Continuous improvement programs are proliferating as corporations seek to better themselves and gain an edge. Unfortunately, however, failed programs far outnumber successes, and improvement rates remain low. That's because most companies have failed to grasp a basic truth. Before people and companies can improve, they first must learn. And to do this, they need to look beyond rhetoric and high philosophy and focus on the fundamentals. Three critical issues must be addressed before a company can truly become a learning organization, writes HBS Professor David Garvin. First is the question of meaning: a well-grounded, easy-to-apply definition of a learning organization. Second comes management: clearer operational guidelines for practice. Finally, better tools for measurement can assess an organization's rate and level of learning. Using these "three Ms" as a framework, Garvin defines learning organizations as skilled at five main activities: systematic problem solving, experimentation with new approaches, learning from past experience, learning from the best practices of others, and transferring knowledge quickly and efficiently throughout the organization. And since you can't manage something if you can't measure it, a complete learning audit is a must. That includes measuring cognitive and behavioral changes as well as tangible improvements in results. No learning organization is built overnight. Success comes from carefully cultivated attitudes, commitments, and management processes that accrue slowly and steadily. The first step is to foster an environment conducive to learning. Analog Devices, Chaparral Steel, Xerox, GE, and other companies provide enlightened examples.