Learning Teams from Dr Todd Conklin

Learning Teams from Dr Todd Conklin, PhD, are part of a way of looking at safety, quality and operational excellence differently by a facilitated approach to worker engagement and supporting the empowerment of people to own safety, quality or operational excellence.


In the book Pre-Accident Investigations: Better Questions - An Applied Approach to Operational Learning, Dr Todd Conklin challenges safety and reliability professionals to get better answers by asking better questions. A provocative examination of human performance and safety management, the book delivers a thought-provoking discourse about how we work, and defines a new approach to operational learning. Learning Teams is an approach to operational learning.


A Learning Team is a facilitated means of engaging with workers to understand and then learn from the opportunities that are presented by everyday successful and safe work as well as learning from events or incidents.  This includes understanding what, when, how and why people do things differently from the formal systems and procedures in order to get the job done. By understanding what's necessary to make sure things go right (operational safety), we can focus on ensuring these factors are present in the workplace every day. Involving workers is crucial to gaining this understanding. In essence, Learning Teams are a worker-focused engagement approach to problem identification, and problem-solving issues, conditions, environments, opportunities and threats in organizations to support continuous improvement of operational excellence. Operational excellence is important in high-reliability organizations.

Learning Team Principles

A principle is defined as a fundamental truth or proposition that serves as the foundation for a system of beliefs or behaviors or for a chain of reasoning. By defining principles for Learning Teams, a framework is established, supported by a set of fundamental knowledge and competencies for both the organization and for Learning Team facilitators to apply, reflect and improve on when using Learning Teams in their organization. The five core principles of Learning Teams as defined in the book "The Practice of Learning Teams" are:

Number 1

Understanding that Work-As-Imagined and Work-As-Done give context
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Number 2

Groups outperform individuals in problem identification and problem solving
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Number 3

Workers have the best knowledge and understanding of the problem
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Number 4

The more effort put into understanding the problem, the better the solution outcomes
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Number 5

Group problem identification, solving and reflection (soak time) drives learning and improvement
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When do learning opportunities exist

Everyday Learning Teams

Using Learning Teams to understand everyday successful and safe work.

Everyday Learning Teams involves a way to gather intelligence from the opportunities that are presented by everyday work and undertake a Periodic Learning Team to understand, learn and improve from those opportunities.


Being able to undertake intelligence gathering is different from the conventional methods of gaining information from organisational interventions such as safety walks, safety observations, audits, reviews etc.


Traditional methods of gathering information place focus on the opportunity for finding things that could go wrong rather than understanding the difference between successful and unsuccessful work.

Event Learning Teams

Using Learning Teams to learn and improve from events for both Workers and the Organisation.

Event-based Learning Teams involves facilitated engagement with workers connected to the event and other stakeholders to understand and then learn from the opportunities that are presented. 


Learning after an incident:

  • Tells the story as each person saw the event
  • Tells the story of complexity
  • Tells the story of normal variability and coupling
  • Tells the story of how work gets done
  • Improves our understanding of processes and the system.

Periodic Learning Teams

Using Learning Teams for management of change that could affect worker safety.

Whilst Event Learning Teams is a reactive approach to a change in the organisation, Management of Change or Periodic Learning Teams is a proactive approach to change. 


Change management acts as a form of assurance and verification to ensure that organisation changes do not negatively affect how risks and hazards are managed. 


Understanding what could go wrong will help you to plan your changes so that you retain control of negative impacts and prevent you from dealing with unnecessary troubles as you learn and improve.

Everyday Learning Team Video

Organisational and Worker Learning

Learning Teams support both worker learning and organisation learning by allowing stakeholders (workers, contractors, health and safety representatives, unions, management, suppliers and officers) to  better understand when, how, and why, people do things differently from following formal, written procedures. By understanding what is necessary to make sure things go right, it is possible to focus on ensuring that factors which make things go right are present in the workplace every day. This process also helps to identify the gap between WAI and WAD.