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Starting Points for Pre-Event Operational Learning

In most of our organizations, we do a pretty good job of learning after an operational surprise occurs.  After that thing catches on fire, after that piece of equipment malfunctions, after the line backs up and our precious product is poured all over the production floor, or after someone gets hurt. When things go wrong, very wrong, we typically do a decent job of learning. 

We have mechanisms in place for such events.  We have formal incident investigation processes, we have every post-event analysis tool under the sun, we even ask “why,” and we ask it five magical times!

While I typically prefer to use Learning Teams – involving and empowering those nearest to the work – to learn post-operational surprise, even in more forward thinking and mature organizations that use operational learning methods such as Learning Teams we still seem to struggle with pre-event, pre-surprise, pre-injury learning.

Why?  Pre-event learning opportunities are not as visible or apparent as their post-event counterparts. 

It’s easy to see where we should learn after something surprising and disappointing occurs – it’s easy to see where we should have learned and improved once those faint signals have grown loud. 

“I want to invest into pre-event learning, but where do I start?” 

Let's start here:

A few questions that will help you discover opportunities to operationally learn, pre-event:

  • Where is it really easy to make a mistake?

  • Where is it easy to get something wrong, and hard to get right?

  • Around our areas of critical risk, where are we overly operator dependent (areas where we depend on people to get it 100% right, 100% of the time, for bad things not to occur)?

  • Where do the rules not work or make little sense?

  • What are we really great at? Why is that?

  • Where do things feel like they are nearing failure

  • And many, many more....

Here's a quick guide for Operationally Curious Questions:

Operationally Curious Questions (2)
Download PDF • 1.66MB

Obviously, I want to encourage you to scribble out your thoughts on these.  Obviously, I want to encourage you to think up even better questions to seek out starting points for pre-event learning within your organization.  But, and most important of all, I don’t want you to stop there.  I don’t want you to stop with only your thoughts and assumptions, I want you to go learn more.  These are simply a place to start, hence the whole “starting points” bit.

Remember, operational reality lives nearest to the work, so that’s where you need to go.  Go learn from those nearest to the work - be curious and explore!  You’ll likely discover some real and realistic  ideas for improvement relating to your response to the questions above.  You’re also very likely to discover pre-event learning opportunities - these starting points - you could have never dreamed up on your own. 

If you want to get better at pre-event learning, Learning Explorations are a great place to start.

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

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 60 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 learn even more, and 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…

Deliberately expand your learning efforts

We seem to get stuck on outcome, severity or potential severity of outcome in particular. We almost exclusively focus on learning efforts on unintended operational surprises - after something bad happens, or after something bad nearly happens.  Those can be good places to learn, but we must think beyond them.      

Of course, we’ll learn after that injury, of course we’ll learn after that equipment fails or after that thing catches fire, of course.  These are loud and obvious starting points for deeper learning.  But there are so many more places to start – pain points, problems, migraine generators, interesting successes.      

Here's an easy visual:

Human & Organizational Performance starting points for pre-event learning slide

Rather than pouring all our time and resources into exclusively learning more about the anomalies of our work worlds – events and near events – pre-event learning moves us towards seeking to understand more about normal, everyday, usually successful work.  Really, we’re learning more about how work usually goes well, and how it occasionally goes wrong, rather than just learning after something goes wrong.         

Lastly, I want to leave you with this thought around prioritizing pre-event operational learning. We must value it and prioritize it just as much - if not more - as we prioritize post-event learning.

A great way to demonstrate that? Give people the time, space, ability, and authority to operationally learn pre-event.

Give people room in their work to be curious and operationally learn, and they are pretty likely to do it.

Human and Organizational Performance Consultant (HOP) and Learning Teams

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.

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