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Operational Learning: How Do I Know That We've Learned Enough?

A picture of leading human & organizational performance (HOP) thought leader Sam Goodman

Sam Goodman is an independent HOP practitioner and the founder of The HOP Nerd LLC. He is an accomplished and respected consultant, coach, author, and speaker.

“How do I know that we’ve learned enough?”


As a leader, as a facilitator of operational learning, as someone tasked with looking into operational surprises, as an organization focused on operational learning – it’s probably a question you’ve found yourself asking. 


And, It seems like a pretty good question to ask.  I’d venture to say that It’s probably a great question to ask! The problem? There is not a straightforward, clear, and clean-cut answer to that question.  As with any more interesting question, the answer is rarely – if ever – a simple “yes” or “no.” 

A group of employees going over learning team and HOP data

Lacking that sexy little straightforward “yes” or “no” answer, we usually make something up or seek one out in our more typical places.  

We look for, or invent, “measures of success” – and more often than not, measure of unsuccess – in the same old places we have always looked.


We’ll point to the total number of learning activities completed over a given time period, the number of corrective actions generated by our learning efforts, or focus on the amount of time we invested – or didn’t invest – into particular learning endeavors.


“My God!  That analysis took nearly a year…. They mean business!”




“My God!  That analysis took nearly a year…. They suck!”




 “That group does a lot of Learning Teams, they’re good!” 




“That group only does a few Learning Teams, they’re bad!”




“Gee wiz!  This report is 38 pages, spiralbound, and has 175 corrective actions – good stuff!”




“Oh no!  They didn’t really come up with much on this one – BAD!” 


More is better and less is worse, unless we’ve picked a metric around less, then less is good and more is bad, but if you can strategically do more and less at the same time…. What? Wait, now I’m confused! But I do know for a fact that anywhere in between “more” or “less” is not good and simply not allowed.   


Ok, ok, ok!  I’m not bashing all the above as “horrible” or “bad” places to pay some attention to, but does that really give us a meaningful answer to our question? As a facilitator of operational learning, are they telling me what I need to know?  Are they valuing and prioritizing learning? I mean, they are simple, clean, and sexy after all!  They are neat and tidy “yes” and “no’s,” but do they really tell us that we have learned enough with a particular learning team or other approach to operational learning?

To reframe that question just a bit: As a learning team facilitator, how do I know that we have tapped into operational reality? That we've had the conversations we need have? That we have gone where we needed to go? That we have hit the "sweet spot?"     

Those measures are simple, clean, sexy, and seductively simple (they always are)!  They meet all the basics of our corporate desires!



A group of employees compiling a safety report

If a learning team does not result in a hefty number of corrective actions or improvement ideas, does that mean we have failed?  Does that mean that we have not learned enough?


If we do not complete some arbitrary number of learning exercises over some given period of time – a number and period of time we almost exclusively pick out of thin air – are we failing at “learning enough?”


Does measuring – and often incentivizing – more or less time to completion of a learning activity or number of actions generated really give us any meaningful information?     


As mentioned in a previous article (, our obsession with output is showing.


To get us back on track here, I will tell you before you dig much deeper…


I will not be talking about numbers, measures, spreadsheets, or charts.  There will be no magical indicators, metrics, or other easy answers.  I feel that it’s only fair to let you know that up front (or as close as possible to “up front”).  If you came here looking for that sexy little number or measure, you’re not going to find it.

Additionally, I will (try my best) to keep our focus on individual learning teams, explorations, and etc - focusing on answering that questions from the perspective of an operational learning facilitator for a particular learning event.


I think a bit of a story is the easiest way to share my thoughts on discovering the answer to our question: “Have we learned enough?”


As a Human & Organizational Performance Practitioner – as an Operational Learning facilitator – I spend a good amount of my time facilitating or coaching learning teams.  Most years I’m involved in some form or fashion – facilitating or coaching – between 50 to 100 learning teams.


To simplify this story just a bit, let’s round that number up to 100 operational learning activities I am involved with every year. Now, out of that total number of operational learning activities, roughly half of them are focused on pre-event or “normal work” learning; the other 50 are post-event learning teams.  These are a mixed bag of focus areas – safety, quality, operations, efficiency, and on – exploring all the nooks and crannies of (mostly) normal work.  


“My god,” you are probably thinking to yourself.  “An Operational Learning facilitator facilitating Operational Learning? How interesting!"


You're right, that’s probably not all that interesting, eh?  But here’s where this story begins to take a bit more shape.


On the side of “something not great has happened, come help!” within that mixed bag – you know, those post event learning teams – something strange happens to me. A very small handful of times every year when I get that first “come help” call, and they read to me a high-level description of the event, do you know what the first thing that pops into my head is?


It sounds a little something like this: 


“My God, who in their right mind…”


“No one would do that!”

"You're pulling my leg, right?"




And many other variants of “WTF?!”

We know what that’s called; that’s called being a human.

Human & Organizational Performance is so much about what we do, but how we think about things.

That’s the human condition in a nutshell, huh? 

My brain onboards very limited information – a nearly microscopic amount of information, really – and it filters it down through my biases, assumptions, and pre-conceived notions, and leads me to near instantly place judgment on those involved. 


I don’t know these people…

I don’t know the situation…

I don’t know the context…

I don’t know the event…

Hell, sometimes I don’t even know the organization…


I have no clue.


But what does my brain spit out? Judgement!


My inherently flawed brain within a split second spits out a chunky stew chocked full of:


“How could they…”“

"Why would they…”

“They should have...”

“They could have…”


And, of course, “I would never…” 


Mmmm, yummy judgment chowder!


Now, I pretty quickly snap out of that line of thinking and move towards far more interesting things – leaning into curiosity and learning – but it happens from time to time. 

Of course it does!  It happens to you, it happens to me, it happens to all of us every now and again.  We are all just humans, after all.  We are so human that you might even be thinking “I would never” at this very moment, judging the very human reactions I just shared.


What’s the point?  In every one of those cases - no matter how wacky or wonky things seemed on the surface – once we truly dig into the “real deal” story, once we discover operational reality, I can see myself making same or similar decisions if presented with the same or similar context. 


We learn so very much that we develop what is commonly referred to in the greater HOP community (credited to Bob Edwards and Andrea Baker as far as I’m aware) as “Industrial Empathy.” 


We understand how it made sense.

We can see ourselves in their shoes.

Really, we’ve tapped into operational reality; we have been taught the story of normal work.


Now, at this point in our story, I feel that we should touch on the primary goal of operational learning. Here is a full article on just that subject if you are looking for one. Anyhoo, here is a quick recap. The goal of operational learning is to gain an understanding of operational reality.  That is a fancy way of saying that the goal of operational learning is to learn about normal work. 

Let’s declutter that goal just a bit more; the goal of operational learning is to learn.  Full stop.   


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.


Back to our primary question of “how do I know that I’ve learned enough?”  For me, the best answer to that question lives in these two things – learning about lived operational reality and the development of industrial empathy along the way.


As we have already established, I do not believe there is a sexy, slick, easy answer here.  However, I do believe that if we have learned, and if we have developed industrial empathy along the way, then we are in the right spot.  If “I have learned so, so very much that I can easily see myself in their shoes,” then I can confidently say that we are exactly where we should be.     


Where do I search for the answer to our question?  What is my “indicator of success” for our operational learning endeavors?


Right there.

Did we learn?  Did we tap into the raw and real story of work?

Did we discover industrial empathy? Can I see myself making same or similar choices when presented with same or similar operational reality?

I took a moment to ask our 9-year old daughter this exact question relating to here school work while writing this article. Her response was this:

"When it makes sense!"

She nailed it. Ah, the wisdom of a child!

To me, thats the best answer we can discover... "It makes sense."

That's as close to answering that question - "how do I know that we've learning enough?" - as I think we can probably get.

No matter how wacky, weird, odd, or strange it seemed (before we learned), we can now see how it makes or made sense to those involved (because it totally did/does) or they wouldn't have done it (or be continuing to do it).


Meet the Author

Pictured is Sam Goodman, a world renowned Human & Organizational Performance (HOP) consultant and learning team facilitator.

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 consultancy focused on human & organizational performance and operational learning.

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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