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Learning Teams: The Goal of Operational Learning

Sam Goodman is a renowned Human & Organizational Performance consultant and owner of The HOP Nerd LLC and host of The HOP Nerd Podcast.

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My god, we are obsessed with results - we're obsessed with outputs! This obsession only grows that much stronger when it's related to our organizations – and we only become that much more obsessed when we are talking about “safety results” within our companies.

This obsession with output has led our organizations – and us as professionals, safety or otherwise – to become hyper focused output “bean counters.”  “Numbers people” ever watching, accounting for, massaging, and manipulating the bottom-line – tying our level of success as individuals and as organizations to some arbitrary numeric goal.

The HOP Nerd LLC helps companies operationalize Human & Organizational Performance (HOP)

We invest our finite time in attempting to change outcomes by fixating on outcomes; by counting, recounting, trending, and communicating a message of “try harder, pay more attention, be better, and make these results better;” really, by picking goals f rom thin-air and making demands that our organizations meet said goals – or else.

We obsess over output hoping that it will change an already realized output, or that through this focus on actualized output that we can change future outputs.   

We spend our days obsessed with results while neglecting process, input, system, and so on.  To me, it’s worse than that.  What we are really neglecting is learning deeply about people, process, input, systems, and really, the chaos that is the world that we live and work in.       

There’s a plethora of sayings from a large pile of wise people warning us of this fixation on result or output:   

“If you want to improve the output, don’t focus on the output…”

“Go upstream…”

“It’s about the journey…”

“Your system produces the results it is designed to produce…”

More? Really? Ok!

We should work on our process, not the outcome of our processes.”

“Success is found in the journey, not in reaching a destination.”

“The way to maximize outcome is to focus on the process…”

The funny thing is that we could do this all day.  In fact, I bet you have thought up more than a handful of additional quotes just while glossing over those – and probably way better, I mean come on!? I was just pouring those out from memory!

Let’s get real.  Results matter.  But how we get those results – and where they come from – matters that much more.

In our little world of Human & Organizational Performance or “HOP,” we spend quite a bit of time talking about outgrowing our obsession with outcome, and really our bias towards prevention that has grown from this obsession with outcome.  In truth, our obsession with more negative safety outcomes and our insistence that the only acceptable outcome or goal should be zero.  


As a HOP practitioner, I am constantly spending time with organizations on this journey.  Companies across the world of industry, around the globe, and at varying levels of HOP maturity. 

I’m here to tell you that the obsession persists.  Yep, even in HOP focused companies.   

No matter where we find ourselves on this journey, it’s easy to drift back towards an overfocus on output or result. But it’s a habit we shouldn’t carry with us on our Human & Organizational Performance and Operational Learning journey.

Learning Teams are a way of discovering operational reality from those that do the work.

At this point you’re probably thinking to yourself, “WTF? I thought this was a quick and lighthearted read about Operational Learning?”  Well, you’re in luck!

Here you go…

We have poured this obsession with output into our approaches to Operational Learning.

We focus far too much on the actionable outputs of Operational Learning – the “fixes” or improvement strategies – while neglecting the true intent of the process.

Let me take another stab at that…

We get so obsessed with “fixing” or “improving” that forget about learning.

Once more…

We’re so obsessed with “fixing” or “improving” that we forget that the goal of Operational Learning isn’t to fix or improve.

You heard me right, “the goal of Operational Learning isn’t to fix or improve.”   

So, what is the goal of Operational Learning? 

Um, to LEARN.

I promise that I’m not just being sarcastic or a smart ass, although those are muscles that I very much enjoy exercising.  The goal of Operational Learning is to learn.  To put a little more meat on that bone, let’s say that the goal of Operational Learning is to gain an understanding of operational reality. Allow me to add some potatoes with that meat, we could also say that the goal of Operational Learning is to gain an understanding of everyday, normally successful work.

Please note what I did not say…

I didn’t say that the goal of Operational Learning is to fix stuff.     

I didn’t even say that the goal of Operational Learning is to improve.

I certainly did not say that the goal of Operational Learning is to generate a bunch of “Corrective Actions.”

The goal of Operational Leaning is to gain an understanding of operational reality.

If the goal of Operational Leaning is to gain an understanding of operational reality, then how can we measure the success of something like an Operational Learning Team by the numbers of fixes or ideas for improvement that it generates?   

We can’t.

Eh, we try to, but we shouldn’t. 

I hear it time and time again.  It usually starts off something like this, “most of our Operational Learning Teams have been great, they have come up with some awesome ideas for fixes and improvements…”  then, pointing to a Learning Team that did not produce a metric ton of ideas, I’ll hear something that sounds like…

“That particular Learning Team was a flop!”

“That was a failure!”

“That one sucked!”

“No actions!? Well, that was a waste of time…”

“The <insert some fancy pants executive title here> is going to be very displeased that we only had one idea for improvement from this.”

And on, and on…

Hopefully that sharp rant of an intro about our obsession with output is starting to make a bit more sense at this point.

If an Operational Learning effort did not result in a heap of fixes, ideas for improvement, or our beloved corrective actions, was it a failure? Was it a miss? Was it an epic waste of time? Should we be disappointed?

I typically respond by asking “did you learn something?” I mean, that is the intent after all. Did you gain an understanding of operational reality? Did you learn about normal work? And on… If “yes,” that was a win! Generally speaking, that was a successful learning team. 

Really, to me, I’ll take that a bit deeper and say that if you genuinely extended trust to those that do the work, practiced well-intended operational curiosity, encouraged those that do the work to teach you about their operational reality, and empowered them to cocreate ideas for improvement, then you have accomplished what you set out to accomplish. 

What’s the point? We learn for the sake of learning – not to fix or improve – because learning alone is worth it.  Learning about operational reality makes our organizations operationally smarter, even if we don’t generate piles of “corrective actions” or improvement strategies.

Beyond that, “corrective actions” or improvement strategies uninformed of operational reality are guesses at best, and likely built on operational fantasy.  Now we’re talking about a real “flop” or “miss!”  A “mess” might be the best way to put that.      

Let me rephrase all of this a bit…   

Learning is the goal.  We value and prioritize learning over “fixing” or “improving,” because “fixing” or “improving” without learning is just guessing on a good day and can be disastrous on a not so good day.      

Now, I think it should be said that through deep and meaningful operational learning that yes, you will often discover areas for improvement.  And yes (or maybe “duh?”), when you discover areas for improvement there will be improvement strategies developed! But that’s not the goal, that’s not the point, and areas for improvement along with ideas for improvement are not required for highly successful operational learning. 

I don’t know that there is clear cut answer to overcoming our obsession with result or outcome, so I’m not so sure that there is clear cut answer to overcoming our obsession with actionable outputs – areas for improvement, improvement strategies, corrective actions – associated with Operational Learning.   

But what I do know is that if keep the goal – the goal being to gain an understanding of operational reality –  the goal, if we value and prioritize the act of learning over fixing or improving, and If we keep a healthy awareness to the fact that we have a strong desire to measure the success of our operational learning efforts by the number of fixes they generate (the output), we can navigate our way through this obsession with output pretty successfully. Will we get it wrong?  Sure.  But maybe one day – just maybe – we might even overcome it. 

Not only that, if we value and prioritize learning along with not tying some output focused measure to it, we lower the barrier to entry; we make it easier to operationally learn.  We make it easier to share the story of normal work, of operational reality, even if our efforts didn’t result in some massive improvement effort.

Keep the goal the goal and you might just learn something – no obsession with output required

Sam Goodman is a Human & Organizational Performance consultant

Sam Goodman

The HOP Nerd LLC


Sam Goodman is the founder and independent Human and Organizational Performance practitioner of The HOP Nerd LLC. He is the author of multiple books focused on Human & Organizational Performance, the safety of work, and the safety profession, and the host and producer of The HOP Nerd Podcast. Sam is an experienced safety and HOP practitioner, accomplished author, passionate speaker, and respected consultant and coach.

 With extensive experience in the field, Sam has worked with a diverse range of industries, including commercial nuclear generation, utilities, construction, manufacturing, energy, healthcare, transportation, and more. He has collaborated with numerous organizations to operationalize and embed HOP principles and techniques.

In addition to his consulting work, Sam is a prolific author, sharing his knowledge and insights through various publications. His latest book, the best-selling "10 Ideas to Make Safety Suck Less," has become a vital resource for professionals in the HOP field.

Sam offers the flexibility, passion, and know-how to help your organization begin, or go further on its HOP journey.     

The HOP Nerd LLC is a world renowned expert in Human & Organizational Performance and Learning Teams.


What is Human & Organizational Performance (HOP)?

Personally, I think of HOP as a collection of better beliefs, assumptions, thoughts, and ideas – from diverse and varying sources –  applied through the lens of a core set of principles.      

To me, at the core of it all, Human and Organizational Performance is a fundamental shift in how we view people. It is the move away from viewing people as problems to be managed, and the shift towards viewing people as problem solvers.

While there are several other vital bits and pieces, Human and Organizational Performance is about starting from a place of trust, embracing the human element of our work worlds, understanding that people show up to work to do a good job, and constantly and deliberately learning from those that do the actual work.

Our traditional approaches often start from a position of distrusting our fellow humans; we have viewed people as the source of problems and pain within our organizations. People have been viewed as the last great problem to fix, as the last step between us and organizational utopia.

We have viewed people as the problem to fix, and we seek to fix problems. We have built systems of distrust, constructed endless lists of rules, ones that are policed via mechanisms of constant surveillance, oversight, and harsh punishment for "wrongdoers." We have tried and tried to comply and punish our way to operational excellence, but it has failed us time and time again.

This distrust of our fellow humans has been a harmful negative that has inflicted unnecessary pain and suffering upon those that diligently serve our organizations. This distrust of our fellow humans, and this desire to punish those “untrustworthy” and “uncaring” humans that we believe to be causal of our problems has led us away from improvement - away from learning - not closer to it. It has left our workforces fearful and untrusting, devoid of the ability to be honest with the organization, and unable to tell “real deal” stories about how work normally occurs, and it has left our organizations blind to vital information and learnings.

The Principles of Human & Organizational Performance (HOP)

Error is Normal

Blame Fixes Nothing

Context Drives Behaviors

Learning Is Vital

How We Respond Matters

The principles and concepts of Human and Organizational Performance move us away from these misguided and harmful beliefs. Rather than viewing people as the problem - and attempting to cure our work worlds of events and problems by seeking to cure people of their humanity - HOP teaches us to embrace our fellow humans, to defer to their expertise, to learn from them, to seek to understand, and to understand that their “know-how” and knowledge is vital to the success of our organizations. Human and Organizational Performance teaches us that error is normal, that no one chooses to make a mistake, that blame fixes nothings, and that blaming only moves us away from the so needed learnings we require to improve.

Allow me to circle back to the key point, Human and Organizational Performance is a fundamental shift in how we view people – people are problem solvers, and we must create systems of trust so that they can do just that.

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