Learning Business Tradeskill: Learning by Doing

Let’s talk about learning business tradeskill; learning how to perform the elements of tradeskill, over and over, until they become ingrained in our lives… or until you decide that they’re not for you.

Learning by Doing

Learning by Doing

Business tradeskill is a package of 5 separate skills:

  1. persistence
  2. facing the facts
  3. minimizing risks
  4. learning by doing
  5. grasping numbers

Today, let’s talk about learning by doing.  Why is learning by doing so important that it’s on the short list of entrepreneurial essentials?

There’s every chance that the business we dreamed plan isn’t the business we end up operating. When the business starts, there’s that period when everything is new, and only some things work; we need to change or fail. As the business grows, our challenges change. Over time, both in the short and long term, the marketplace changes. Our customers change. The only way to stay useful and relevant (i.e.., remain in business) is to learn, all the time.

“Successful entrepreneurs tend to be insatiably curious about almost everything, and often they are good at learning by doing. Their open-minded, can-do attitude is among their best assets.”

Richard Branson

The Three Parts of Learning by Doing

We’re not trying to accumulate abstract or theoretical knowledge. We need to learn today so that we can do tomorrow, for our businesses. That’s immediate, practical, and it has real wallet consequences. We also need to learn quickly. And of course, we need to learn behind the counter, in the office, on the factory floor… because that’s where we’re spending most of our days. A tall order, but one that learning by doing can satisfy like no other learning style.

Let’s divide learning by doing into two habits and a skill. They’re all important, but it works best when we do all three together, in the following order:

  1. be there to ask what, and more importantly, why
  2. tease out the lesson
  3. apply (and reapply) the lesson

The Habit of Being There

It seems so terribly simple. We need to show up. The truth is, though, that the business day is full of activity, We all do some things simply because we need a break from daily stresses and pressures. (For years, I drive 25 miles down the road to my accountants at the end of the month to go over the numbers face to face, just because I enjoyed it.) Perhaps half of our day involves routine; things need to get done and we do them. But we need to hear, see and feel the events that make or break business.

It seems like a simple thing, but we have to develop the habit of “being there”. Anyone who wants to learn by doing needs to be at the scene, in this case our business, when the challenges come up, when the solutions are discussed, and when the solutions help meet the challenge. We don’t always need to be physically present; we can congratulate others on their success, or commiserate with them when things don’t go to plan. After delegating responsibility and authority, that’s how we show up, and how we can “be there” by proxy.

This isn’t new wisdom. Japanese business texts often talk about gemba, which means “at the site”. Japanese supervisors and managers are routinely surprised by how much time Americans spend in their own offices, when Japanese managers are in the laboratory or on the factory floor. They learn by observing closely every part of how their businesses work. If the word “gemba” intrigues you, I can recommend Jim Womack’s Gemba Walks (ISBN 978-1-934109-30-4) as a very good read indeed.  You can find it on Amazon and the iBooks Store.

However we engage, we start learning after we discover what happened. For almost any situation we can take a big step towards learning by asking How? And Why?.

We can use the same technique on ourselves, pretending to talk with ourselves in the third person. In fact, the more unhappy, frustrated and embarrassed we are, the better off we become by putting a little emotional separation into the self-discussion.

The Skill of Teasing the Lesson out of the experience

Doctors spend a lot of time diagnosing the disease by observing the patient’s symptoms; we shouldn’t be surprised that there’s a skill to teasing lessons from our experiences. We can begin to develop our diagnostic skills by asking “why” several times, like so:

Why does our shop have this sudden drop-off in sales?

“The number of sales per day has gone down (but the number of store visitors is the same).”

Why has the number of sales per day gone down?

“It’s taking longer to ring up each sale.”

Why is it taking longer?

“We’re tracking purchased items by purchaser and it’s slowing checkout.”

Why are we tracking purchased items by purchaser?

“We’re trying to see what types of people are buying what items.”

Wait a minute… could we have gotten the same information by simply talking to the cashiers?

And there’s the lesson. Complications usually have unintended consequences. In this case we loaded down the cashiers with more work for every checkout, and on busy days we simply did fewer of them. It’s costing sales. Maybe it’s time to try a simpler way. We’ll ask the cashiers to keep their eyes open and tell us what they see. It might not be documented and quantitative, but it yields the same information.

Another way of teasing out the lesson is to ask directly “What are we learning?”. That question has the powerful effect of NOT trying to lay blame or focus on mistakes; it keeps the focus on being effective.

Yet another question asks “What would I do differently if I had to do it over?”

In all these, the skill is in asking the question and then sifting patiently through the answer(s), not being content until we think we’ve uncovered the root cause. Because somebody’s feelings, judgement or reputation is almost always involved it’s best to “tease” out the lesson gently. Even if that somebody is ourselves.

The Habit of Applying and Re-Applying Lessons

“Learning is an active process. We learn by doing.. Only knowledge that is used sticks in your mind.”

Dale Carnegie

In business, only applied learning counts. We have to develop the habit of putting learning to work, and that means deciding upon, and acting upon, the lesson we’ve teased out of the experience.

“What should we do” should immediately follow hard after “what are we learning.” Then we ought to do it, as soon and as quickly as possible.

Why not take up my challenge and start purposefully learning by doing? Pick one daily experience of today, and recount the experience as if you were telling what happened to someone else. Then ask yourself:

  • Why did that happen? And why again? And why again?
  • What am I learning?
  • What should I do?

Take your answer to “what should I do” and write it on something you keep handy. It might be pad of paper in your purse, or an index card in your pocket, or on your hand. Tell yourself that when tomorrow’s experience comes ‘round, you’re going to respond according to your note to yourself.

The experience doesn’t have to be significant and life-changing. It doesn’t even have to be business-related. In fact, it’s easier to develop the two habits and one skill of learning by doing if we start with something modest and everyday.

Here’s my simple index card tool to help myself learn by doing.  I’ll have started to learn by doing when I’ve got five filled-out cards. I know that I’ll be better at learning by doing after I’ve accumulated about thirty cards. How about you?

Learning by Doing Card

Learning by Doing Card

Honestly, I need to say this; just because I wrote, and you read, this post doesn’t make either one of us one bit better at learning by doing. The way we’ll get better at learning by doing is to experience life, question it, and act on our questions. No substitutes.



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