HOP, Operational Learning, and Learning Teams

HOP and Learning Image

Here’s another episode from our series of thought leaders on various issues related to training, safety, safety training, organizational theory, and more.

In this one, we’re going to talk with “The HOP Coach,” Bob Edwards. Bob will tell us what Human & Organizational Performance, or HOP is, he’ll tell us about increasing operational learning and using learning teams, and he’ll share his own experiences with all this.

Before we begin, we’d like to thank Bob for taking the time and sharing his knowledge so freely. We think you’ll enjoy this one.

We’ve got the recorded video for you immediately below. Or, if you’re the type of guy or gal who’d prefer to read, we took the time to type up the transcript, so just click the MORE button in that case.


Human Organizational Performance (HOP), Operational Learning, and Learning Teams

Let’s get right into the interview with Bob Edwards below.

Convergence Training: Good morning, everybody. This is Jeff Dalto, Senior Learning & Development Specialist with Convergence Training, and this is another episode of our semi-regular podcast/webcast series.

We’re really excited today, we’ve got Bob Edwards with us. Bob is a Human and Organization Performance, or HOP, coach with his own business called The HOP Coach. I’m going to introduce Bob now and ask Bob to tell us more about himself and his experiences with Human and Organizational Performance and what he does.

Bob Edwards: Alright, thanks, Jeff. I appreciate your having me on this series.

So I’m an engineer and I’ve worked for several different companies, and when I was working for a major company about seven years ago, I met Todd Conklin as he was introducing HOP to our company, and at that time, I was actually working in a safety role.

I got really intrigued by this, because I saw HOP (or Human and Organizational Performance) as sort of a holistic look at all this stuff we’re doing–because I’m not a safety professional, I’m an engineer, I just happened to be working a few years in safety. But I found it interesting–I find a lot of things interesting.

And during this HOP conversation, I realized, wow, there’s a lot more about operations, they gave us a chance to look at when we have safety issues and quality issues, and most of the times when we’re having safety issues or quality issues, they’re not really safety or quality issues, they’re operational issues. And I’m an operations guy, I like to make stuff, I’m a manufacturer, and so I realized, wow, this is a good, healthy way to look at stuff.

It moves us away from blaming employees and helps us look more at the system. We want workers to do the best they can, but workers are workers, right? We all make mistakes.

So I really liked the conversation (about HOP). And then, as you may or may not know, I’m known for doing these learning teams, which is when people gather in collaboration to really try to solve things and make things better (something we do a lot after events), and that’s what Todd Conklin started me off with almost seven years ago. And I really, really like it, so I just started doing it a bunch. And I did it so much that I decided, when the company I worked for sold the division I worked for, I stepped out on my own over three years ago.

Side note: Although this article focuses on HOP and Learning Teams, it’s interesting to note that Bob’s career change and interest in HOP is representative of the traits of a lifelong learner (congrats to Bob). Read more about lifelong learning and learning to learn here.

Introduction to HOP

Convergence Training: Alright, great. So you touched on a lot of things I’m about to ask you about in more detail shortly.

I wonder if you can explain for those who are not familiar what Human & Organizational Performance or HOP is, how people refer to it by different but similar terms, such as Safety Differently, New Safety, and Safety II, and in particular if you could discuss each of the following:

  • The view of the employee
  • The relationship of the employee and manager
  • The role of learning

Bob Edwards: So HOP…like you said, some people call it Human Performance or Safety II or Safety Differently, but HOP is just really what we’re all doing. It’s human AND organizational performance. It’s not HP, it’s both, it’s the human and organization.

So I like that term…I mean, I like all the terms, HP is fine, Safety Differently, but for me, being more Operations focused, very quickly this conversation moves beyond just safety to quality…a lot of Deming’s work is built into what we’re trying to do here. He was trying to teach this stuff back in the 1960s, I guess. So to me, it’s a little more about overall operations, it definitely has a lot to do with safety, a lot to do with quality, it has a lot to do with worker struggles and worker challenges.

And then seeing the worker, you may have heard this, you might say this all the time, the worker is not the problem we need to solve [inaudible]…they’re working in a challenging environment and doing a pretty good job of it, and so when bad things happen or nearly happen, don’t go after them so quickly, right? Let’s look more at the system.

We need management on board from the very beginning of this conversation. Because if management is still looking for that head on a platter, so to speak, then it’s hard to have that open conversation. If I want the workers to talk to me and tell me the real deal, what they really were doing and how it really goes out there, the challenges they face and the things they have to do to get things done, then I also have to tell them it’s safe to talk. And in order for it to be safe to talk, management has to be OK with whatever we learn.

It doesn’t mean we have to leave it like that, but we have to be able to hear the message in order to receive the message.

Convergence Training: Great, you touched on the view of the employee, the relationship of the employee and management, and learning.

Bob Edwards: And I think this helps us break Taylorism (scientific management). Taylorism has been around since, what, 1911 or so, or before that. That whole idea that the manager knows and the worker just needs to go do, and even though now we may say “Oh, we don’t do that,” those overtones, that sort of feeling, is very prevalent. Taylorism is alive and well, right? The idea that the manager is the smart one, and the worker to be trained, follow procedures, and do what they are told to do. If they would JUST follow procedures, we wouldn’t have these bad things happen. They are not seeing the worker as a problem solver; they see the worker more as a problem.

Operational Learning and Learning Teams

Convergence Training: Great. So you told me you’d like to come in today and talk about two things in particular, which I think is a perfect segue from what you just said. The first was operational learning, and the second was learning teams, which is something you help people learn how to conduct, and I wonder if before we dive deep into each of those individually, if you could tell us what those two things mean: operational learning and learning teams….you know, what are they and why would I do them, and we can get into how a little bit later.

Bob Edwards: OK, whenever I saw operational learning, I mean any method, any way to open the conversation up and learn how does work actually get done.

We talk about the black line & blue line. It’s a modification of what the [INAUDIBLE] guys did. They had a model with a straight line that represents the plan and then there’s a drift line from the plan….

[the image below may help readers visualize this]

black and blue line worker performance

…we’ve drawn that because, for us, in general industry, it seems to be more black line is the plan, and then there’s the blue line, which goes above and below and above and below, right? So it’s way more about variability for us than it is about drifting from the plan.

The more we look at this, we don’t believe our plan is perfect. We used to. We used to think, “Well, I’ve got standard work, and if people just follow standard work, we’re fine,” and now we’re realizing that standard work doesn’t capture variability worth a crap.

What does a worker deal with? They deal with variability all day long. Right? The best of Six Sigma doesn’t get rid of all variability. The work that these guys have to do!

So operational learning is anything I can do to unlock that blue line (work as performed). It can be through just going out there and hanging out and talking to people, it can be going out and working side-by-side with him (“you show me how hard your work is”), it can be a learning team, or it can be just a method.

People like it because it takes the place of an incident investigation, if you will. I don’t do investigations. I help companies that are doing investigations, but I don’t like to do investigations because in most cases, they feel a lot like an interrogation. And so I have kind of moved away from that personally. I know people may still call them investigations, and I get that, but I really like this notion of “let’s not separate people out, let’s not get witness statements.” Those are all criminal-type things, for me anyway. Somebody may be ale to do that really well. I know from the worker’s point of view, they don’t really like to be investigated. But they LOVE to be involved in helping to unlock the story and make things better.

So a learning team is a way to do that. It’s a method. There are a few basic guidelines that we have around learning teams that seem to work really well. We’re always open to improvements. Even my training deck demo is on revision 75! I’ve been doing this for six years, and as I learn new things, I keep changing it and molding it, but there are a few key things around learning teams that we can talk about in a few minutes.

Side note: Check out the book “Better” by Atul Gawande for an interesting look at getting better at work.

In general, a learning team is pulling a few people together, with a little bit of structure, and unlocking that blue line, really being comfortable, and then they also help us make it better. I have to say “solve,” I don’t know if we ever solve anything, but we can certainly improve it, kaizen it, right, make it better. And something else happens. really cool, Jeff, I think it’s restorative.

Let’s say you and I are working together on a team. I screw something up–I break it, or maybe I do something that harms you, right? So, first of all, you’re hurt, and [Sidney] Dekker talks about the second person is the person who messed up. So I messed up. Now, if you just punish me and put me in time out or fire me, what did we fix? Unless I did it on purpose–if I hurt you on purpose, then you should fire me, right? But that’s not what I did–I made a mistake. And so if I can help my organization, leadership, and my fellow workers understand what’s going on, why it made sense to me, what I was doing, but if I can ALSO help to make it better and improve it, then there’s restoration for me. There’s restoration for the organization, and there’s restoration for the person.

Convergence Training: Right. And to borrow a word from someone else, you’re then creating a just safety culture.

Bob Edwards: Yeah, that’s interesting, I was just going to say that. A lot of times we hear “What’s forward accountability versus rearward accountability?” And that’s hard for people to grasp, sometimes. And here’s what hits me–once again, I’m not a consultant, I just do this a bunch, and so I kind of learn as I go, and of course I’m learning from everybody else, reading everything I can, but also I do this a whole bunch. But I’m sort of realizing is that accountability turns into this: if we mess up, if you and I mess something up, well then we’ve got to help make it better. There’s accountability.

If the manager has not given us what we need to do our job, then he or she is accountable too. They’ve got to make sure I actually have the tools. I say this all the time: “There’s only one reason a maintenance guy puts a pipe on a breaker bar.” It’s NOT to break the rule. It’s because he needs more leverage, right? He needs a better mechanical advantage.

So, if we can help make this safer and better, than I think THAT’S accountability. I’m not off the hook. If you fire me, that may be the easy solution, but it doesn’t really fix anything-unless I did it on purpose. And so I think that the whole notion of accountability that seems to really be ringing true for me is “Yeah, I’m accountable, I’m going to help you make this better. I’m not walking away from this. It’s not a get-out-of-jail-free pass. No. If I missed up, I’m going to be here to help figure this out so that it is a lot harder to mess up next time.

More on Operational Learning

Convergence Training: Good, that’s a good point.

Let’s talk a little more about operational learning. You mentioned some interesting things there–so we have a black line and a blue line, we’ve got work as planned and we’ve got work as really performed, as you talked about, in reality, and we have variability.

Could you talk more about operational learning in terms of all that, including views on variability and what we can learn from that?

Bob Edwards: One thing that has really struck me is that, a lot of times when something bad would happen, we’d use–I’ll use a real simple example, like 5 Whys?–or some tool like that, a Fishbone or whatever, what I’m finding is it’s WAY more messy than that, WAY more complex than that. It’s a mess, right?

So with operational learning, I want to unlock the mess–right? The temperature out there, the noise out there, the unclear instructions, the buttons with all the stuff torn off them so you couldn’t even tell what you were pressing. the production pressure, that just overriding production pressure, right? The fact that there were four instead of five people here today, and one of them was a rookie, so really it was three people. Just unlocking what reality looks like.

I actually had a manager say one time “Well, that sounds like a bunch of excuses.” NO–its’ work. YOU go out there and work with one crew member less, and one worker is a new worker, and you’ve got part of the work that wasn’t done yesterday, because this thing over here is broke and it’s not working. You go out there and try this work and you’ll see–it’s not excuses, it’s people sort of managing their work.

ANYTHING I can do to sort of unlock that story–whatever it is, right?–whether it’s going out and actually spending time with workers (not watching them with a clipboard in hand, watching to see if they mess up–no, no, go out there and really ask them “What does it take to get this done?”). Be curious, be genuinely curious. And when we are, even the folks that complain all the time, they’re still pretty proud of their work.

I find this to be true: most people come to work to do a good job. Even the old crotchety maintenance guy–I was a maintenance manager for years—I had one guy and man, all he ever did was complain. But do you know what he was really good at? He was REALLY good at fixing stuff. If you went out and spent time and actually listened to him and learned from him, he was brilliant. He could troubleshoot like nobody else. But whenever you’d see him coming, you’d be like “Oh my goodness, he’s going to complain.” Except his complaints were actually pretty legitimate if you listen to him.

So that’s part of it, I think, is building better operational listening. And instead of going out with the operational expectation “We have procedures, Jeff, why aren’t you following them,” maybe a better question is, “Jeff, what does your work look like today–and by the way, those procedures that got updated, do they even make sense, can they followed as written?” That’s a different question.

So when I’m doing operational learning, I’m less focused on operator compliance, and I’m more interested in operator struggle and adaptation.

Side note: You may enjoy this article Bob wrote on Operational Learning for EHS Today.

More on Learning Teams

Convergence Training: That’s interesting, your views on the worker there.

A lot of people consider 21st-century job skills, or a job skill that will be increasingly important in an automated, mechanized workplace is going to be empathy and listening–listening to that worker, why is he complaining, what’s the point? So that was a good take.

So obviously one of the big things that comes up a lot when we’re talking about HOP is this idea of a learning team. I wonder if you can talk to us about that, explain what a learning team is and how you do them.

Bob Edwards: A learning team is very, very simple. There are a few key things that we find work really well.

When something happens, or nearly happens, or….we use them for employee concerns, we use them for operational upsets, you know, it’s not a safety or a quality thing at all, it’s just an operational upset, we’ve even started using them like Dekker says, “If you want to understand failure, quite looking at failure and start looking at success,” so I’m like Forrest Gump, and I just started doing them, right? And so we began doing them around success, and it’s the same conditions that are present there.

But a learning team is about bringing people together that know the work. Masters of the blue line, if you will. I don’t usually do them with a lot of people, usually 5-7 people, that seems to be pretty good. We’ve had some big events that had 15 or 16 people, but that’s a lot to manage.

Our goal is to bring people together that know the work. If there was an event, people who are close to the event, and then take about an hour of time to start with, although we always do a few sessions, at least two sessions, but you can do three, four, eight, whatever you need. And there’s a reason.

The first session is just in learning mode. When Todd Conklin taught me this, he said “Try this out and see…it’s harder than you think,” because we want to solve, right, we want to jupm in there and fix. But we use the learning team to say “OK, let’s slow down and learn.”

Now, Jeff, if something has happened…like, we have already done the emergency thing here, stop the leak, stop the feed, that’s not what we’re talking about here. That’s the response, we do that. Now we want to take time to learn, which is when an investigation might normally kick in. So we want to take about an hour, an hour and fifteen minutes, usually not much more than that, with a handful of people that are super-knowledgeable–masters of the blue line–and I want to be curious. I want to ask them “What are the work conditions out there? What are the pressures you’re under? What are the complexities? What are the adaptations?” You know, really be curious and not even talk about the event. In the first session, I don’t even talk about the event. Because once you start talking about the event, we can get laser-focused on it. I’m more interested, Jeff, in the conditions that lead to that type of event than I am in the event itself.

And so we do the first session completely in learning mode. Don’t let them get into fix mode. If they start coming up with solutions, just say “Hold on to that, bring it back to the next session and we’ll talk about it, but right now, I just want to stay in learning mode.

And then we give them soak time.

There are three key things before we start improving: (1) we learn; (2) give them some soak time, overnight is perfect, or a night or two…we find the soak time is very valuable, your brain gets a chance to sleep on it, and (3) you wake up with new things to talk about, which is awesome.

In the second session, I take a few minutes to review: what did they teach me? And there’s real value in that. That shows that I listened to them, Jeff, and if I missed something they can correct me. Because I’m not there to tell them what to do. I’m there to ask questions and to learn from them. They’re the masters, I’m just a facilitator.

So in the second session, I pull them back together. We may have found in the first session that something was missing, and we need it. Like maybe there are a lot of questions about maintenance, and there’s nobody from maintenance there, then we need to get some help from maintenance. So our goal is to learn, then soak time, then review and learn some more, and then start talking about improving.

So that’s sort of the framework of the learning team, right? And then when you start talking about improvements, there are several ways to do that, lean has a really cool thing called try storming for forming ideas, so you can experiment and get the team engaged in and excited about trying out their ideas. And what we find is, that a lot of the solutions that come from the team members are not the multi-million dollar solutions, they’re very practical, very useful, they’re things we can do right now within our sphere of control as Andrea Baker talks about all of the time–sphere of control, sphere of influence, sphere of concern. Let’s do what we can in our sphere of control, and then I’ll talk to you you’re my manager about things I can’t do to see if you can help me with those things.

That’s kind of it. That’s the magic that happens. You pull people together, and I love to have a leader come in in the beginning, Jeff, and say “Hey guys, this is a learning team, not an investigation. We are not looking for a ‘Who did it?’ We are not looking for blame–that’s not going to make us better here. And you’re not going to be punished–you can talk about anything you want to in here, and there’s no punishment involved.”

Todd Conklin says this all of the time: “You can learn and improve, or you can blame and punish, but you can’t do both.”

If we want people to open up and tell us, even if they’re going to tell us that they deviate from the process, that they don’t always do a full lockout or whatever, we need to be able to hear the truth because it’s happening anyway.

So let’s make it safe to talk about it. Let’s make it better, we’re not going to leave it broken, but I’ve seen it happen too many times where, when we say “Hey, this is a safe place to talk,” and people get comfortable, and they will lay it on the table.

They HAVE to know it’s safe. That’s why it’s good to have a leader come in and kick it off by saying “Hey, this is a learning team, you can talk freely here, you’re not going to be punished, even if you’re not following the procedure exactly right, that’s fine, we need to know what is going on at work, and how did this happen. Not WHY did this happen so much as how–all of the conditions that were out there.

That make sense?

Convergence Training: It does, thank you. There’s a lot of good learning theory behind all that as well.

One thing we don’t do well at work is build in a period for reflection, which is when you learn. You don’t learn from doing things, you learn from reflecting on what you did. So that’s what I like about the first phase.

Then there’s a ton of evidence showing it’s great to come back the next day, and even that second day, when you’re beginning and reviewing things, you’re awakening prior knowledge, so that’s good.

One thing I notice is that a lot of people, and I think understandably, when they’re talking about learning teams, they’re thinking about after an incident. But on the other hand, HOP people always talk about applying learning in other parts of work, and also studying success, and that makes me wonder: do you use learning teams for things that are not incidents, possibly for studying success, and how do you learn from those other things that aren’t incidents?

Bob Edwards: So a quick example is with a mining company I work with. And they wanted to do a learning team with a pretty dangerous process. It takes place underground–sounds dangerous to me–but they do it really well. They don’t have near misses, they just wanted to study it. They’ve done a bunch of learning teams and they realized, “Wow, all these things out there when bad things happen are the same things that happen when good things happen.” The workers are adapting through that mess all the time, right, and we do it quite well until we don’t.

And so, without going into details or the name of the company or anything, I’ll tell you that within two one-hour learning sessions, they uncovered two different conditions that had become normalized, with different parts of a team, that they’d become comfortable with even though it was a problem (you know, it’s frustrating at first, then you become more comfortable as you deal with it), along with a failure that had become normalized, that the maintenance guys were always repairing, and had those two things coupled in about an hour’s difference of time, it could have been a really bad accident. But it wasn’t. It wasn’t even a near miss. It wasn’t an employee concern, nobody was complaining about it. It was so exciting to actually study successful work and find brittleness in the system that could have caused a severe issue and correct it and make it better.

So we’re doing that more and more now, where we’re actually studying successful work . That one, I was just so excited when these guys unlocked this. And it was them–all I did was just bring the flip charts and have the conversation with them.

And their manager said, “It’s safe to talk,” and then the manager stepped out. A lot of times, high-level managers can’t sit in on these things. We’re going to talk to them, and I love to check in with them at the end of the session and again the next day. It’s very encouraging, we need them, they’re a part of this. Daniel Hummerdal reminded me of this–we’re not kicking leadership out of this conversation, we need them, big time. They just probably can’t sit in in most cases while we’re getting real, because, you know, if the plant manager is sitting there, and he says “Tell me what you do,” I’m probably going to say “Oh, well, I follow the rules, sir!” And so we need to be real, and I need him to not be there.

I think my goal is that eventually he can be in there, and come and go as he wants to, because they’ll get that comfortable. And there are a couple of sites that are like that. There’s one site that, no kidding, the plant manager, she can absolutely lead a learning team because she’s that open to the crew, and they know how she respects them and listens to them, and they know that she believes they have to work do their work.

So that is the promised land almost, right? If we can be that thoughtful to each other, and that kind to each other, where our high-level manager and a guy that turns wrenches, they talk and that guy that turns wrenches says “Hey, I just messed this up. Didn’t mean to, but we need help to solve this,” and it doesn’t turn to this (conflict), it turns into this (harmony and cooperation).

But it also means that that leader can say to that maintenance guy, “I told you I was going to get that new compressor for you guys, and they’ve cut my budget,” because sometimes we think they have all the power but they don’t have all the power, “they’ve cut my budget until next year.” So that’s about the manager being accountable to the worker as well, saying “You know I told you we’d get that, but we have a delay” or whatever.

That builds more trust, right?

Convergence Training:. Right. Good points and good stories. I guess this is a different point for a different conversation, but that totally safe CEO who can lead her own learning teams, I wonder if some of that has to do with her gender. I think sometimes women get more emotional training (than men do).

Bob Edwards: Yeah. I can tell you this, some of the best managers…she’s an AMAZING facilitator for orientations, she’s like the head of maintenance for a huge power company.

But sometimes, and this is just me talking about us men, sometimes we’re not the best listeners. It’s kind of generic to say that, but I can tell you this: during this journey, my wife has told me that I am getting better at listening. So I guess we can get better–there’s hope.

Distributing Operational Learning Throughout the Organization

Convergence Training: Yeah, that’s my point as well. But as a young boy, I don’t remember getting a lot of instruction on listening.

OK, great, so we’ve talked quite a bit about learning, and I can see how this learning happens, including in these learning team sessions. I wonder if you have any tips about how to take that learning and distribute it and share it throughout the entire organization? Instead of just changing a process, but if you have any ideas about how that learning can be shared, if you have any good stories to tell about that?

Bob Edwards: Yeah, so I actually got in trouble with Todd Conklin, because he was t

Jeff Dalto, Senior Learning & Performance Improvement Manager
Jeff is a learning designer and performance improvement specialist with more than 20 years in learning and development, 15+ of which have been spent working in manufacturing, industrial, and architecture, engineering & construction training. Jeff has worked side-by-side with more than 50 companies as they implemented online training. Jeff is an advocate for using evidence-based training practices and is currently completing a Masters degree in Organizational Performance and Workplace Learning from Boise State University. He writes the Vector Solutions | Convergence Training blog and invites you to connect with him on LinkedIn.

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