Real learning gets to the heart of what it means to be human. Through learning, we recreate ourselves. Through learning, we become able to do something we never were able to do. Through learning, we re-perceive the world and our relationship to it. Through learning, we extend our capacity to create, to be part of the generative process of life. There is within each of us a deep hunger for this type of learning.
—Peter M. Senge, The Fifth Discipline
Continuous Learning CultureThe Continuous Learning Culture competency describes a set of values and practices that encourage individuals—and the enterprise as a whole—to continually increase knowledge, competence, performance, and innovation. This is achieved by becoming a learning organization, committing to relentless improvement, and promoting a culture of innovation.
It is one of the seven core competencies of the Lean Enterprise, each of which is essential to achieving Business Agility. Each core competency is supported by a specific assessment, which enables the enterprise to assess their proficiency. These core competency assessments, along with recommended improvement opportunities, are available from the Measure and Grow article.
Why Continuous Learning Culture?
Organizations today face an onslaught of forces that create both uncertainty and opportunity. The pace of technology innovation is beyond exponential. Startup companies challenge the status quo by transforming, disrupting, and in some cases eliminating entire markets. Juggernaut companies like Amazon and Google are entering entirely new markets such as banking and healthcare. At any moment, political, economic, and environmental turmoil threaten to change the rules. Expectations from new generations of workers, customers, and society as a whole challenges companies to think and act beyond balance sheets and quarterly earnings reports. Due to all of these factors and more, one thing is certain: organizations in the digital age must be able to adapt rapidly and continuously or face decline—and ultimately extinction.
What’s the solution? In order to thrive in the current climate, organizations must evolve into adaptive engines of change, powered by a culture of fast and effective learning at all levels. Learning organizations leverage the collective knowledge, experience, and creativity of their workforce, customers, supply chain, and the broader ecosystem. They harness the forces of change to their advantage. In these enterprises, curiosity, exploration, invention, entrepreneurship, and informed risk-taking replace commitment to the status quo while providing stability and predictability. Rigid, siloed top-down structures give way to fluid organizational constructs that can shift as needed to optimize the flow of value. Decentralized decision-making becomes the norm as leaders focus on vision and strategy along with enabling organization members to achieve their fullest potential.
Any organization can begin the journey to a continuous learning culture by focusing its transformation along three critical dimensions, as shown in Figure 1.
The three dimensions are:
- Learning Organization – Employees at every level are learning and growing so that the organization can transform and adapt to an ever-changing world.
- Innovation Culture – Employees are encouraged and empowered to explore and implement creative ideas that enable future value delivery.
- Relentless Improvement – Every part of the enterprise focuses on continuously improving its solutions, products, and processes.
Each is described in the sections below.
Learning organizations invest in and facilitate the ongoing growth of their employees. When everyone in the organization is continuously learning, it fuels the enterprise’s ability to dynamically transform itself as needed to anticipate and exploit opportunities that create a competitive advantage. Learning organizations excel at creating, acquiring, and transferring knowledge while modifying practices to integrate the new insights [1,2]. These organizations understand and foster the intrinsic nature of people to learn and gain mastery, harnessing that impulse for the benefit of the enterprise .
Learning organizations are distinguished from those using the scientific management methods promoted by Frederick Taylor. In Taylor’s model, learning is limited to those at the top while everyone else simply follows the policies and practices they create. Becoming a learning organization is not an altruistic exercise. It’s an antidote to the status-quo thinking that drove many former market leaders to bankruptcy. Learning drives innovation, leads to greater sharing of information, enhances problem-solving, increases the sense of community, and surfaces opportunities for more efficiency. 
The transformation into a learning organization requires five distinct disciplines, as described by Senge. The best practices for developing these disciplines include:
Personal Mastery – Employees develop as ‘T-shaped people’. They build a breadth of knowledge in multiple disciplines for efficient collaboration and deep expertise aligned with their interests and skills. T-shaped employees are a critical foundation of Agile teams.
Shared Vision – Forward-looking leaders envision, align with, and articulate exciting possibilities. Then, they invite others to share in and contribute to a common view of the future. The vision is compelling and motivates employees to contribute to achieving it.
Team Learning – Teams work collectively to achieve common objectives by sharing knowledge, suspending assumptions, and ‘thinking together’. They complement each other’s skills for group problem solving and learning.
Mental Models – Teams surface their existing assumptions and generalizations while working with an open mind to create new models based on a shared understanding of the Lean-Agile way of working and their customer domains. These models make complex concepts easy to understand and apply.
Systems Thinking – The organization sees the larger picture and recognizes that optimizing individual components does not optimize the system. Instead, the business takes a holistic approach to learning, problem-solving, and solution development. This optimization extends to business practices such as Lean Portfolio Management (LPM), which ensures that the enterprise is making investments in experimentation and learning to drive the system forward.
Many of SAFe’s principles and practices directly support these efforts, as illustrated in Figure 2.
Here are some of the ways SAFe promotes a learning organization:
- Lean-Agile leaders who are insatiable learners use both successes and failures in SAFe practices as learning moments to build mastery.
- A shared vision is iteratively refined during each PI Planning period. This influences Business Owners, the teams on each Agile Release Train (ART), and the entire organization.
- Teams learn continuously through daily collaboration and problem solving, supported by events such as team retrospectives and Inspect & Adapt.
- The Scaled Agile Framework provides a set of powerful guidelines for teams to use as they apply Lean and Agile principles and practices.
- Systems Thinking is a cornerstone of Lean-Agile and one of the ten SAFe principles.
- SAFe also provides regular dedicated time and space for learning through the Innovation and Planning (IP) iteration that occurs every Program Increment.
Innovation is one of the four pillars of the SAFe House of Lean. But the kind of innovation needed to compete in the digital age cannot be infrequent or random. It requires an innovation culture. An innovation culture exists when leaders create an environment that supports creative thinking, curiosity, and challenging the status quo. When an organization has an innovation culture, employees are encouraged and enabled to:
- Explore ideas for enhancements to existing products
- Experiment with ideas for new products
- Pursue fixes to chronic defects
- Create improvements to processes that reduce waste
- Remove impediments to productivity
Some organizations support innovation with paid time for exploring and experimenting, intrapreneurship programs, and innovation labs. SAFe goes further by providing consistent time each PI for all members of the Agile Release Train (ART) to pursue innovation activities during the Innovation and Planning iteration. Innovation is also integral to Agile Product Delivery and the Continuous Delivery Pipeline.
The following sections provide practical guidance for initiating and continuously improving an innovation culture.
The foundation of an innovation culture is the recognition that systems and cultures don’t innovate: people innovate. Instilling innovation as a core organizational capability requires a commitment to cultivating the courage and aptitude for innovation and encouraging risk-taking among employees. For existing organization members, this may necessitate coaching, mentoring, and formal training in the skills and behaviors of entrepreneurship and innovation. Individual goals and learning plans should include language that enables and empowers growth as an innovator. Rewards and recognition that balance intrinsic and extrinsic motivation reinforce the importance of everyone as an innovator. Criteria for hiring new employees should include evaluating how candidates will fit in an innovation culture. Opportunities and paths for advancement should be clear and available for people who demonstrate exceptional talent and performance as innovation agents and champions .
Time and Space for Innovation
Building time and space for innovation includes providing work areas conducive to creative activities, as well as setting aside dedicated time from routine work to explore and experiment. Innovation space can also include:
- Broad cross-domain interactions involving customers, the supply chain, and even the physical or professional communities connected to the organization
- Temporary and limited suspension of norms, policies, and systems (within legal, ethical, and safety boundaries) to challenge existing assumptions and explore what’s possible
- Systematic activities (IP iteration, hackathons, dojos, etc.) and opportunistic innovation activities (continuous, accidental, unplanned)
- Perpetual innovation forums on collaboration platforms and Communities of Practice (CoPs) that create the opportunity for ongoing conversations across the organization
Often, the best innovation ideas are sparked by seeing the problems to be solved first-hand—witnessing how customers interact with products or the challenges they face using existing processes and systems. Gemba is a Lean term and practice from Japan meaning ‘the real place,’ as in where the customers’ work is actually performed. SAFe explicitly supports this concept through Continuous Exploration. Making first-hand observations and hypotheses visible channels the creative energy of the entire organization toward conceiving innovative solutions. Leaders should also openly share their views on the opportunities and challenges the organization faces to focus innovation efforts on the things that have the highest potential to benefit the enterprise.
Experimentation and Feedback
Innovation cultures embrace the idea that conducting experiments designed to progress iteratively towards a goal is the most effective path to learning that creates successful breakthroughs. Regarding his many unsuccessful experiments to create an incandescent light bulb, Thomas Edison famously said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” In the scientific method, experiments don’t fail; they simply produce the data needed to accept or reject a hypothesis. Many companies don’t innovate sufficiently due to a culture that includes fear of failure. Such fear cripples innovation.
In contrast, innovation cultures depend on learning from experiments and incorporating those insights into future exploration. When leaders create the psychological safety described in the Lean-Agile Leadership article, people are encouraged to experiment (within guardrails). They feel permission to solve big problems, to seize opportunities, and to do so without fear of blame, even when the results of the experiments suggest moving in a different direction.
Pivot Without Mercy or Guilt
Every innovation begins as a hypothesis – a set of assumptions and beliefs regarding how a new or improved product will delight customers and help the organization achieve its business objectives. However, hypotheses are just informed guesses until they are supported by validated feedback from real customers. As Eric Ries promotes in The Startup Way, the fastest way to accept or reject a product development hypothesis is to experiment by building a Minimum Viable Product or MVP . An MVP is the simplest thing that can possibly work to test the proposed innovation to see if it leads to the desired results. MVPs must be tested by customers in the target market or by intended users of the system for fast feedback. In many cases, the feedback is positive and further investment to bring the innovation to market or into production is warranted. In other instances, the feedback dictates a change in direction. This could be as simple as a set of modifications to the product followed by additional experiments for feedback, or it could prompt a ‘pivot’ to an entirely different product or strategy. When the fact-based evidence indicates that a pivot is required, the shift in direction should occur as quickly as possible without blame, and without consideration of sunk costs in the initial experiments.
To create an innovation culture, organizations have to go beyond catchy slogans, ‘innovation teams,’ and popular techniques like hackathons and dojos. A fundamental rewiring of the enterprise’s DNA is needed to fully leverage the innovation mindset and create the processes and systems that promote sustained innovation. As shown in Figure 3, SAFe provides these needed structures.
The continuous flow of innovation is built on the foundation of SAFe principle #9 which promotes decentralized decision-making. Some innovation starts as strategic portfolio concerns that are realized through Epics and Lean Budgets applied to value streams. In the course of building the solution to realize Epics, teams, suppliers, customers and business leaders all identify opportunities for improving the solution. The potential innovations that result can be considered an ‘innovation riptide’ that flows back into the structures that SAFe provides for building solutions. Smaller, less expensive innovations flow into the Program Kanban as Features while larger, more expensive innovations result in the creation of an Epic and Lean Business Case and flow into the Portfolio Kanban.
Since its inception in the Toyota Production System, kaizen, or the relentless pursuit of perfection, has been one of the core tenets of Lean. It is illustrated in various ‘house of Lean’ models including the SAFe House of Lean.
While unattainable, the act of striving for perfection leads to continuous improvements to products and services. In the process, companies have created more and better products for less money and with happier customers, all leading to higher revenues and greater profitability. Taiichi Ohno, the creator of Lean, emphasized that the only way to achieve kaizen is for every employee at all times to have a mindset of continuous improvement. The entire enterprise as a system—executives, product development, accounting, finance, and sales—is continuously being challenged to improve .
But improvement requires learning. Rarely are the causes and solutions for problems that organizations face clear and easily identified. The Lean model for continuous improvement is based on a series of small iterative and incremental improvements and experiments that enable the organization to learn its way to the most promising answer to a problem.
The sections that follow further illustrate how a continuous learning culture is a critical component of relentless improvement.
Constant Sense of Danger
SAFe uses the term relentless improvement in its House of Lean to convey that improvement activities are essential to the survival of an organization and should be given priority, visibility, and resources. This closely aligns with another core tenet of Lean, which is an intense focus on delivering value to customers by providing products and services that solve their problems in a way that’s preferred over the organization’s competitors. SAFe promotes both ongoing and planned improvement efforts through team retrospectives, the problem-solving workshop during Inspect & Adapt (I&A), as well as the use of the Innovation & Planning (IP) iteration to conduct improvement work. Improvement Features and Stories that emerge from the I&A are also incorporated into team plans and integrated into the work planned for the following Program Increment.
Optimize the Whole
“Optimize the whole” suggests that improvements should be designed to increase the effectiveness of the entire system that produces the sustainable flow of value, as opposed to optimizing individual teams, silos, or subsystems. Everyone at all levels should embrace improvement thinking, but improvements in one area, team, or domain should not be made to the detriment of the overall system. Organizing around value in ARTs, Solution Trains, and value streams create opportunities for people in all domains to have regular and holistic conversations about how to enhance overall quality, the flow of value, and customer satisfaction.
Problem Solving Culture
In Lean, problem-solving is the driver for continuous improvement. It recognizes that a gap exists between the current state and the desired state, requiring an iterative process to achieve the target state. The steps of problem-solving are both fractal and scalable. They apply to teams trying to optimize response time in a software system and to enterprises trying to reverse a steady decline in market share. Iterative Plan-Do-Check-Adjust (PDCA) cycles, as shown in Figure 4, provide the process for iterative problem solving on small adjustments as well as breakthrough innovations. The entire process is repeated until the target state is achieved. This model treats problems as opportunities for improvement in a blameless process, and employees at all levels are empowered and equipped with the time and resources to identify and solve problems. As part of the ART and Solution Train Inspect & Adapt events, SAFe builds problem-solving into Agile team retrospectives, and into the problem-solving workshop.
Reflect at Key Milestones
Improvement activities are often deferred in favor of ‘more urgent’ work such as new feature development, fixing defects, and responding to the latest outage. Relentless improvement requires a disciplined structure to avoid neglecting this critical activity. For individual teams, SAFe encourages retrospectives at iteration boundaries at a minimum and in real-time when possible. ARTs and Solution Trains reflect every Program Increment as part of the Inspect & Adapt event. This cadence based milestone provides predictability, consistency, and rigor to the process of relentless improvement in large product development efforts.
Fact-based improvement leads to changes guided by the data surrounding the problem and informed solutions, not by opinions and conjecture. Improvement results are objectively measured, focusing on empirical evidence. This helps an organization concentrate more on the work needed to solve problems and less on assigning blame.
Too often organizations fall into the trap of assuming that the culture, processes, and products that led to today’s success will also guarantee future results. That mindset increases the risk of decline and failure. The enterprises that will dominate their markets going forward will be adaptive learning organizations, with the ability to learn, innovate, and relentlessly improve more effectively and faster than their competition.
Competing in the digital age requires investment in both time and resources for innovation, built upon a culture of creative thinking and curiosity—an environment where norms can be challenged, and new products and processes emerge. Alongside this, relentless improvement acknowledges that the survival of an organization is never guaranteed. Everyone in the organization will be challenged to find and make incremental improvements, and priority and visibility is given to this work.
A continuous learning culture will likely be the most effective way for this next generation of workers to relentlessly improve, and the successful companies that employ them.
Learn More Garvin, David A. Building a Learning Organization. Harvard Business Review, July-August 1993. https://hbr.org/1993/07/building-a-learning-organization  Senge, Peter. The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization. Penguin Random House LLC, 2006.  Pink, Daniel H. Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. Penguin Group, 2011.  Marquardt, Michael. Building the Learning Organization. Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2011.  Beswick, Cris, Derek Bishop, and Jo Geraghty. Building a Culture of Innovation. KoganPage Publishing, 2015.  Ries, Eric. The Startup Way. Currency, 2017.  Liker, Jeffery K. Developing Lean Leaders at All Levels. Lean Leadership Institute Publications, 2014.
Last update: 27 September 2021