A hospital emergency room. An aluminum smelting plant.
These two workplaces differ in a variety of ways, and when it comes to fast learning environments, they are stark examples of what can go right, and what can go absolutely wrong.
There are two indicators to help you know if you’re on the right track to success, according to MIT Sloan senior lecturer Steven Spear: a graceful work environment and gratitude from employees and customers.
“Resolving the awkwardness would mean greater ease for the person trying to create and deliver value, leading to increased gratefulness from the beneficiary,” Spear writes in a paper called Fast Discovery. “The long and short of it is, those who do much more with much less are so much more effective and efficient through the gracefulness of their efforts. The results of their gracefulness include increased levels of gratitude from their internal and external customers.”
For example, Spear shadowed a doctor at a hospital, and observed the emergency department. While there, he saw a woman dancing around in hospital scrubs who he later found out was not actually an employee, but a patient from the psych ward, who’d been allowed to roam because there was no space for her.
In another instance, a young woman sat slumped over in her wheelchair, her parents both clutching the chair’s handlebars, looking concerned because no one was paying attention to them.
While it’s possible those two patients had just come at a time when their triaged conditions were not at the top of the priority list, Spear writes he also observed problems with employees.
A doctor loudly slammed his keyboard on a desk after struggling with the new electronic record system. Outside, a paramedic pulled up in an ambulance, wondering aloud was “anybody home?”
“It turned out that one, maybe two, out of 10 clinicians were actually doing something for which a patient or her family would be grateful,” Spear writes. “The rest were struggling with a system that was sabotaging their best efforts by not having the right materials, information, or directions in the right place, at the right time, in the right form, for the right person. It was all solvable, but unresolved situations added friction, obstacles and stumbling points, making gracefulness impossible to achieve.”
Spear offered three steps to resolve awkwardness and disappointment:
- Recognize there’s a problem. Even if it’s something like having to duck at a certain spot in your workplace; that’s not normal.
- “Swarm” the problem immediately. Processes change, so don’t wait or you’ll be trying to fix things that don’t need fixing, or aren’t part of the original problem.
- Challenge conventional wisdom.
A case study in aluminum
He used the case of Alcoa, an aluminum producer, and its smelting cells, as an example of successful resolution.
“Smelting cells are where alumina is converted into molten aluminum by huge electrical currents ripping oxygen free of aluminum atoms,” Spear writes. “Doing so should be crazily dangerous. Aluminum melts at around 650 degrees Celsius and smelting releases gas that can be pressurized under a crust on top of the molten metal. And it’s not only this process that is loaded with dismembering opportunities. Aluminum production involves all sorts of processes that introduce things that are heavy, hot or sharp, under tremendous pressure, and often moving quickly.”
Despite the dangerous environment, Alcoa has seen incidents of serious injuries and fatalities fall by more than half since it started tracking those incidents in 2014.
To achieve that improvement, Spear writes that senior leadership had to make safety a top priority and set a goal for perfection.
“Alcoa had to violate lots of conventional wisdoms on the way to becoming one of the safest industrial employers in the U.S., while also enjoying enormous business rewards,” Spear writes.
Instead of assuming only the high-powered, high-paid “brilliant elite” could work on solutions, Alcoa overcame white and blue collar prejudices, and recognized the frontline employees that saw a problem first were the “bona fide world experts on that situation,” Spear writes.
It was the workers who noticed when someone had to jump back from getting spattered with molten metal — and that turned into the question of why it spattered at all.
Prioritizing employee safety meant less awkwardness in dangerous areas, and more gratitude among workers and external customers.
Spear writes that companies that purchased Alcoa aluminum would have been disappointed and not tolerated inferior manufacturing that caused their respective products to spoil (like soda cans) or weather faster than expected (like airplane parts).
If speed, excellence, or even perfection are the standards for a workplace, then slowness and imperfection are unacceptable, Spear writes. And the way to meet that standard is to learn.
"Over and over again," Spear writes, "Alcoa came to realize that ignorance was the cause of all imperfection and that the way to close the gap was to learn — to convert ignorance into useful knowledge."