or concerned with, the successful work occurring within our work worlds every day.

We typically draw a broad assumption that negative consequences are the result of negative causes – that if we are not experiencing negative events then nothing negative is occurring – if the outcomes we are experiencing are good, then surely all must be well (Dekker, 2014). We fall for this trap quite often. But our work worlds are wildly complex – even bad process can lead to good outcomes and good process can lead to bad outcomes (Dekker, 2014). Seeking to understand how normal work happens – the reasons why work is usually successful – is an area we should be obsessively curious about.

Keeping in mind that every organization, even the largest ones, have finite amounts of time and resources, we must apply some level of sorting and prioritization to our learning endeavors – hence the “interesting” bit. Focus in on things that are learning rich – work that went extremely well, work that should not have gone well but did anyways, and other interesting “bright spots” within normal work.

Pain points

Listen attentively for signals of pain within your systems and processes. Pain points within our work worlds, like physical pain occurring to us as people, is often a signal of danger – pain typically acts as a protection mechanism to steer us away from harm. Pain points, like other weak signals given off by our systems, are signals of trouble on the horizon. Listen for and lean into these pain points as they are often learning rich opportunities for organizational betterment. Pain points often sound like:

· That thing never works right…

· It’s way too hard to…

· I don’t know why we…

· It’s so dumb that we have to…

· We must make do with…

· We can’t get…

· And many more…

Pain points contain a wealth of information about how work normally happens – typically telling the story of workers overperforming and making things happen in a system fighting against them. They are opportunities we should not ignore. Pain points are starting points for deep and meaningful explorations into the challenges workers face daily – they can lead us to rich learnings and help us begin the process of rendering our systems better for those they are supposed to support.

The use of learning explorations

As previously mentioned, learning explorations can be described as a “freestyle,” organic, and conversational approach used to seek out opportunities for deeper and more focused operational learning. When utilizing learning explorations, we are casting a wide net to see what can be hauled to the surface. These sessions are not necessarily focused on the generation of fixes – learning explorations are about listening for areas in which we should seek to learn more.

The four basic steps of a learning exploration:

  1. Identify an area for exploration

  2. Conduct sessions

  3. Evaluate

  4. Seek deeper learning

Let’s take some time to explore each of these steps in greater detail...

Identify an area for exploration

In the example provided earlier, learning explorations were used to pulse company progress relating to the adoption of Human and Organizational Performance – seeking to better understand where things were going well, not so well, and areas for improvement. Learning explorations can be used in almost any situation where there is not an identified pain point or problem in need of fixing, but it is believed that pain points, problems, or other rich learning opportunities exist.

Go broad but avoid being overly broad in your approach – there must be some level of focus applied to the use of these explorations or you run the risk of information overload. Define the parameters of your exploratory efforts beforehand; what are you hoping to learn more about? What do you think could use some attention? Where have you heard whispers of potential learning opportunities? Map out your exploratory questions or “conversation starters” from there.

Rather than asking overly broad questions such as “Can you tell me how things are going?” ask things more along the lines of “We have been putting effort into bettering (insert something here). Can you tell me about your experiences with that?” or “Can you teach me about your experiences with (insert something here)?”

Conduct sessions

Conducting a learning exploration is very similar to conducting a learning team – one notable exception being the absence of a second session and soak time. Remember, we are not seeking to solve problems, we are seeking to learn about problems that we do not yet have knowledge of. These learning explorations are more listening and triage, than deep dives and problem solving.

A learning exploration can usually be completed in a single session – averaging roughly 90 minutes in my experience. But learning explorations typically consist of several onetime sessions conducted across several different groups – think different groups or crews that share or work within the same systems. Again, we are aiming to go a bit broad here and capture a wide swath of contextual information.


With this new information now in hand, it is time to comb through it all. Various bits and pieces can (and often should) be lumped together into larger overarching categories. As an example, during some recent learning explorations with an organization, various problems with engineering drawings kept surfacing during our sessions. Each concern was a little different – from missing drawings to the inability to print drawings – but it was a very clear indication that there were problems deeper in the system. Each of these unique pain points were categorized as “engineering drawings.” This information was then used to go out and conduct focused learning teams to generate specific system improvements.

Additionally, some things that you unearth will be standalone items. These can sometimes be quickly moved into more formal learning teams – some might even be direct fixes. Whatever the case, be sure to evaluate this information thoroughly, and be on the lookout for opportunities to either directly better the issues at hand or dig deeper into them.

Seek deeper learning

Now, with sorted and prioritized areas for deeper learning, it is time to do just that. This is where we can begin to do follow ups, fix specific issues, or begin more formal learning teams to work on the pain points, problems, or betterment opportunities discovered during our learning explorations.

Some basic conversation starters for learning explorations:

· How are things going with (insert something here)?

· With (insert something here), what are we missing?

· We started doing (insert something here), how is it working for you?

· It seems like we are really good at (insert something here), why do you think that is?

· We have gone through a lot of change lately with (insert something here), how has your experience been with that?

· Can you teach me about your experiences with (insert something here)?

· And many more…

Getting started

I come across many organizations that are paralyzed by a fear of trying out something new or different. Do not be fearful of giving learning teams or learning explorations a shot – try one on for size and see how it works. I can promise you that you will not be disappointed by the outcome. I would encourage you to start small and feel your way through the process – give yourself room to fail in a small-scale setting.

I often hear things from companies like “we can’t do that, we are required to do a root cause,” or “our current procedures require us to do X, Y, and Z,” using these rules and requirements as roadblocks to the use of learning teams. I understand these challenges well, having lived through them myself while working directly for organizations trying to start on their Human and Organizational Performance journeys. How did we work through these barriers to implementing the use of learning teams? We did them anyways – we really did just go out and do them. While your organization might have a rule that requires a root cause analysis to be performed, it is highly unlikely that it has a rule that bans the use of learning teams. Around events in particular, we started doing both – meeting whatever the procedure or rule required, while also performing an independent learning team as well. Doing double the work is never fun, but as frustrating as it was, it was well worth the effort. Doing both allowed us to easily demonstrate the difference between the two methods and compare the amount of learnings gained.

If that is still just a little too much for your organization, lower the barrier to entry that much more and focus on simply trying to learn about areas for improvement. Pick out something that people are struggling with, an area of headache, or an opportunity for betterment, and go out and give it a try. Find a problem that people are facing and use a learning team to solve it. Do this a handful of times, tell the story of this rich and contextual information up through your organization well, and the progress of these efforts will not be ignored. Often the only true barrier to the use of learning teams, is simply the act of starting to do them.

Be curious, seek to understand, and go out and learn deliberately and often from those that get shit done.

Need a hand operationalizing Human & Organizational Performance in your organization?


Goodman, S. (2022). 10 Ideas to Make Safety Suck Less. Pale Horse Media Co.

McCarthy, G., Robinson, B., Conklin, T., & Sutton, B. (2020). The Practice of Learning Teams: Learning and Improving Safety, Quality and Operational Excellence. Independently Published.

Dekker, S. (2014). Safety Differently: Human Factors for a New Era, Second Edition. Taylor & Francis.

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