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When you hear ‘learning curve’, you’re probably thinking it means – how fast can you learn something. And there’s a built-in assumption – that once you’ve got it, you won’t forget it. Once you as an individual learn something, you won’t forget. Once your company and the team you work with learn something, you won’t forget it. Well, not necessarily so. Events can occur that lay waste to efforts to learn new processes, and new skill sets. We’ll identify these negative events, and suggest how to mitigate their impact. Note, the guidance in this post applies equally to projects and the operational side of the business.

Learning Curves and Processes

Many companies (unfortunately not all, I have found) maintain accurate documentation of their processes and methods, for their project and operational activities. As the teams repeat these processes and gain more experience with them, the expectation is that the cost, resources, and time required to perform these processes will decrease. This is the premise behind the Learning Curve (or Progress Functions), applicable to both people and organizations. It has been observed in practice where repetitive processes exist, as far back as the 1930’s where it was heavily documented in aerospace manufacturing. Basically, as we obtain more experience reusing existing processes, costs decrease – right? Or, is your answer “I don’t know”, or “No”? Is it really just theory then?

Let’s review some  fundamentals, conditions that must be in place to obtain Learning Curve benefits, and how to identify causes behind loss or lack of learning and what to do about them.

Interpreting a Real Live Learning Curve

LearningCurve Figure 1

Learning curves reflect a reduction in direct labour or cost as the number of units delivered increases.  Figure 1 shows an 85% learning curve (click on the diagram to see a larger image). Each time the number of units produced doubles, direct labour or cost is reduced by 15%. Beyond the 64th unit, the hours required start to level off.

Benefits do not happen by accident!

There are some conditions behind these results:

1) Best practices are identified

2) Best practices are documented

3) Best practices are communicated throughout the organization, and

4) Best practices are applied consistently (on each project, on each operation).

Learning curve benefits are not guaranteed. Practice does not make perfect – “perfect practice makes perfect”. A quick question: can you locate the project management or operational ‘best practices’ documentation in your organization? Are they applied consistently?

“Not to worry. We are managing our costs as well as anyone else,” you may say.  Surprise! Most likely, your costs were going down and may now be going up because of ‘other factors’ at work.

LearningCurve Figure 2

When Learning Takes a Holiday or Regresses

The Learning Curve in Figure 2 shows learning not only stopped but regressed, as the organization or individual returned to earlier levels. “But I followed the conditions,” you might argue. “What happened?” Change, that’s what happened.

A closer look at best practices required to achieve Learning Curve benefits include:

  • Personnel are trained and retained.
  • Processes and technology remain relatively unchanged.
  • Time is provided to deliver within quality specifications.
  • The Work Environment remains relatively stable and effort and energy are committed to best practices.

What happens when these factor are missing:

  • Personnel – Resignations and downsizing result in learning walking out the door and a ‘hiccup’ in the learning curve. Note: this will impact many organizations, as an unfortunate consequence of downsizing due to the recent economic crisis.
  • Process and technology standards – a change can render past learning useless. Retraining is required. Time to deliver increases; costs increase.
  • Time – reducing available time usually causes quality to suffer. And rather than the ‘desired’ beneficial learning, coping and firefighting behaviour may evolve, and sadly, more highly rewarded.
  • Work Environment – Re-organizations, inadequate tools can sap energy required for the application, monitoring and control of best practices.

Many of these assumptions are also interdependent. As you replace team members with new personnel, as you downsize then re-engage, the work environment changes. New personnel require training, time to adapt, and consequently, the project will require more time to deliver.

figure 3

How then, can you remedy your specific situation? A Cause and Effect analysis for Learning Has Stopped (Figure 3) will provide insight. Many of the stated causes can potentially be behind your situation.

What happens when change is constant?

LearningCurve Figure 4

Figure 4 shows a scenario where an organization or individual encounters change on a regular basis. An elongated sawtooth pattern emerges. Learn, unlearn, learn, unlearn, etc. Considering the pace of change today, this happens in many organizations. In some industries, it is worse than others.  Consider project management in the IT field. Constantly changing software tools (C++, Java, BI, ERP), delivery environments (mainframe, PCs, web) have historically produced the sawtooth pattern. And with Web2.0, SaaS, Cloud Computing, Virtualization, smart phones, etc. this will continue. The ability to estimate accurately becomes a challenge. Projects take the hit on missed deadlines, increased costs, descoping or reduced quality.

Getting the most from your Learning Curve

So in the midst of this sea of chaos (mild, or otherwise), what can you do to better your competition with regards to making your projects and operations successful and maximizing benefits gained from learning curve experience?

  • identify, document, communicate and consistently apply your best practices.
  • invest in revisiting your best practices
  • be selective in implementing change. Consider how that change will impact your project management learning curve. Strive to identify value in implementing the change.
  • accept there will always be change and we will be continuously learning and relearning.

Happy learning! And, do you have any ‘learning curve’ experiences to share?

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