Learning Curves

Learning Faster to Improve Efficiency

Also Known as Experience Curves

Learning Curves

Efficiency improves with time.

© iStockphoto/kroach

Cast your mind back to when you first began a new job or project.

Do you remember grappling with the basics, and taking a long time to get used to new processes and procedures?

Several months down the line, you're so adept at the job you wonder why you ever struggled in the first place.

There is an explanation for this: If you find that your performance improves with experience, and it takes less time and effort to complete a task after you've done it a few times, then you've experienced the 'learning curve' in action.

This learning effect was first described by aeronautical engineer T. P. Wright in 1936, as he studied the time it took to produce airplane parts. He found that as workers gained experience, they were able to produce the parts faster. As workers' experience grew, there was a continuous decrease in the time needed to complete a task. However, the time savings eventually flattened out at a certain point. This indicated that learning was 'complete.'

This is an important concept for business. You can build on this principle so it has a positive impact on the workplace, because working more efficiently saves time and money.

When you understand the learning curve, you can use it to forecast your resource needs more accurately over time. It also helps you prepare for the initial period after you've introduced changes, when productivity tends to be lower than desired. For example, if you install new software, you can probably expect efficiency rates to be low at first. Then, as people use the software more, their productivity increases over time – until their learning rate reaches a plateau.

You can also use the learning curve to identify and establish improvements in processes and procedures. In a manufacturing context, for example, as staff learn to do their jobs more quickly and efficiently, this is likely to lead to qualitative improvements in the way products are designed and engineered.

Business consultancy The Boston Consulting Group studied the learning curve, and concluded three things:

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