Real learning gets to the heart of what it means to be human. Through learning we re-create ourselves. Through learning we become able to do something we never were able to do. Through learning we reperceive 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 Culture
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 Business Agility, each of which is essential to achieving Business Agility. Each core competency is supported by a specific assessment, enabling the enterprise to assess its proficiency. The Measure and Grow article provides these core competency assessments and recommended improvement opportunities.
Why Continuous Learning Culture?
Organizations today face an onslaught of forces that create both uncertainty and opportunity. The pace of technological 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 new markets like banking and healthcare. At any moment, political, economic, and environmental turmoil threatens to change the rules. Expectations from new generations of workers, customers, and society challenge companies to think and act beyond balance sheets and quarterly earnings reports. Due to these factors and more, one thing is sure: organizations in the digital age must be able to adapt rapidly and continuously or face decline—and, ultimately, extinction.
What’s the solution? Organizations must evolve into adaptive engines of change to thrive in the current climate, powered by a fast and effective learning culture. 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 and enable organization members to achieve their fullest potential.
Any organization can begin the journey to a continuous learning culture by focusing its transformation on 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.
The sections below describe each of these dimensions.
Learning organizations invest in and facilitate the ongoing growth of their employees. When everyone in the organization continuously learns, it fuels the enterprise’s ability to dynamically transform itself to anticipate and exploit opportunities that create a competitive advantage. Learning organizations excel at creating, acquiring, and transferring knowledge while modifying practices to integrate new insights [1,2]. These organizations understand and foster people’s intrinsic nature to learn and gain mastery, harnessing that impulse for the benefit of the enterprise .
Learning organizations are different 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 follows the policies and practices created by management. 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 information sharing, 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 who 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 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 learning, problem-solving, and solution-development approach. This optimization extends to business practices such as Lean Portfolio Management (LPM), which ensures that the enterprise invests 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 successes and failures in SAFe practices as learning moments to build mastery.
- A shared vision is iteratively refined during each PI Planning period. This shared vision 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.
- 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 PI.
- People working in a SAFe organization are encouraged to build learning networks across organizational boundaries and outside the organization. (Learning networks consist of trusted connections with whom an individual interacts and learns from regularly.)
An organization’s innovativeness is essential to competing in the digital age. Such efforts cannot be infrequent or random. It requires an innovation culture. An innovation culture exists when leaders create an environment that supports creative thinking and curiosity and challenges 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 Agile Release Train (ART) participants to pursue innovation activities during the Innovation and Planning (IP) 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 recognizes that systems and cultures don’t innovate: people innovate. Instilling innovation as a core organizational capability requires cultivating the courage and aptitude for innovation and encouraging employee risk-taking. 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 and 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, and so on) and opportunistic innovation activities (continuous, accidental, unplanned)
- Perpetual innovation forums on collaboration platforms and Communities of Practice (CoPs) create the opportunity for ongoing conversations across the organization.
The best innovation ideas are often 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,’ where the customers’ work is performed. SAFe explicitly supports this concept through Continuous Exploration. First-hand observations and hypotheses channel 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 with 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 the many unsuccessful experiments to make an incandescent light bulb, Thomas Edison famously said, “I have not failed 10,000 times—I’ve successfully found 10,000 ways that will not work.”  Experiments don’t fail in the scientific method; they produce the data needed to accept or reject a hypothesis. Many companies don’t innovate sufficiently due to a fear of failure culture. 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 they have permission to solve big problems, seize opportunities, and 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 real customers provide validated feedback. 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. Customers and intended users of the system must test MVPs in the target market for fast feedback. In many cases, the feedback is positive, and further investment is warranted to bring the innovation to market or into production. In other instances, the feedback dictates a change in direction. This change 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 or consideration of sunk costs in the initial experiments.
Organizations must go beyond catchy slogans, ‘innovation teams,’ and popular techniques like hackathons and dojos to create an innovation culture. A fundamental rewiring of the enterprise’s DNA is needed to fully leverage the innovation mindset and develop the processes and systems that promote sustained innovation. As shown in Figure 3, SAFe provides these required structures.
The continuous flow of innovation is built on SAFe principle #9, which promotes decentralized decision-making. Some innovation starts as strategic portfolio concerns realized through Epics and Lean Budgets applied to value streams. In building the solution to realize Epics, teams, suppliers, customers, and business leaders identify opportunities for improving the solution. The potential innovations that result can be considered an ‘innovation riptide’ that flows back into the structures SAFe provides for building solutions. Smaller, less expensive innovations flow into the ART Kanban as Features. In contrast, more significant, costly innovations require 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. While unattainable, 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, 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 always 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 small iterative and incremental improvements and experiments that enable the organization to learn its way to the most promising answer to a problem.
Relentless improvement is one of the four SAFe Core Values, conveying that improvement activities are essential to the survival of an organization and should be given priority, visibility, and resources. The following sections illustrate how a continuous learning culture is a critical component of relentless improvement.
Constant Sense of Urgency
Succeeding in the digital age requires sensing shifting market conditions and responding quickly. It requires inviting continuous feedback from customers even if the learning gained leads to change. Delivering needed improvements rapidly is as important as identifying what needs to change. Faster time-to-market requires a bias for action and a constant sense of urgency. In SAFe, this means addressing time-critical improvements frequently. Agile teams make improvements daily as needed and through the effective use of cadence-based SAFe events such as team retrospectives, the problem-solving workshop during Inspect & Adapt (I&A), and the IP iteration. Improvement Features and Stories that emerge from the I&A are incorporated into team plans and prioritized in work planned for the following PI. Time-critical improvements are addressed even more quickly using techniques such as an expedite lane in team and ART Kanbans or simply pausing routine work to swarm on high-impact issues.
Problem Solving Culture
In Lean, problem-solving is the driver for continuous improvement. It recognizes that a gap exists between the current and desired states, 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 attempting 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 that is applied until the target state is achieved. This model treats problems as opportunities for improvement in a blameless process. Employees at all levels are empowered and equipped with the time and resources to identify and solve problems. More importantly, every employee views solving problems as part of their ongoing responsibilities, empowered by decentralized decision-making (SAFe Principle #9). Techniques such as retrospectives, problem-solving workshops, hackathons, and communities of practice are ways SAFe reinforces a problem-solving culture.
Reflect and Adapt Frequently
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, daily as part of team sync events, and in real-time when possible through techniques like pairing, peer review, and swarming. ARTs and Solution Trains reflect every PI as part of the I&A problem-solving workshop. These cadence-based milestones provide predictability, consistency, and rigor to the process of relentless improvement in large enterprises.
Fact-based improvement leads to changes guided by the data surrounding the problem and informed solutions over opinions and conjecture. Tools and techniques like the Problem-Solving Workshop in SAFe can help determine the fact-based root cause of inefficiencies and lead to effective countermeasures that can be applied rapidly. Root cause analysis is exponentially more effective when supported by data. The self-assessments described in Measure and Grow provide one type of data-driven feedback to help focus improvement work. Organizations practicing the disciplines outlined in Big Data have even more powerful tools and analytics to deliver data-driven insights that lead to more targeted and effective improvement efforts.
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 instead of optimizing individual teams, silos, or subsystems. Organizing around value in ARTs, Solution Trains, and value streams creates opportunities for people in all domains to have regular cross-functional conversations about enhancing overall quality, the flow of value, and customer satisfaction. Participants in Lean Portfolio Management bring leaders together from across the organization to prioritize investments for improvements and new solutions holistically, representing a fundamental shift from past funding practices and prioritizing initiatives within silos.
Too often, organizations assume 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 in the future 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 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 leaders will give priority and visibility to this work.
A continuous learning culture will likely be the most effective way for this next generation of workers to improve relentlessly and ensure the success of the companies that employ them.
Learn More Senge, Peter M. The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of The Learning Organization. Crown Business, 2006.  Garvin, David A. Building a Learning Organization. Harvard Business Review, July-August 1993. Retrieved October 11, 2023, from https://hbr.org/1993/07/building-a-learning-organization  Pink, Daniel H. Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. Riverhead Books, 2011.  Marquardt, Michael J. Building the Learning Organization: Achieving Strategic Advantage through a Commitment to Learning. Nicholas Brealey, 2011.  Beswick, Cris, Derek Bishop, and Jo Geraghty. Building a Culture of Innovation: A Practical Framework for Placing Innovation at the Core of Your Business. Kogan Page, 2015.  Hendry, Erica R. 7 Epic Fails Brought to You By the Genius Mind of Thomas Edison. Smithsonian Magazine, November 20, 2013. Retrieved October 11, 2023, from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/innovation/7-epic-fails-brought-to-you-by-the-genius-mind-of-thomas-edison-180947786/  Ries, Eric. The Startup Way: How Modern Companies Use Entrepreneurial Management to Transform Culture and Drive Long-Term Growth. Currency, 2017.  Liker, Jeffery K. Developing Lean Leaders at All Levels: A Practical Guide. Lean Leadership Institute Publications, 2014.
Last update: 11 October 2023