Question: How can we become a learning organization?

Our CPA firm offers accounting, consulting and advisory services to many different industry verticals. My responsibility is client advocacy and retention.

Continuous improvement is one of our stated company values, but recent loss of a few key accounts has called it to question.

In spite of me approaching the team, with clear client "exit interview" feedback and in a non-threatening way, none of the team members are willing to own any portion of the loss. Excuses range from: sales team over-promising on service levels or inaccessible management team during escalations or difficult clients.

We have lost 3 key accounts in as many months, with no clear learnings. The fact is, many of the reasons above are true to some extent... but it is frustrating to see the service teams take no ownership. And the managers standing by their accountants with a clearly misplaced sense of loyalty.

How can we approach this topic with a goal to learn from our mistakes?

5 Expert Insights

To reduce the fear level that probably underscores the excuse tactic, you might consider opening a meeting with appreciative inquiry- take them by surprise by going around the room and asking each person questions such as,  "What is working well? What are your clients appreciating? When do you know you have client engagement and loyalty?"

When the brain starts down this positive tract, it loses a lot of the fear defenses and has greater access to creativity and possibility. Then slowly ask, "What would ramp up what's working to the next level?" Then you could ask, "Thinking along these lines, what lessons can we build on from clients we've lost to ensure improvement?" You might want to have time for small group brainstorming to increase ideas and "learning mode." Your leadership presence could be powerful in holding a space of safety and curiosity with positive reinforcement of brainstorming ideas.

We have also approached such situations with something called Team Advantage- a 4 month "game" where a team comes up with a BHAG and is coached to attain it- this type of approach is another way to move from resistance to optimal function.

Just thoughts... hope that helps!

What immediately jumps out at me are your statements that there is "no clear learning" happening, accompanied by a lack of ownership and accountability.

(Is there something ironic about "accountants" lacking "account-ability"?)

Mistakes happen. As Einstein once said, "Anyone who has never made a mistake, has never tried anything new." So that's a given. But you hit the nail on the head by recognizing that your organization is not LEARNING from its mistakes. When that happens, not only is it a missed opportunity, but you are doomed to keep repeating those mistakes. And that can only go on for so long before the business is driven into the ground.

To become a "learning organization" and to create a "learning culture" requires seeing EVERY experience as a learning opportunity and viewing every win or loss as a teachable moment. This entails analyzing "wins" to see what worked, and dissecting "losses" to see what didn't.  Sweeping mistakes under the rug and pretending they didn't happen -- or, even worse, finger-pointing and blaming others for the mistakes -- is a missed opportunity, and creates a toxic environment.

As Edison said, "I didn't fail 10,000 times; I learned 10,000 ways how NOT to make a light bulb." Similarly, you need to, as an organization, sit down and figure out what's working...and what's not. And start making some real changes.

Explaining how to create a learning organization would take up far more space than I am allotted here, but it entails creating a culture of openness, honesty, authenticity, transparency, and trust. It's about creating an environment where open dialogue can take place without fear or blame, where intelligent risk-taking is encouraged, and where innovation can flourish.

Easier said than done, but it can be done if everyone is committed to making it happen.

Learning as an organizational capability is part of information management. The process of creating optimal value from data needs to be owned by the entire organization. Data capture must lead to quality data, data processing must lead to useful information, informed decision-making leads to experience knowledge, and learning leads to business wisdom. It might be helpful to discuss these objectives in the abstract before zeroing in on specifics. Most people will agree that it's not wise to keep making the same mistakes or to have to always reinvent the wheel.

Perhaps the greatest barrier to organizational learning is fear, mainly fear of being blamed and punished. Before you can make much progress against this fear there must be a credible movement toward reducing the risk and increasing the benefit of learning from your own experience.  This philosophy must start at the top and cascade down through the entire organization.  Anyone in the chain of command who is not on board in replacing blaming with learning can impede progress. Since this shift is truly a cultural change, it won't happen overnight. It will require leadership and durable sponsorship from the top of the organization and consistently positive reinforcement throughout.

Creating a learning organization is a big & complex topic.
One small & simple suggestion - create "after action reviews" following significant events. There is lots of information "out there" about how to conduct these in a way that is future focused, positive, and avoids finger pointing & blame assessment. The U.S. military is a good example. It requires structure & a good facilitator.

Your first priority should be to have the head(s) of your organization to empower you more to create ad-hoc teams to do structured problem solving, which can quickly solve your issues. If that has not already happened, your management needs to communicate the message that flawed customer processes are not acceptable anymore and need t be addressed ASAP.

Secondly, you should determine if you are surrounded by a culture full of Blame-Gaming, unfamiliarity with structured business improvement techniques, silo-thinking, false priorities and no priority to "Wow" the customer. If that is the case, you need help to address the flawed business processes without blaming people trapped in flawed processes.

I recently wrote the lead article for the QHSE magazine titled "Identifying Cascade Effect Risks in Organizations". My article describes the organizational cascade effect risks you seem to be facing.

There are a series of structured problem solving and business process assessment tools  that can help you but you need to understand them and then be empowered to use them. I could facilitate the resolution of your problem in 2-3 days at your site and have you watch and learn how it is done. I would also use the Pictorial Process Analysis (PPA) method I developed to help resolve your issue. I published an article about it in the Independent Journal of management and Production. You can download the pdf from this link. (

Feel free to contact me for my more detailed assessment of your situation.