Create a culture of learning


After working on a variety of projects with West Bend Mutual (WBM) over the last couple of years, it became clear to me that the company is serious about fostering a culture where individual and corporate learning is highly valued throughout all divisions within the organization.
"The process of learning has been so institutionalized at West Bend Mutual that we have incorporated learning into our objective setting throughout the company," said Tony Warren, president and chief executive officer of the firm. "Our company, although 110 years old, has a history of continuous improvement. In fact, the continuous improvement process is so engrained within West Bend Mutual that we have actually identified continuous improvement as a core value … We also know that continuous improvement involves education."
Organizations that have a true culture of learning place great value on the collective wisdom of their employees – the in-house consultants. High performing companies such as WBM find innovative ways to tap into the creativity and insights of their associates.
In fact, a couple months ago, a representative group of WBM’s associate team was asked to come together for one day to gather their insights regarding both strategic and operational issues. With this effort, the executive team at WBM was able to gather valuable insight into the continuous improvement process.
Of greater significance, however, is the fact that the WBM executive team has placed a high priority on learning from within and throughout all divisions within the organization.
This belief system creates energy and enthusiasm within companies, but more importantly, is representative of a larger cultural issue. The process of systematically gathering associate input and insights is a clear indication that an organization values the collective wisdom of their employees – the in-house consultant.
To enlighten readers of Small Business Times, I recently posed some questions to Warren about WBM’s evolution.
Question: Why is creating a culture of learning important to WBM’s corporate success?
Warren: "Our vision is to become the premier insurance company in the markets we serve. Our agents expect us to deliver quality property and casualty products in a timely, error-free environment. At the same time, they demand an ever-increasing array of services that allow them to respond to their customers’ needs in an efficient and reliable fashion. We must outperform our many competitors and compete from a price and total value perspective. If we are not continually improving our company, our relationships and services, we will not be the preferred carrier within the agencies that sell our products."
Question: Identify some of the ways WBM has created and perpetuated a culture of learning within the organization.
Warren: "We provide learning opportunities for our agents and their employees. Every year, we provide training for several thousand agents in various aspects of our business, from agency management issues to specific product instruction. In addition, and as a result of listening to our agents, our IT division created Framework University, which allows us to deliver on time, on budget automation solutions that meet our customer’s needs.
"Another example of how our culture of learning has assisted our company is our benchmarking process. Over the years, we have developed a series of performance benchmarking exercises which allow us to measure our success in improving our operational performance. Each division has a series of defined benchmarks that track our success in meeting ongoing objectives. This type of measurement creates the critical dialogue, which fosters a culture of ongoing learning and growth.
"We have also created the book club for all of our officers. Twice a year, a book is selected for review. All officers meet after hours to discuss key take-aways from their reading. This has been a great way to foster improved relationships, new ideas and creative problem solving on the part of the officer group. This practice also fosters common direction, teamwork and a sense of community within our leadership team. The officer team enthusiastically supports this type of activity, and they share lessons learned within their own divisions."
With Warren’s thoughts in mind, now look in the mirror. In the search for knowledge, no stone should be left unturned. This is the mantra of organizations that truly have a culture of learning.
Action plan
In the spirit of continuous improvement, you can assess your company’s culture of learning by answering the following questions:
1) Do your employees act as if there is much to learn from other departments within the organization?
2) Does management seek out and value new ideas throughout all levels of the organization?
3) Do most people within your organization make a conscious effort to solicit feedback from other colleagues to uncover best practices already utilized within the organization?
4) Does your company provide meaningful ongoing opportunities for formal or informal company-wide sharing?
5) Does management honestly know how the employees feel about the strategic direction and critical priorities of the organization?
6) Does your organization actively seek client feedback in an effort to further enhance the value of the product or service you provide?
7) Does your company actively look outside the organization to find ways to enhance its internal base of knowledge and understanding in areas critical to your organization?
If you answered no to two or more of these questions, it is likely your organization is not realizing its full potential. Enhancing your company’s ability to learn will likely have a positive impact to the bottom line of your organization.
As you work toward improving the culture of learning within your organization, according to each of the above assessment questions, establish a goal to build an action plan for each item where you answered "No."
Be sure to leverage your team and ask for their help with this endeavor.
Philip Mydlach is the owner of Mydlach Management Advisors, a corporate planning and performance improvement consulting practice in New Berlin. He can be reached at (262) 785-5552 or
June 25, 2004, Small Business Times, Milwaukee, WI

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