Finishing the unfinishable. Where lessons should lead.

I had the pleasure of working in Edinburgh today, and flew in over the Forth Bridge (the rail bridge). It’s an iconic engineering landmark and a symbol of Scotland, which was recognised earlier this month by UNESCO as a world heritage site.

What this bridge is most famous for though, is that the task of ‘painting the Forth Bridge’ has become a metaphor for never-ending, unfinishable jobs. With 240,000 square metres of steel to cover with 230,000 litres of paint – no sooner have the painting team finished the job, that the weathering processes mean that they have to start again. 

Until recently that is.

Four years ago, new innovative epoxy paint with glass flakes was used on the bridge – the same paint that is used by the offshore oil industry. The new coating is predicted to last 25 years, ending the 120-year tradition of continuous painting. (Well, let’s face it, they needed a rest!)

This is a helpful metaphor for lesson learning in organisations.

  • It’s not unusual for the same lessons to learned over and over again by different teams in the same organisation.
  • It’s not uncommon for the same lessons to be captured over and over again in the same system.
  • It’s not uncommon for other teams to be well aware of the lessons which their peers learned before them.
  • Sometimes they even modify their plans accordingly – but even that shouldn’t be seen as the end-game.

 Effective lesson-learning isn’t predicated on the endless handover of the same knowledge and learning baton from team-to-team. That’s just like the ‘painting the Forth Bridge’ cliché. Learning is transferred but nothing fundamentally changes as a consequence.

 In 2011, something fundamentally changed with the Forth Bridge. Insights from the use of paint in another industry was suggested, tests were conducted, a business case was formed, a decision was made, a project was funded a specialist painting contractor received a lucrative contract (and the incumbent paint supplier lost an established customer), the old paint was blasted off and the new paintwork was completed after a ten-year effort. The unfinishable was finished.

 Learning, Innovation, Adaptation, Change, Improvement, Value Creation.