Creating the solution focused self learning organization to harness technology

Profitable long term growth comes from having the right people in the right place at the right time.’ Technology although important, usually plays a secondary role.

In todays fast moving world this might be an “off-message” statement, but the truth is that it is still people who deliver profits.  As a result creating ‘High Performance Teams’ or what some call the ‘Self Learning’ organisation has become a priority in staying competitive within the new digital economy. Sustainable improvement requires a commitment to learning. In successful organisations, this is embedded in the DNA of its people, which drives themselves forward to deliver results that makes the real difference.

How does your team measure up?  Perhaps a good place to start is to review how your teams manage problems and the language they use. Most technically orientated organisations pride themselves on solving problems. Ironically, too strong an emphasis on problem solving does not necessarily drive the customer-orientated behaviours we are looking for.  Problems are in fact very static, with a focus on past events.  If organisations are not careful, problems become a blame game, concentrating on why things cannot be done. ‘Yes but……’ is a phrase that become endemic within the organisations way of doing things.  However, problems are also the life-blood of innovation, in that they can create a focal point for organisations to rally around. The resulting customer focussed solutions are dynamic in nature and focused on the future.  The language of solutions concentrates on ‘Yes and…’, seeking possibilities and opportunities. It is in fact solution thinking that really drives the organisation forward in creating competitive advantage.

A self learning organisation is one that has the rigour to identify and quantify problems, yet the discipline to shift to solution thinking, develop forward momentum and achieve results.

This problem-solution-problem-solution learning loop sounds fairly straight forward, but actually requires a level of management maturity that is often surprisingly missing from many organisations. As Winston Churchill pointed out, learning is all about engagement:

“Where my reason, imagination or interest were not engaged, I would not or could not learn”.

So how do we go about creating a culture of ‘self learning’, which is deeply embedded in the corporate DNA. In most businesses, focussing on two important aspects of organisations can really make a difference. The first is a strong vision of what the company is all about, why it is there, what it is trying to achieve for its customers and how. More important than the vision statement’s words, is the way that it is communicated. Successful communication comes often starts with clearly targeting your message: For example Field Service Techs have very different drivers from their Product Sales colleagues. It is also important to augment logical reasoning with an emotional appeal that inspires employees to do things differently.

Then there are Values. A company’s values are the core of its culture. While a vision articulates a company’s purpose, values offer a set of guidelines on the behaviors and
mindsets needed to achieve that vision. While many companies find their values revolve around a few simple topics (employees, clients, professionalism), the originality of those values is less important than their authenticity.

Developing a culture that is aligned to values and vision is what provides people with a purpose, and this is the key to facilitating innovation.

Organisations that successfully create a self-learning environment typically start to see:

  • Problems being solved systematically
  • Experimentation with new approaches to work, often larning from other companies
  • A focus on finding solutions for customer problems
  • Greater knowledge transfer through out the organisation
  • An acceptance that change is normal and to be embraced

To get the ball rolling does not necessarily require large complex change projects. For example at Amazon, every person who wants to pitch a new idea to the management, is asked to describe it as a press release written on the day that the idea is launched. This press release, together with a list of ‘Frequently Asked Questions’ is what Amazon executives use to judge whether there is real value in the innovation. This relatively simple idea forces everyone to focus on outcomes and solutions. And if leaders ‘do what they say!’, then these practices and thinking, can become part of an organisations DNA.

So if the key to adoption of new technologies in Services lies more in people than technology itself, then embedding the self-learning DNA gene must be the priority for all organisations wanting to be winners. 

Previously we have observed that those service organisations that have been able to quickly adapt to the fast evolving digital environment display a common trait “the self-learning gene”. This is the innate ability to continually move through the problem, solution, problem, solution learning loop that propels organisations forward, such that they are comfortable experimenting with new approaches, have an outside-in perspective, are able to solve problems systematically and generally embrace change as an exciting part of business life.

There are many change methodologies that can be used to achieve this goal, but if leaders are not careful, they can find themselves hiding behind the process. It doesn’t matter if we are the CEO or on the shop floor, change starts with us ‘the person’. If we as an individual can become solution focussed, then it becomes possible to unleash the natural creativity that lies within most of our people.

The good news is that most of us intuitively know the right things to do, we just struggle to implement our thoughts.  Perhaps harder to grasp is that there is no defined roadmap to follow, but there are guidelines, which we can apply to our particular situation. If you want to achieve a high performing, adaptive organisation through developing your ’self-learning genes’, then these are seven principals you may want to consider:

  1. Communicate, collaborate and communicate again: This is the mind-set of leadership change. Get comfortable with being out there, in front of your team providing a clear direction, but with the clear understanding that it is your team members who will deliver a great solution. As Dwight Eisenhower US president and Army General said: “Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done, because they want to do it”
  2. Ensure your team has a sense of purpose: A sense of purpose is what drives us all forward in both a private and work environments. It comes from 3 perspectives:
    1. Know why we are here!
    2. Feel that the business we work for stands for the things we believe in
    3. That there is consistency between what a business says and what it does.

By constantly focussing on these three elements, sharing experiences, best practices and success stories people start to believe in an organisations purpose.

  1. Focus on the language of solutions: It is hard for many English speakers to appreciate, but language is the gateway to understanding culture. Without speaking French, it is challenging to truly understand what it means to be French. The same is true in companies, which means achieving a common solution focused language is a critical step in embedding a ‘way of thinking’ within the DNA of the organisation. For example a phrase that was embedded in me while I was running a Field Service organisation was “Fix yourself, before you fix your customer”. It was used and applied to every person in the organisation and is still used today!
  2. Be a role model in what you say and do: It is important to remember that you cannot tell people how to think. They have to figure that out for themselves. The only tools you have is to influence your team by what you say and what you do! A great examples would be the key performance indicators you focus on to manage your business. These say a lot to your people about what are your priorities.
  1. Relentless follow up and training: Evolving a company intrinsic DNA is not a one shot event. It’s a journey, its relentless, be prepared for the long haul. In small teams it is possible to drive this as a manager, but within larger organisations, a more formalised programme is required to touch every individual. Training and support programmes that emphasis and re-emphasis solution thinking should be embedded into your annual budget if you are really serious about change.
  2. Be open to Outside-IN thinking: It’s a sad fact, but people will often listen more to people outside their immediate organisation, whether that be another department, customer or consultant. Be aware of this and use it to your advantage to influence and embed the ‘Self-Learning gene’ in your people
  3. Be prepared to manage people out of the organisation: Sometime people for whatever reason are not prepared to change. In our experience, more people than you might think can live with change (I am an optimist), but when it’s clear that its not working, be prepared to be ruthless and actively manage poor performers out of the organisation.


In a world where frankly most people are struggling to clearly understand what it means to be digital, how new technology is both a threat and an opportunity and  what can they do to find those new innovative business ideas, perhaps the answer is closer to home than we think. In essence it lies in ourselves and our people to get on the self learning trail, move from problem to solution focused insights and get used to the idea that change is good and part of our every day lives.



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Service Innovation for value-driven opportunities:

Facilitated by Professor Mairi McIntyre from the University of Warwick, the workshop explored service innovation processes that help us understand what makes our customers successful.

In particular, the Customer Value Iceberg principle goes beyond the typical Total Cost of Ownership view of the equipment world and explores how that equipment impacts the success of the business. It forces us to consider not only direct costs associated with usage of the equipment such but also indirect costs such as working capital and risks.

As an example, we looked at how MAN Truck UK used this method to develop services that went beyond the prevailing repairs, parts and maintenance to methods (through telematics and clever analytics) to monitor and improve the performance and  fuel consumption of their trucks. This approach helped grow their business by an order of magnitude over a number of years.

Mining Service Management Data to improve performance

We then took a deep dive into how Endress + Hauser have developed applications that can mine Service Management data to improve service performance:  

Thomas Fricke (Service Manager) and Enrico De Stasio (Head of Corporate Quality & Lean) facilitated a 3 hour discussion on their journey from idea to a real working application integrated into their Service processes. These were the key learning points that emerged:


In 2018 the Senior leadership concluded that to stay competitive they needed to do far more to consolidate their global service data into a “data lake’ that could be used to improve their own service processes and bring more value to customers. As a company they had already seen the value of organising data as over the past 20 years for every new system they already had a “digital twin” which held electronically all the data for that system in an organised fashion. Initially, it was basic Bill of Material data, but has since grown in sophistication. So a good start but they needed to go further, and the leadership team committed resources to do this.

  • The first try: The project initially focused on collecting and organising data from its global service operations into a data lake.  This first phase required the development of infrastructure, processes and applications that could analyse service report data and turn it into actionable intelligence. The initial goal was to make internal processes more efficient, and so improve the customer experience. E+H looked for patterns in the reports of service engineers that could:
    • Be used to improve the performance of Service through processes and individuals
    • Be used by other groups such as engineering to improve and enhance product quality.
  • Outcome: Eventhough progress was made in many areas, nevertheless, even using advanced statistical methods, they could not extract or deliver the value they had hoped   for from the data. They needed to look at something different.
  • Leveraging AI technologies: The Endress+Hauser team knew they needed to look for patterns in large data sets. They had the knowledge that self-learning technologies that are frequently termed as AI, could potentially help solve this problem. They teamed up with a local university and created a project to develop a ‘Proof of Concept’. This helped the project gain traction as the potential of the application they had created started to emerge. It was not an easy journey and required “courage to trust the outcomes, see them fail and then learn from the process”. However after about 18 months they were able to integrate the application into their normal working processes where every day they scan the service reports from around the world in different languages to identify common patterns in product problems, or anomalies in the local service team activities. This information is fed back to the appropriate service teams for action. The application also acts as a central hub where anyone in the organisation can access and interrogate service report data to improve performance and develop new value propositions.
  • Improvement:  The project does not stop there. It is now embedded in the service operations and used as a basic tool for continuous improvement. In effect, this has shifted the whole organization to be more aware of the value of their data.

Utilizing AI in B2B services

Regarding AI, our task was to uncover some of the myths and benefits for service businesses and the first task was to agree on what we really mean by AI among the participants. It took time, but we discovered that there are really two interpretations which makes the term rather confusing. The first is a generic term used by visionaries and AI professionals to describe a world of intelligent machines and applications. Important at a social & macroeconomic level, but perhaps not so useful for business operations -at least at a practical level. The second is an umbrella term for a group of technologies that are good at finding patterns in large data sets (machine learning, neural networks, big data, computer vision), that can interface with human beings (Natural Language Processing) and that mimic human intelligence through being based on self-learning algorithms. Understanding this second definition and how these technologies can be used to overcome real business challenges is where the immediate value of AI sits for today’s businesses. It was also clear that the implication of integrating these technologies into business processes will require leaders to look at the change management challenges for their teams and customers.

To understand options for moving ahead at a practical level we first looked briefly at Husky through an interview with CIO Jean-Christophe Wiltz to CIOnet where we learned that i) real business needs should tailored drive technology implementation, and ii) that before getting to AI technologies, there is a need to build the appropriate infrastructure in terms of database and data collection, and, most importantly, the need to be prepared to continually adapt this infrastructure as the business needs change.

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