!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD XHTML 1.0 Strict//EN" "http://www.w3.org/TR/xhtml1/DTD/xhtml1-strict.dtd"> Streamline Training & Documentation: The Learning Curve

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The Learning Curve

An article by Gary Wolf in the May issue of Wired on "The Memory Master," Piotr Wozniak, has prompted me to delve a bit into where the concept of the learning curve came from.

Productivity changes due to learning
(click image to enlarge)
Source:Project Management for Construction
Carnegie Mellon University

The learning curve — showing the relationship between time spent learning and progress achieved — was first defined by Hermann Ebbinghaus (1850-1909), a German psychologist who made a study of memory and forgetting.

The halfvalue.com wiki has compiled a list (here somewhat edited) of the sources of movement along the learning curve for a particular body of knowledge or a particular skill set:
  • Labor efficiency — Workers become more dexterous and more confident, which reduces time lost to hesitating, learning, experimenting, and making mistakes. Over time they learn short-cuts and improvements.

  • Standardization, specialization, and methods improvements — As processes, parts, and products become more standardized, efficiency tends to increase. When employees specialize in a limited set of tasks, they gain more experience with these tasks and operate at a faster rate.

  • Technology-driven learning — Automated production technology and information technology can introduce efficiencies as they are implemented and people learn how to use them efficiently and effectively.

  • Better use of equipment — As total production increases, manufacturing equipment is more fully exploited, lowering unit costs. In addition, purchase of more productive equipment can be cost-effective.

  • Changes in the resource mix — As a company acquires experience, it can alter its mix of inputs and thereby become more efficient.

  • Product redesign — As manufacturers and consumers have more experience with the product, they can usually find improvements. This filters through to the manufacturing process.

  • Value chain effects — Suppliers and distributors also move along the learning curve, making the whole value chain more efficient.

  • Network-building and use-cost reductions — As a product enters more widespread use, consumers use it more efficiently because they're familiar with it. For example, the proliferation of fax machines established an increasingly efficient network of communications over time.

  • Shared experience effects — Learning curve effects are reinforced when two or more products share a common activity or resource. Any efficiency learned from one product can be applied to the other products.
When people talk about "accelerating learning," they are, in effect, talking about contriving to help people progress faster along the learning curve.


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