Increasing Productivity means all of us Learning to Learn better

Attracting enough people into our industry might feel like a big enough challenge in itself, but even if we solve this, other equally important challenges will remain. We have to “learn to learn” so much better!
If we really want to transform the public perception and reputation of our industry we have to become an industry that openly shares not only our best practice but also how we learn from our mistakes – only then will we collectively learn and improve our industry as a whole.

When it was originally proposed in my own business that we would externally share our STOP Think! Cascade (formally an internal safety and learning briefing) with our customers, our suppliers and our “competitors,” many thought we had completely lost the plot!! However, the response from the wider industry community has been truly invigorating. Over the last year the publication has attracted close to 200,000 page views and readership numbers continue to increase by personal request.

I would like to think that the decision we took “to air our dirty washing in public” has saved a life somewhere in the UK. All the initial perceived fears of going public and telling people “we got it wrong” have completely evaporated.

On a wider scale I was fortunate to hear an inspirational presentation from Matthew Syed – writer for “The Times”, and respected author of titles such as “Black Box Thinking.”

Matthew made an argument to revolutionise how we think about success by changing our attitude to failure and highlighting the damage caused by the growth of the blame culture in Britain and America. He provided examples of the contrast between different approaches to learning from failure across various industries that prompted me to consider where our own industry sits.

In one particular example Mathew highlighted the contrast in the learning cultures between Aviation and Health. In both these important industries safety is critical, just like our own industry.  I will simplify the example enormously but for those of you who are interested, I would really encourage you to look at Matthew’s work.

Firstly, the aviation industry is driven by a culture of growth and continuous improvement. The data and learning from their mistakes is openly shared throughout the industry and across the world.  Often the improvements are very marginal changes BUT the benefit to the “air passenger” is enormous.  In an inherently risky industry there is something like only one crash for every 8.3 million commercial airline take-offs.

Contrast this with Health. Data published by the Journal of Patient Safety in the US implies 400,000 people in Healthcare do not survive due to what could be described as avoidable clinical mistakes!  Mathew highlighted that is the equivalent of two Jumbo jets crashing every day or a 9/11 occurring every 3 days.  So why such negative statistics and is there an obvious difference in their approach to learning and continuous improvement, clearly the answer is YES!

Healthcare is not short of talent, healthcare attracts high achievers, dedicated professionals that go through an intensive and comprehensive training programme considered second to none. Yet creating a perception of “experts” contradicts an open mind-set to potential fallibility.  A belief that simply experts cannot be wrong!

Combine this with a high blame culture and the sensitive working environment this fundamentally deters the health industry from analysing any information from mistakes and applying the learning from them. Typically errors get badged as “just one of those complications!”

Imagine what aviation’s approach would be to the same set of data. The aviators would have mined the data, identified root causes, created improved systems and process.  But most importantly they will have shared that learning with other healthcare organisations to ensure future patients would not suffer the same fate!

So I leave this subject with this simple thought:-

“Where do you think our industry is” on the scale of cultural learning between Aviation and Health and what are we going to do about it?

Mathew Syed’s address was one of the best and most thought provoking presentation’s I have attended. On reflection, I concluded that the solution to creating a step change in productivity and safety for our own industry is consequently a very simple one – We must learn to learn like aviators!

Richard King is a Director at Osborne and Chairman of CECA Southern.