Big Learning, Fast Futures

The faster you learn, the bigger you win.

A year ago, Taco Bell's COO Tom Davin faced a big challenge. He and his colleagues had devised a turnaround strategy to distinguish their company from the big burger chains. The strategy was built on "A+" customer service. But Davin knew that strategy alone would not win the food fight: Excellence would depend on execution. Were Taco Bell's front-line leaders — 7,000 restaurant managers — willing to accept responsibility for turning the turnaround strategy into a day-to-day reality? Would they bear the burden of reinvigorating their restaurants — most of which had annual employee turnover rates of more than 100%?

Davin and his colleagues asked those questions of one another. Then they posed them to Root Learning Inc., a small consulting firm with some big-name clients — Mercedes-Benz, Hewlett-Packard, Boeing, PepsiCo, IBM. Root's answer: Get all of your restaurant managers together, and let them figure things out. "Companies say to us, 'We tell people what our mission is, but they don't get it. We must have a communication problem,' " notes Randall Root, 53, founder and CEO. "Those companies don't have a communication problem. They have a misunderstanding of human nature. If you're CEO, people tolerate your ideas. But they act their own ideas."

Taco Bell followed Root's advice. This past March, 90% of its 7,000 restaurant managers converged on the Opryland Hotel, in Nashville. The group split into teams of 8 or 10, each with its own copy of a table-size "RootMap" — a colorful information graphic that uses metaphor, imagery, and data to capture strategic dilemmas. Taco Bell's map, called "Welcome to the Jungle," identified pitfalls that the company faces on the way to delivering on the Taco Bell Promise: "To be the most energizing place to work, eat, and own."

About 1,100 franchise owners, vice presidents, directors, and district managers coached the restaurant managers through a series of mapping exercises, each of which asked participants to draw conclusions from information that was presented to them. An hour after the exercises began, Joe Stout, a 54-year-old manager from Atlanta, was smiling — and feeling plugged in. He knew for the first time where the company stood in relation to its competition, what percentage of restaurant managers were making their goals, and what his store needed to work on. By the end of the day, he was among the throng of people whooping it up in a company cheer. "It helped me put things into a larger context," says Stout, who has been a store manager for two years. "I'm not the only one having problems."

At one level, the Opryland event was an extravaganza — loud, lavish, expensive. At another level, it was just common sense. The point of the exercise was to give rank-and-filers a way to understand the company they work for and the challenges that it faces in the marketplace. "When people are a cog in a machine, when they don't have a sense of belonging, they're lost," Root says. "But when you connect them to the whole — and that's what these maps do — they get that sense of belonging, which is what people need most. It isn't just about money. It's about meaning. People want to know that what they do matters. We just never bothered to show them."

Randall Root's nontraditional approach to learning grew out of frustration with how his once-traditional consulting firm operated. "We'd have a retreat with senior managers, draft a plan, and then send it off in a leather binder with brass corners," he says. "Then we'd visit the company and see cobwebs on the thing — because no one had figured out how to implement the plan."

So Root and Jim Haudan, 43, president and COO, began exploring how people learn rather than how experts consult. They refined a process that draws on the skills of 55 people — from researchers to illustrators. First, a team of Root's facilitators meets with top executives at a client company to help them clarify their message. Then, over a period of months, the team and the company go through several iterations of RootMaps. These maps, which are custom-made for each situation, get tested on pilot groups that consist of people within the company. The maps are never right the first time: The goal is to spur conversations. "There are no teachers here," Root says. "This is about self-discovery. It's about big learning, fast."

Taco Bell's Davin admits that the exercise in Nashville taught him some lessons about the link between high-level strategy and in-the-trenches learning. "Giving managers only goals, figures, and formulas wasn't enough to help them improve," he says. "We needed to do more to help them drive their business." That's a lesson that more companies need to learn, adds Haudan: "The faster you learn, the bigger you win."

You can contact Randall Root by email (rootr@rootlearning.com).

Sidebar: Get Smarter about Learning

Root Learning gets at the root of how companies really work — and that means understanding how people really learn. In an interview with Fast Company, CEO Randall Root and his partner, Jim Haudan, shared some of their ideas about learning.

To learn is to think. "Most so-called learning experiences don't require any thinking," Haudan complains. "They're just persuasive attempts to get the learners (employees) to agree with the teacher's (manager's) conclusions. Real thinking occurs only when people are engaged in answering the most strategic questions of the business — when they are encouraged to make connections and to defend responses."

Before you learn, unlearn. "In order to cope, all of us create our own mental models of how our business works," Root says. "These models can be far removed from reality. We did some work with Sears at the time of its turnaround. Its employees believed that the company kept about 45 cents out of each dollar of merchandise sold. In reality, Sears kept only 2 cents per dollar. Before we could even hope for a change in behavior, we had to get people to let go of that false assumption."

To win big, learn fast. "Companies will never have a truly sustainable advantage that's based on products or prices," Haudan says. "You need to focus on the rate at which people learn. It's the learning speed of the slowest many, not the learning speed of the brightest few, that will set the pace for your company."

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