Ever since the publication, nearly two decades ago, of Peter Senge’s monumental bestseller The Fifth Discipline, we’ve been in the age of the “learning organization.” Executives have come to understand that for their companies to stay ahead of the competition, their people, at every level, have to learn more (and more quickly) than the competition: new skills, new takes on emerging technologies, new ways to do old things, from manufacturing to marketing to R&D. Gary Hamel, the influential business strategist, likes to say that one of the most urgent questions facing leaders (and thus their companies) is, “Are you learning as fast as the world is changing?”
It’s hard to argue with this love of learning. But one thing I’ve learned over the last few years, as I’ve traveled the world in search of organizations unleashing big change in difficult circumstances, is that the most determined innovators — the organizations with the most original ideas about how to compete and win — aren’t just committed to learning. They are just as committed to teaching. They understand that the only sustainable form of market leadership is thought leadership. And if, as Aristotle famously said, “teaching is the highest form of understanding,” then they also understand that the most powerful way to demonstrate your position as a thought leader is to teach other organizations what you know — whether they are customers, suppliers, or even direct competitors.
Think of it as the rise of the teaching organization. One of the most compelling examples of this phenomenon is a health-care provider in Seattle called Virginia Mason, a 90-year-old hospital system with 400 doctors and nearly 5,000 employees. Dr. Gary Kaplan, the organization’s CEO, is something of a legend in healthcare circles for the turnaround he’s led since taking charge in February 2000. At the time, Virginia Mason was struggling with deteriorating finances, inefficient processes, and uneven quality. Kaplan and his colleagues became committed students of the Toyota Production System, the blend of management techniques that fueled the rise of the most powerful car company in the world. The CEO led frequent pilgrimages to Japan, adopted the strategies, practices, and management language of its Japanese mentor, and developed a whole new way of running a hospital that it calls the Virginia Mason Production System — a system that has delivered staggering improvements.
In other words, Virginia Mason became the ultimate learning organization. Now it aspires to become the ultimate teaching organization. A year ago, Kaplan created the Virginia Mason Institute and opened the doors of his hospital to the outside word. The Institute leads tours of the facilities and explains how they work, teaches classes in various management techniques, and otherwise shares what Virginia Mason knows with individual executives and entire healthcare systems. The student has become the teacher.
Why bother? “First and foremost,” Kaplan told me, “this is about our vision to be the quality leader in our field and to help transform the field as a whole. Part of our mission as a company is to help improve our industry. But the more we educate, the faster we move as well. This will spur us on, push us to keep getting better, and people will chase our taillights. Our credibility as a company is dependent on our ability to deliver results. By teaching others what we’ve learned, it forces us to keep learning.”