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Activating the 'Action Learning Process' at your mill; the ALP can leverage industry expertise for problem solving while creating and capturing new knowledge.

Regardless of how well a mill performs operationally, problems will arise that need solutions for the mill to return to acceptable performance. Typical problem solving begins with in-house resources followed by shared resources from groups involved in such areas as corporate process improvement or operational support. If the problem continues or is recurring, assistance can come from various external resources, including suppliers and consultants.

These "expert" resources will often enter the picture independently of each other and have a given period to "fix" a problem. During this time, the pain continues as loss of productivity, quality rejections, or increased costs of manufacturing. To make matters worse, the learning and knowledge that arise in search of the solution are not captured for future application. An unfortunate result is the "reinventing the wheel" syndrome.

A solution does exist. The Action Learning Process (ALP) is a unique technique for rapidly resolving operational problems. ALP unites knowledgeable resources in a dynamic and collaborative setting that generates innovative solutions and detailed action plans. Besides simply solving a current issue, the process captures the knowledge created during the problem resolution in a format for archiving and repeated reapplication across an organization.


The value of action learning comes from combining a real-time problem with a learning need that involves a motivated set of participants. Combining these three elements ensures that the proper people are learning how to address the proper problem at the proper time.

Steve Gardiner, currently director of training and development at Purdue Pharma, first facilitated an ALP session in the late 1990s while at Champion International.

"We knew that bringing together key subject matter experts to help several locations address a major cost opportunity could be beneficial," he said. "The ideas and action plans that arose from the session resulted in significantly greater savings than we could have anticipated. More importantly, it convinced us and the manufacturing folks that ALP could be an effective tool for addressing other operating problems."


Action Learning is not a new concept. Organizations such as IBM, GE, Wal-Mart, and the U.S. Air Force have used action-learning techniques for years to address various issues. Recent changes in the pulp and paper industry have created a need for alternate ways to supply problem solving and knowledge creating activities. Consider the following:

* Mergers and acquisitions have resulted in a loss, redeployment, or both of operating and technical expertise at the mill level.

* Many senior and knowledgeable paper and pulp makers have taken advantage of early retirement packages and left manufacturers with a significant practical knowledge void.

* Suppliers to the industry, are seeking ways to add value to their customers. One service now commonly expected of all suppliers is the delivery of process knowledge.

According to James McNutt, executive director of the Center for Paper Business and Industry Studies (CPBIS), these changes require organizations to operate differently. "We must find better and more effective ways to bring timely industry know-how to the folks who call make improvements happen," he said. "Being able to coordinate subject matter expertise quickly and effectively and apply the appropriate knowledge to manufacturing issues has been and still is key to improving operations and financial performance. Yet, expert resources do not reside at our mills nearly to the same degree as they have historically. Rather, today they are increasingly found in the supplier and consulting base and the academic institutions. Being able to deliver and utilize what these contemporary knowledge sources possess to help solve industry's operating and financial problems is a critical ingredient to the success of our industry partners."


Several key activities go into designing and delivering an effective action learning session.

* Identifying the opportunity. ALP can address a wide range of problems. Situations where the process is useful exist when a barrier to further improvement occurs or when lack of knowledge hinders problem resolution. In addition, problems where outside perspectives are desirable also make good candidates.

* Subject matter expert selection. After choosing a specific problem, the make-up of subject matter experts is critical. Invited subject matter experts must have qualifications to address possible causes of the selected problem. John Neun, product manager for Kadant AES, recalls sharing his expertise in the area of press section showering during a session on improving felt conditioning. "As one of several suppliers asked to participate in the session, I had the opportunity to focus in detail on shower design and application. I was able to share both the theory and practical aspects of showering in press sections with an audience of interested manufacturing personnel from multiple locations in a setting that was fast paced yet collaborative."

* Practical solutions. Knowledge recipients at the session must be able to make things happen with the knowledge they acquire. This requires problem ownership and being in a responsible position to implement improvements. Although some organizations view this as a learning opportunity for young, inexperienced personnel, the primary focus should be to give key operating leaders new and innovative solutions they can implement quickly.

* Action planning. This element of the process is what makes Action Learning most valuable and distinguishes the process from traditional training seminars. After problem owners discuss key knowledge and prioritize into major categories, they develop and commit to location specific action items. Each participant leaves the session with specific actions to pursue.

* Follow-up. The learning does not stop when the session concludes. Providing a mechanism for team members to share experiences and results during implementation of the solutions continues delivering practical knowledge into the organization.

* Miscellaneous. Other key ALP steps include using trained facilitation for session design and execution, establishing a common measurement system to track results, and having a method to capture all the learning that arises during implementation for future use.


Being able to bring all relevant knowledge to bear on solving a problem is important to success of an organization. A method for combining the internal know-how of a company with the best practices in industry can ensure the use of all resources. The Action Learning Process is a proven technique for harvesting relevant knowledge on a focused issue and turning that knowledge into performance enhancing activities. S!


* The International Foundation for Action Learning/ USA chapter (IFAL-USA) is an association far ALP practitioners Go to

* For more information on ALP and other learning strategies, go to


To design and implement a successful Action Learning Process ...


[check] Recognize that this is a change process requiring leadership support.

[check] Assemble a team that includes decision-makers and implementers.

[check] Be very clear from the beginning about goals, roles, and the responsibilities of the team.

[check] Stress the "Action" in Action Learning,


x Rush into an Action Learning session without up-front preparation.

x Pick a problem to address that does not fit any of the criteria.

x Assume that the learning is complete once the session concludes.

x Leave the session without agreeing upon metrics.

About the author: Dan Rivard is founder and president of Rivard Solutions, Monroe, Connecticut, USA. Rivard spent 20 years with Champion International Corp, and International Paper Co. Contact him at + 1 203 452-8806 or by email at
COPYRIGHT 2002 Paper Industry Management Association
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Copyright 2002, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:Practical Solutions
Author:Rivard, Dan
Publication:Solutions - for People, Processes and Paper
Date:Nov 1, 2002
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