Have you noticed that the word continuous is being added to some familiar terms? For example, feedback is now continuous feedback.
No-one explains what makes continuous feedback better than any other type of feedback. But context and usage suggest that the person who pursues continuous feedback is attending to the need to always be better and do better. Continuous means unceasing. Continuous feedback never stops.
Use of the word continuous probably originates with the notion of continuous improvement (also called Kaizen), a process that became well known in the United States beginning in the mid-1980s. Toyota used it to improve the quality of its manufacturing process.
The Toyota process was continuous. If a worker spotted a defect, the worker would pull a cable; the line would stop, music would sound alerting others that a problem had been spotted. Managers and others gathered to do a root cause analysis to identify and fix the cause of the problem. This scenario occurred throughout the plant, every day – in other words, continuously.
Making This Work for an Individual
Imagine for a moment; you’re receiving and trying to process unending feedback. How do you do it?
You can’t pay attention to everything; you’ll quickly become overwhelmed. And so the trick is to pay attention only to exceptions. To do that you standardize all processes. That means it’s easy to notice if something is out of sequence or out of place.
When workers find an exception, most don’t stop what they’re doing, identify the root cause, and make sure the exception doesn’t happen again. They don’t have time. The organization they work in usually doesn’t give them the time. The goal is not to learn; the goal is to keep things going. To make that happen, workers often will come up with a workaround.
What Continuous Feedback Does and Doesn’t Do
Continuous feedback might help efficiency with a predetermined task. It’s a signal. But that’s all it is.
Chris Argyris called it single-loop learning. He used a thermostat to illustrate. The thermostat continuously monitors the temperature. When the temperature hits a predetermined point, heating or cooling turns on or off.
Toyota’s workers did single-loop learning and then switched to what Argyris would call double-loop learning. Essentially, that means that workers at Toyota stepped back, examined how things were done and changed what needed to be changed – which could include part of the manufacturing process. An After Action Review (AAR) is a similar process.
Double-loop learning doesn’t apply only to something significant like a manufacturing process. It occurs when individuals have to learn how to do something different – a behavior, new software, a unique process that eliminates the need for that workaround. It happens any time people re-examine what and how they are doing things and come up with a new – and presumably better – way.
Where Learning Fits In
Use of the term continuous feedback seems to be a way of emphasizing the importance of continuing to learn from experience. But it doesn’t work that way in practice. It is part of a self-contained process in which you decide in advance what to pay attention to and what to ignore. This might lead to a more efficient process. But it won’t lead to a different and more innovative way of reaching the same goal.
Double-loop learning – the learning that leads to a better process – is not continuous or efficient in the way that a well-honed process is. You step away from the current process and rethink it. Or you might be learning how to do something different or in a different way. This type of learning takes time – first to consolidate what is learned initially and then to apply it often enough and in enough situations, so that eventually what was learned becomes automatic.
Summing it up
The idea of continuous feedback seems to be that if the feedback is continuous, we will learn and change and improve continuously.
Sounds good. But…
Continuous feedback means a constant torrent of data. The only way to deal with it is to choose in advance what to pay attention to and what to ignore. In practice, that means looking only at exceptions to your routine and adjusting when they arise. That will get more efficiency.
But if you must learn a new routine, a new behavior, a new process, continuous feedback won’t be much help. That’s not how learning works when you’re learning something new. You will have to take in the information, make sense of it, and then apply it over and over, each time with feedback until you have integrated it into your behavior.