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Five Principles to a Learning Culture

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In 2015, roughly 6,200 shops were either I-CAR Gold Class certified or on the path to achieving that mark. In an industry of 30,000-plus shops, that means less than 20 percent of all shops are dedicated to I-CAR training. And while FenderBender’s How I Work survey revealed that 76 percent of respondents have attended industry-specific management training, that number fell drastically to the low 20s when participants were asked if they work with a consultant, are part of a 20 Group, or are association members.

Those are distressing numbers, says Jeff Peevy, president of the Automotive Management Institute (AMI), and the fact is, having a learning culture—a term derived from the I-CAR study that Peevy worked on during his career at the organization—that’s dedicated to training has a direct ROI. According to the study, shops that achieved I-CAR Gold Class status showed improvements in four key performance indicators:

  • Cycle time improved by more than 14 percent
  • Touch time improved by nearly 34 percent
  • Frequency of supplements for necessary repairs overlooked in the estimate dropped by 11 percent
  • Customer satisfaction increased 5 percent

“I believe that a learning culture is an element within a business’s culture. I also believe that it is the most important piece of a business culture when it comes to success,” Peevy says. “In the very best performing repair shops, they have ingrained in their pattern of learned assumption an understanding of the role learning plays in maintaining success.”

Whether you have some elements of a learning culture implemented in your shop or are starting from the beginning, Peevy breaks down the core principles of a learning culture.

Defining ‘Learning Culture’

In the book Creating a Learning Culture by Marcia Conner and James Clawson, the authors define a learning culture “as a pattern of learned assumptions that has worked well enough to be considered valid and, therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think and feel in relation to the problems of survival and integration.”

Peevy says that this definition gets to the heart of how a culture develops within a business and the potential performance skills that exist.

“The idea that our employees are operating under a pattern of learned assumptions and that these assumptions are considered to be so correct in the way someone should think and act that they are taught to new members as the way to operate and act,” says Peevy. “If these patterns of learned assumptions are indeed correct, the business will be profitable, efficient, have better-than-average employee retention and keep up with the changes required to sustain it. If the assumptions are not correct, the business will continue to struggle and typically look externally for the reasons for it.”

Principle #1: The culture starts with leadership.

Peevy says that he lays the implementation of a learning culture squarely on management’s shoulders. While anyone can be a catalyst for adopting a learning culture in a shop, Peevy says that if leadership is not committed, it may be an uphill battle.

“[Shop owners] have to make the connection that you can’t disconnect knowledge and competitiveness. The more knowledge you have, the more competitive you can be.” —Jeff Peevy, president, Automotive Management Institute

“The first step is that they need to believe the principle of ‘knowledge equals competitiveness’”, he says. “They have to make the connection that you can’t disconnect knowledge and competitiveness. The more knowledge you have, the more competitive you can be.”

Peevy says that learning cultures must start with leadership truly believing that learning is crucial to success and setting an expectation for themselves to learn everything they can by utilizing every resource at their disposal.

Principle #2: Encourage learning conversations.

As a leader, the next step Peevy recommends is setting an expectation that everyone in the shop should learn everything they can in every way possible. Begin to discuss things you have recently learned and encourage your staff to do the same. When you send a technician to a training class or require them to take an online class, explain why learning is important, both for them personally and for the business, and set an expectation for the employee to take what they have learned and share it.

Peevy says recently acquired knowledge is maximized when it is shared. And when learning is expected, employees tend to sit up front, take notes and ask questions. When it is not, the employee tends to sit in the back and does just what they have to in order to get through the class.

“A lot of times, business owners and staff will discourage staff from talking to one another because they see it as an inefficiency,” he says. “And, agreed, it can be. But when staff is talking to one another about things they’ve learned and they’re sharing that knowledge, it’s not a waste of time. It will save time.”

Principle #3: Set an expectation to share knowledge.

This leads to the next important element of a learning culture: the expectation to share knowledge. Peevy recommends considering establishing a quick meeting on a regular schedule that is focused solely on what the team members have learned since the last meeting.

“In a healthy way this drives the point home and places a bit of pressure on learning something between meetings until it becomes a habit,” Peevy says.

He also encourages starting the habit of simply asking, “What have we learned?” as a conversation starter. As you move into this phase of adopting a culture of learning, be sensitive to individuals that perceive themselves as knowing everything and that lack the respect of coworkers. This individual will work against advancing the idea of knowledge sharing, Peevy says, as they see it as a license to spend even more of their time trying to convince everyone how smart they are.

Principle #4: Make a commitment to expertise.

Another important element in your quest to grow a learning culture within your business is to establish the need for all employees to make a personal commitment to expertise. This seems simple enough, but Peevy says this rarely happens in practice.

“We do what we have to do to get through the day and never make the commitment to ourselves and to our boss and coworkers that we will intentionally learn and develop in every way possible within the role we have, within the business we work in,” he says. “From top to bottom, everyone needs to make that personal commitment to be an expert in what you’re doing. That becomes a habit. If you become the best detailer, you’re probably going to end up becoming the best painter.”

Principle #5: Emphasize learning in recruiting.

The last step comes down to recruiting, and, specifically, highlighting the need to learn, grow and share knowledge as the very first qualifier used to describe what the candidate must possess to be successful within your business.

“We found this attracts a younger, more educated individual, who the repair business has likely never seen in its recruitment efforts,” he says. “Someone with experience that is attracted to the mention of a willingness to learn and share knowledge will typically have extensive training and certifications, because they have an interest in expertise.”

The typical repair businesses all highlight similar things they want in a help-wanted ad, Peevy says, such as experience, tools, high-production capabilities and ASE certification. While he concedes that these traits are important, a willingness to learn and share knowledge should be the very first non-negotiable.

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