Creating a new and inspirational learning culture through the introduction of AAR

BACKGROUND

iTS_Logo_Black_Pant376Our client, the UKI affiliate of a multi-national healthcare organisation, wanted to create a new culture of continuous learning which they realised was needed to address customer needs in todays ever changing  healthcare market. Against a backdrop of increasing complexity and downward cost pressures, new ways of working were certainly required in order to be successful and the best way to achieve this was to embed continuous and versatile learning to create much greater agility and responsiveness that would make them THE respected, trusted and chosen partner of their customers.

This organisation is a strong matrix corporation with global business units (verticals) supported by functions (horizontals) on a local and regional basis. They adopted the After Action Review (AAR) as a means to ensure that they learned from both their regional experiences in one business unit or function, as well as sharing this learning across the whole organisation for greater application and utility.

AAR is a simple process used by teams to capture the lessons learned from past successes and failures, with the goal of improving future performance. The attraction of AAR to this Company was the simplicity of the process and the speed with which the transfer of learning could be achieved.

An AAR requires a trained facilitator, ideally one not involved in the event under review, who takes the group through the process and very importantly, holds the group to account for several ground rules.  Often the most challenging is to ensure that the focus of the review is about learning within a safe environment where there is no blame laid at anyone’s door nor any comeback if something has fallen short of expectations.  To overcome this, the Company ensured that the UK Leadership Team were among those first trained as facilitators, both improving their understanding and demonstrating their commitment to the process.

ACTION

In order to truly embed this powerful learning tool across the Company, they decided to conduct AAR cascade training across the local organisation.  In addition to the 32 facilitators that were trained, a further less intensive employee programme was developed so that each employee should be an AAR ambassador and able to conduct an AAR simply and informally as part of their everyday business.  If an event or project was more complex or significant, then one of the trained facilitators could be called upon.  It was important that people knew not only how to call for an AAR but also when to call one and how to behave during one.

In total over 250 people have been trained in the AAR process so far in the UK, within this Company.

RESULT

This Company now has a Sharepoint that all UK employees can access which records the key learnings of AAR’s.  Learnings are kept succinct and so are quickly and easily identifiable.  All major projects have an AAR after every key milestone and at the end of the project.   The AAR process has now attracted attention from Europe and UK facilitators have already been asked to run sessions outside the UK as it is deemed such a great process and supports several of the global core values and competencies.

Employees who have participated in AAR’s report that they are encouraged by how effective AAR is.  They know they can be honest without fear of blame and recognise that the purpose is for this Company to learn from events that went well and those that went less well.  They see how the process makes them more effective as an organisation as a whole and move faster to implement beneficial changes.  It is still early days in the implementation of AAR but they see its potential having a really positive impact on their customers and the level of service and partnership they provide.  They also see it brings opportunities to employees for their own personal development, particularly around constructive challenge and a continuous improvement mindset.  Rather than walking away from problems, their culture is now to walk towards them.

I learned about leading from: Those NAAFI breaks

Break

NAAFI Break 1941

I vividly recall that many years ago, I was allowed to accompany my father to work.  It was a time when we had a different attitude towards risk assessments, liability, litigation and common sense and after being shown around the vehicle park, I was dropped off with one of the Plant Operators and allowed to climb on, over and generally explore how several JCB’s and other mechanical plant vehicles worked – this included driving them around the car park and so on.  I also clearly remember how at 9.55am, I was told to park the vehicle, turn it off because “It’s NAAFI break at 10am.”  The NAAFI was the Navy, Army, Air Force Institute established in 1921 to provide canteens and recreational support to the Forces and during the Second World War had over 7,000 canteens across the world providing a not for profit service to servicemen and women.  Although it changed over time, it became synonymous amongst other things with the provision of a canteen and tea and cakes and NAAFI became shorthand for all things associated with a tea break.

My instructor and I then strode purposefully to the canteen area and I was handed a mug of tea and invited to sit on one of the many sofas and comfy chairs that were arranged in circles around the room and for the next 30 minutes the room was full of talking, laughter, reminders, catch-ups and tales of what had gone before.

Wind forward some 15 years or so and I joined my Regiment to discover that every day had a NAAFI break programmed.  The Officers would go to their Mess for coffee, the Warrant Officers, Colour Sergeants and Sergeants would go to their Mess for tea and toast, and the remainder of the Battalion would go to their Company clubs or the NAAFI building for whatever took their fancy (a brew or can of pop and something to eat (sweet or otherwise)).  Even if we were on the vehicle park and too far away from the Messes to go, we would down tools, stop work for half an hour and have a brew together whenever the mobile shop (known as the NAAFI wagon) came around.

Everywhere that I have worked since, we have tried to ensure that we have a daily NAAFI break.  When, I was lucky enough to command my Regiment, my Regimental Sergeant Major would come in to the office at about 9.50am and ask me if I was going for coffee.  It was a rather loaded question and his expectation that I should was clear.  We even managed to stop for tea when on operations, including when we were living out of our vehicles in the desert.

So, why am I telling you about how many brews I have drunk over my lifetime (and it is a lot)?  Because those NAAFI breaks were a fantastic blend of so many things that Dan Coyle highlights as key to the culture that underpins high performing teams:  it allows “collisions” (defined as serendipitous personal encounters) to take place, it enables back-channel and side channel conversations, it enables high levels of mixing (the senior and junior members of a various departments meet very regularly), people sit in circles, pouring and collecting drinks enable small attentive courtesies, allows for close physical proximity, unstructured agenda free conversations, and so on, and without realising its power, we had institutionalised it.  I genuinely believe that when we have all been “too busy” to give up the 30 – 40 minutes that it takes, we have suffered, we have been less situationally aware, taken longer to do stuff because it has taken e-mails or conferences to address issues, and above all, have been less connected.

teabreakSo, I challenge you, I dare you even!  If only just for a week to see what happens, get your team together for a NAAFI break!  Have regular collision breaks and get the team involved but don’t turn them into agenda led meetings over a coffee, just let them flow, – it’s much more productive and much better for the team than trying to connect by conference call and e-mail alone. I recognise that it can be difficult in these times of remote working, flexible hours and geographically spread teams but all of these excuses and “obstacles” are exactly why we need to do it.

Remember, leaders look after the health of their team, so you are the people who can make it happen.  Do it and you will enjoy profit and smiles. After all, iTS Leadership.

~Author: Tim Sandiford

I learned about leading from: That family walk

Antony family walkThis Easter weekend I managed to drag my three teenage(+) boys out of bed to do a lovely long country walk in the Kent countryside.  When we arrived at the village start point, I parked the car, turned and handed the walking book to one of them: “why do I have to do it?” was the rather typical moody response I received, to which I replied that he didn’t but between them they could lead the way today.

The next 20 minutes was hilarious to be honest

  • They all had a look at the book and looked perplexed
  • They couldn’t work out where we were and therefore which direction to head
  • They kept trying to hand the book back
  • We walked up and down the road a couple of times
  • My wife got a little stressed and pleaded with me to take-over
  • The eldest then took authority and we headed off in a certain direction

One of the first instructions was “100 meters north of the intersection of road x with road y, there is a playing field with a way-marker for Green Sands Way, take this across the field to a gap in the hedge”

Antony famil walk2We headed north and after a very few steps there was a footpath indicated to the left.  “This is probably it” said the lead.  It was pointed out that this may not be 100m, that just in front of us was a “caution children” sign and “Recreation Ground” written underneath, that “maybe this might be a clue?”  ….but heads and hearts were determined to follow the signed footpath.

What followed continued to be amusing.  It was determined this wasn’t a recreation ground, that we should take another path north and so ended up in a housing estate and then doing a complete circuit to about 80m north of where we left the main road to a sign post saying…….. Green Sand Way!!!  Which pointed across a recreation ground and to a gap in the hedge!!  Off we trotted and for the remainder of the 7 miles we kept pretty much on track.

So, what’s the point and what has THIS got to do with leadership?

In this day and age I am always stuck by how everyone wants a “quick fix”.  Our kids have grown up with computer and TV programmes which give instant acknowledgement and gratification: “well done!”  People seek the magic bullet fitness or fat loss pill.  Wannabe stars would rather head for X Factor, The Voice or Britain’s Got Talent for an instant success rather than working their way up.  People seek to win their fortunes on the Lottery or sadly even, through litigation.  Sometimes it appears that if results are not instantly obvious we should look elsewhere.

Sadly, we hear this behaviour creeping into corporate cultures also.  Plans are written, milestones outlined and measurements put in place to track progress.  The pressure from above to deliver over and above expectation can be quite overwhelming and sometimes when we see “a result” the temptation under such pressure can be to interpret that as “the result” and in doing so we may then head in the wrong direction.

“We headed for “a footpath” even though it wasn’t labelled correctly”

Antony family walk3In our walk we headed for “a footpath” even though it wasn’t labelled correctly nor matched the description of “the footpath”…and the time and effort we wasted following that could never be regained.

The leadership challenge I therefore see is; how often is it actually better to sit tight and continue in the direction we are heading, comfortable in the knowledge that we will know for sure when we need to change direction and try something new?  How confident are we and should we be, when challenged by others, to calm things down and keep on ahead?

Under pressure from others we can let our THINKING overrule our WISDOM, when the noise in our head is more overpowering than the feeling in our gut.  Look back at your own performance, when have you been right?

After all….iTS Leadership!

~Author: Antony Tinker