Unlearning Organizations

15 January 2018

Premise:  Unlearning is a process of omission whereby knowledge is forgotten, lost or diluted from the organization. Management must apply TPM (total productive maintenance) thinking to the social and technical intellectual capital of the organization or face the costly consequences of re-learning.

“I’ve lived long enough that history is starting to repeat itself.”  Hard won lessons learned over the past 30+ years appear to be fading from organizational memory.  “E-bits” kicks-off 2018 with a warning, “be aware of sliding back up the learning curve” (ref. Graphic).  In 1990, Peter Senge, author of the Fifth Discipline, introduced us to the idea of learning organizations, where groups of people expand their capacity to improve at faster rates.  Throughout 2018 E-bits will explore seven areas where organizations are unlearning; a process of omission whereby knowledge is forgotten, lost or diluted from the organization.  Failure to address unlearning will increase costs and risks.

(Click image for downloadable pdf.)

Jubilant markets, new depreciation laws, sudden influxes of cash, low unemployment will all contribute to the formation of “unlearning organizations.”  Learning curve theory states that each time a task is performed there is incremental improvement until the work is done at rate, correctly; meaning it has been “learned out.”  Organizations are complex social and technical systems, and the people who master them are known as the “go to” people;  the ones who can get things done.  They have enough organizational seasoning to know the difference between good and bad decisions; they are down the learning curve.  Picture the entire pool of intellectual capital required to make the business work every day.

Any change in composition and the organization starts to slip back up the learning curve.  Losing the “go to” people or new management giving contrary direction, dispirited people or a sudden influx of new hires…any and all of these dilute the pool of intellectual capital; the organization unlearns and becomes less efficient.

Settled business is no longer “settled.”  I watched union stewards be continually frustrated as they had to “retrain” management.  Grievances that had been “settled” years earlier are now back on the table as new groups of management push for change outside the contract process.  So, hours are wasted re- adjudicating old issues.  I am watching EHS issues recycling, HR issues recycling, ethics issues recycling, wasteful manufacturing practices recycling, quality issues recycling.  These are all symptoms of unlearning organizations.

Our challenge this year is to take the necessary steps to help people appreciate the power of organizational learning.  We must be attentive to assimilation processes, maintaining institutional memory…basically applying TPM thinking to the maintenance of the organization’s learning.

Keep adding Value,

Alden B.


Workshops that may be helpful:

The Principled Supervisor

Situational Awareness the Safe-ari Way

Group-based Problem Solving


Model Airplane Factory

Building the Presentation Team

Building Financial Knowledge with TheValueTree


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