Research Highlight: An Analysis of CPULD as a Learning Organization
A learning organization is an entity that is constantly engaging their members with innovative practices, transferring knowledge effectively, and being able to adapt to the unpredictable faster than their competitors. It can be described as one in which the people taking part in it continually expand their capacity to create the results that they want, where creativity is fostered, and where people continually improve their team learning performance. Graduate students Nicolas Navarro and Yu Yang Huang conducted a continuous improvement project that looked at the current practices at two of the units at the Center for Packaging and Unit Load Design (CPULD) with Garvin’s assessment tool and with the disciplines from Peter Senge. The basic question investigated was “what are the enablers and the inhibitors that affect the learning processes/culture at CPULD?”
Rapid technological, cultural, and political changes on a global scale put pressure on organizations to innovate in order to tackle the increasing complexity of the global environment. These changes require organizations to constantly evaluate themselves in order to be aware of whether or not their organization’s structure and culture is adequate to face the challenges of a rapidly changing world. Understanding the current culture in a learning organization enables the identification of practices and behaviors that are contributing to the success of the organization, so that they can be strengthened. It also helps in identifying behaviors and practices that are preventing the organization from achieving greater success and from adapting to a changing environment, so that concrete actions can be proposed to improve organizational performance. The methodology used to understand CPULD in this context is shown in Image 2.
Garvin’s assessment tool is a method used to show whether teams are learning and how that learning is benefitting the organization. It consists of three building blocks that Garvin believed are needed for creating a successful learning organization: a supportive environment, concrete learning processes, and leadership that reinforces learning. The supportive learning environment block tries to determine whether the employees feel safe disagreeing with others, asking naive questions, owning up to mistakes, and presenting minority viewpoints. The concrete learning processes block evaluates if a team or company has formal processes for generating, collecting, interpreting, and disseminating information. It also examines if the team or company has a process of gathering intelligence on competitors, customers, and technology. The leadership that reinforces learning block evaluates if the organization’s leaders demonstrate: a willingness to entertain alternative viewpoints; signal the importance of spending time on problem identification, knowledge transfer, and reflection; and engage in active questioning and listening.
This project also used the five disciplines of Peter Senge to analyze CPULD. First there is personal mastery, which refers to having individuals in the organization who have the desire and capacity to learn and grow. Next is team learning, which are the processes by which these individuals develop shared goals and work together to reach them. Mental models refer to the deeply internal images that people hold about how the world works. This affects organizations when individuals aren’t able to behave in productive ways due to their fundamental assumptions about the world, causing them to have conflict with each other and not be open to creativity. On the other hand, systems thinking is when individuals are able to understand complex structures and phenomena as a functioning whole. Instead of trying to solve a problem, this helps people recognize that the problem is only a symptom of a larger, overarching issue. Being able to correctly identify these interrelationships and to conceive specific, targeted actions to treat the whole is essential systems thinking for successful problem solving in an organization. Finally, a shared vision is the end goal that a leader establishes and guides his team to work towards together. It’s essential for a learning organization to have this since, when individuals make it their personal goal to meet the organizations goals, it becomes a shared vision and will provide focus and energy for learning.
Garvin’s assessment was used to analyze CPULD from the perspective of a learning organization by collecting information from the members regarding the current practices surrounding the learning environment, processes, and leadership. In order to identify characteristics that support the idea of a learning organization and those that run contrary to it, this project evaluated the current practices of the organization based on Senge’s disciplines. Garvin’s assessment and Senge’s disciplines were both applied to two different units (the pallet lab and the corrugated lab) within CPULD through the application of an assessment questionnaire and a qualitative, open-ended questionnaire, respectively. Once responses were obtained, they were analyzed separately and compared to each other. The answers were combined and summarized (Image 3) using many of the same keywords as Senge’s disciplines.
It was found that the organization has good structured procedures in place to rapidly include new members in the organization’s goals: there are training camps, explicit focus on hands-on approaches, and leadership that enhances learning capacity among individuals. Everyone felt that customized testing performed in both lab units allows for the people working in the organization to be more creative, launch experiments, and be open to new ideas. The corrugated lab unit got high marks in communication, with individuals stating that this unit often engages in productive debates and discussions, and is always looking at the underlying issues and not just the current problem. This unit also quickly and accurately communicates all knowledge to all personnel levels. The pallet lab unit offers time for overall discussion and reflection after projects are complete.
One important issue found by these assessments is a lower than desired psychological safety score, which the pallet lab unit obtained on the first questionnaire and was supported by low results in the open-ended questions as well. It is important to address this issue, given the significance that open communication and the willingness of people to express their ideas have on creativity, new ideas, and the overall performance of an organization. These results indicate that some members of the pallet lab unit might be afraid to speak up and that they, as a group, perceive a lack of communication between management and others in the organization.
These results made evident the differences that exist between the Corrugated Laboratory unit and the Pallet Laboratory unit. This project concluded that these differences are largely explained by the size of the units. The corrugated lab only has two hierarchy levels: undergraduate interns and upper management. The pallet lab, on the other hand, has four hierarchy levels: undergraduate interns, graduate students (managers), managing director, and director. By its very nature, having this many levels in the pallet lab’s chain of command makes it hard to communicate important information down the levels.
This study’s suggestions for bettering CPULD’s assessment scores include the following:
- Establish incentive mechanisms that invite members of the organization to offer suggestions for improving processes (and/or offer an anonymous way for these suggestions to be made by those not comfortable with speaking up publicly).
- Have regular pre-project meetings with all staff, up and down the chain of command, to explain the overall purpose and value of the upcoming project.
- Better utilize the technological devices in the labs to communicate valuable information such as upcoming deadlines, safety reminders, etc.
Overall, the results obtained in this study regarding education, training, and experimentation reaffirm the effectiveness of the efforts that the CPULD has taken over the years to engage its students in learning processes through training and research by means of team building activities, certification trainings, and research projects in the laboratory, all with a focus on experiential, hands-on learning.