How Can I Speed Up My Team’s Lean Learning?

“How can I speed up my team’s lean learning?” is a question found on the web, with no context given: we don’t know whether it is team of managers, engineers, or operators, or whether it works in manufacturing, finance, or health care… We can infer from the tone of the question that its author is a leader frustrated with the pace of a team’s progress. I will further make the assumption that the concern is not just about skills but also about principles. It’s not just about know-how but also know-why, as it is essential to address new challenges.

Then we also need to make a distinction between learning as a team and learning by team members. You hear leaders say “as a team, we have learned to change over a lathe in 7 minutes,” or “as a team, we have learned to introduce a new product on this line in 3 weeks.” If such a team replaces one of its members, it can bring the newcomer up to speed and retain the skills and the knowledge; if, on the other hand, it replaces half its members, it has to relearn. A team  is more than the collection of its members, but it builds on the expertise of its members, which means that their individual expertise also needs to be nurtured. This means that individual learning by team members also is a topic that must be addressed.

Support Learning!

Learning is something individuals and group do themselves, not something that is done to them. The best management can do is create a work environment that motivates and enables employees to learn, and it means, in particular, refraining from common management practices that discourage learning in sometimes insidious ways. Learning is not the primary purpose of business operations, and it is easy for management to create a culture that does not value it and discourages. Following are a few examples of management don’ts in this area:

  • Don’t rely exclusively on on-the-job training. Formal training is always a distraction; by definition, it keeps employees away from work. So on-the-job training is preferred, and it is often sufficient for the rote acquisition of know-how, but not of know-why. And you can’t organize to acquire the know-why unless management allows you to step away from routine execution as needed to study the underlying principles of your work — at whatever level it may be — and form an accurate mental model of the consequences of closing a valve, raising an alarm, or launching a product…
  • Don’t send mixed messages about certifications. Don’t send a mixed message. You want medical doctors, accountants, and hair stylists to be certified, but not artists, because all the proof you need of their ability is their output. As stated before, I don’t believe an appropriate body of knowledge exists that can provide an adequate basis for certifying someone as a Lean expert. Learning about Lean should be focused on proficiency, as demonstrated internally, not on certification by an outside organization. Many of the most celebrated engineers had no academic degrees, including the Wright brothers, Nikola Tesla, Ferdinand Porsche, Philo Farnsworth, or Steve Wozniak.
    Some jobs, however,  do require degrees or certifications. If you routinely waive this requirement and give the job title to individuals without these degrees or certifications, you are telling employees that these are unimportant pieces of paper. You are discouraging employees from pursuing them, and telling those who have that they have wasted their time and money. If a degree or certification is not truly needed, don’t require it, but if it is, don’t waive the requirement. Instead, help employees fulfill it.
  • Don’t tell the new hire to “Forget everything you learned in school.” The new hire, a recent college grad, is initially assigned to work for an old-timer who opens with “Forget everything you learned in school.” So what the rookie has just spent years on and borrowed $100K to pay for is dismissed as worthless. If it actually is, you shouldn’t have hired him or her; otherwise, employees entrusted with helping new hires fit in should refrain from such comments, as they send a message that learning is not valued.
  • Don’t repeat that “It’s just common sense.” Another way to kill the learning spirit that is commonly applied to Lean is to declare that it’s just common sense. Common sense is what an intelligent human being uses in the absence of specialized knowledge. If a problem is solvable by common sense then, by virtue of being a human endowed with wits, you already know everything you need. And all humans believe they have plenty of wits. As Descartes pointed out 500 years ago, “common sense is the most fairly distributed thing in the world, for each one thinks he is so well-endowed with it that even those who are hardest to satisfy in all other matters are not in the habit of desiring more of it than they already have.”
    When saying “it’s just common sense,” you are telling everyone that they don’t need to learn. Common sense is what the fictional FedEx manager played by Tom Hanks uses to survive on a desert island in Cast Away. It is valuable when you have nothing else to work with but, in Lean, you have 65 years of accumulated, specialized knowledge to draw on, much of which is counter-intuitive and needs to be learned.
  • Don’t expect too much from instructors. Some months ago, I published a post on LinkedIn entitled Learning from Flawed Presenters, which contained the following:

    When I reflect on the people I learned the most from, I find that none of them meet the current standards of presentation. Some were boring, arrogant, or even rude. They might show up late and not have decent visual aids, or speak with an accent that is difficult to follow. But they have knowledge of some subject that is worth whatever effort is needed to ferret it out.

    On rare occasions, deep knowledge is in the head of a great communicator. Most of the time, it’s not, for the simple reason that developing, accumulating, and applying this knowledge is a full time job. Putting together pitches that can wow a 21st century audience is a full time job too, but it is not the same, and few can do both.

    The oft repeated slogan “If the student has not learned, the teacher has not taught” puts the responsibility for the outcome of the process entirely on the teacher. It makes sense about teaching first-graders to read, but not about training heart surgeons or technicians to troubleshoot computer-controlled machinery. For such specialized skills, learners are adults who must reach out and grab the knowledge regardless of the instructor’s ability.

    It would be easier for learners if domain experts were as adept at sharing knowledge as first-grade teachers, but it’s not a realistic expectation. And it should not be necessary, as adults can take more responsibility than six-year olds. No matter how knowledgeable or talented, an instructor cannot learn for you. It is something you have to do for yourself.

    A learner seeks enlightenment, not entertainment, and not inspiration. There are speakers who tell jokes, work the room, and get everybody “psyched.” As an audience member, however, I want them to get to the point and I see any beating around the bush as a sign that they may not be as expert as I thought they were.

    This is not to say that I believe in inflicting “death-by-viewfoil.” Bored people don’t learn but, if you want to learn, you have to meet the speakers half-way. Often, you cannot get both deep knowledge and sleek presentation from the same source. If you have to choose, go for the deep knowledge. You may have to work harder for it, but it’s worth the trouble.

Relevance and Timing

Most humans are motivated to learn. This desire is most intense in childhood — and cognitive ability at its peak — but it endures in a different, more utilitarian form in adults. Whether it is out of pure curiosity or because they trust their teachers, children are willing to acquire and retain knowledge with no connection to their lives. Adults aren’t, particularly at work. They want ideas and skills they can use immediately in their work, and have an effective “garbage collector” to clear useless information from their memory.

Sheep-dip-by-Jeff-J-Mitchell-483031905-615x346Managers commonly mandate that all members of the organization sit through the same multi-day course, on the grounds that it is supposed to give them a common frame of reference about Lean and a common vocabulary to discuss it. Crispin Vincenti-Brown describes this practice as “sheep dipping,” in which every animal in a herd is made to go through the same disinfectant bath. Most humans who go through this kind of program learn little and don’t take kindly to it. I have had to deliver such a two-day course to the entire management staff of plant, in three session of about 25 participants each. The most motivated members signed up for the first session; the least motivated, for the third. The last group made it clear that they would have preferred to be somewhere else, and I could not blame them.

Not only subject matter but also timing must be considered. In a machine shop, SMED is a relevant skill, but train your team 3 months before they start their first SMED project, and you will have to do it over. The proper time to do it is on the project kickoff day, right after the VP of Manufacturing has addressed the team on its strategic importance, and just before shooting a video of a changeover as currently done.

Tools for Learning Lean

The life of a business requires many different categories of knowledge, from process technology to people management, in various doses and at various levels depending on position. In manufacturing, they cover the physics and chemistry of what happens to work pieces, procedures required by law or mandated by customers, and the soft skills of working with people. Lean touches on all these areas. For it to be “the way we do things,” it cannot be the object of a professional specialty. Everyone in the organization needs exposure to the whole, and actionable knowledge of the parts that are relevant to their jobs. Manufacturing and industrial engineers need to know how to design a Lean production line; materials and logistics managers, how to set up and run milk runs with kanbans; human resource managers how to manage career planning, etc. The following paragraphs describe some learning tools that are applicable to Lean.

Learning from Consultants

Learning is the sole purpose of using consultants. This fact is obscured by the practice of calling “consultants” people who become temporary extensions of their clients’ workforce, and would more accurately be described as contractors. This includes people who work full-time for months at a site populating ERP databases with product definitions, writing CNC code, drafting shop floor layouts, or even writing business plans. “Consultant” is a more prestigious title, and they prefer it, but producing tangible outputs for the client is not consulting. A genuine consultant does not do anything, but instead provides advice and guidance to teams of employees who (1) do the work, (2) own the ideas embedded in it, and (3) are responsible for the outcome. The main difference between consulting and training is that the input is specific to a situation and project, and delivered in context at the work place.

Whether it is about Lean or other subjects, consultants should be selected to provide the richest learning experience for your team. Their visits should be short, as a little of a good consultant goes a long way. Assimilating, metabolizing, and applying two days’ worth of input may take two months of homework. The visits should also be planned to be intense, with data provided to the consultants ahead of time and full agendas aimed at thoroughly picking each consultant’s brain. And you should implement their recommendations, or else you are wasting your time and theirs, and learning nothing.

Learning from Projects

All projects large and small conducted as part of Lean implementation are to be selected, managed, and used as opportunities to learn as much as to improve performance. This point is heavily emphasized in Japan, yet often forgotten in the US and Europe, where managers obsessed with Key Performance Indicators (KPI) often forget that projects also grow the technical and managerial talents of their work force.

Some learning will occur for the project team and its members in any case, but the project also yields case studies and morality tales that are teachable to the rest of the organization, and more effective than the generic examples from other companies and industries found in publications. They cover technical solutions discovered as part of the project, like a faster way to mount a work piece on a fixture, that may carry over other projects, or appropriate ways to divide responsibilities between the project team and support departments, for example in selecting production equipment.

End-of-project presentations and video may be used to drum up interest, but are not sufficient to spread the knowledge. The most effective method is to turn team members from one project into team leaders for the next wave, but they need to be supported by reflection about the previous project and documentation about it. This requires the project leader to keep and organize all the meeting minutes, wall charts, action-item lists, before-and-after pictures, videos, flip charts, drawings on white boards or cocktail napkins, measurements and their analyses, etc. in a “Big Book” of the project. It may be a hardcopy scrapbook or an electronic repository, but it must be available to distill into one-point lessons and the company’s Lean handbook.

Learning from Factory Visits

Factory visits are a popular approach to learn about Lean. It was, in fact, the job of organizing factory tours in Japan back in 1980 that sparked my interest in manufacturing. Looking back 35 years later, I realize that, as a rookie, I understood almost nothing of what I was seeing. I saw machines and assembly lines, but it was only the reactions of the foreign delegations that made me realize there was anything special. Later, I found it generally true that the visitors who learn the most from factory visits are the most experienced, and came to recommend making participation in at least one successful improvement project a prerequisite for coming on a tour. Where beginners returned skeptical or dismissive of what they had seen — as irrelevant for being from another industry or previously tried — experienced participants came back eager to adapt to their areas what they had seen on the tour for the first time.

On a tour, you can also learn more is you draw participants from multiple levels and functions in your organization than if you send a homogeneous group. What Crispin Vincenti-Brown calls a “slice team” includes managers at various levels, engineers, technicians, and operators. If there is a union, it is a good idea to include a union representative. A slice team sees a factory from more different perspectives  than a homogeneous one, and the learnings are more broadly shared back home, with each member communicating with his or her peers.

One limitation of factory tours is that you can only visit plants that agree to let you in. Other plants within your own company are accessible, as are also your suppliers and your customers, but the plants you would most like to see — your competitors’ — are usually off limits. Large and prestigious companies, like Toyota or Boeing, offer factory tours to the public, and, after signing up months in advance, you may tag along with a group of local schoolchildren. Others open their doors to professional conference attendees, and many Lean conferences or summits give you the opportunity to sign up for factory tours. Local chapters of professional societies also do it with local manufacturers on a routine basis. There is even a San Francisco Bay Area Factory Tours meetup.

When visiting plants of companies you have no business relationship with, you should keep in mind that it is, for them, an exercise in public relations. What they show you may be how they really work, but it may also be a facade. Assume your group is greeted by the CEO.  He explains that he was inspired by approaches he saw in Japan 25 years ago as a young engineer, and that he has been working on improving operations in this direction since. And he shows you three recent examples on the shop floor, answering all the questions either himself or through a member of the project team. Then you know that what you are seeing is genuine.

Otherwise, if the visit is hosted by the public relations staff, you may notice discrepancies between their claims and what they let you see on the shop floor. During a visit of a car assembly plant, for example, I remember seeing an operator watching Oprah on television while screwing on a dome light. In another case, the hosts had not coordinated the presentation and the shop floor visit. The presentation gave the impression that the Lean program had turned around the entire company, but the tour took us to a plant that had no visible trace of any Lean activity, and the supervisors confirmed that they had not had any. Sometimes, you also run into organizations that seem primarily concerned with external recognition, like prizes from professional societies or awards from local governments. The ability to read between the lines is what I was lacking in 1980.

If you send a team on a factory tour, you want it to share what it learns with your entire organization when it returns. The notes taken on site and the comments made in daily debriefing meetings must be compiled into a presentation and a report for everybody else. Most visit hosts, however, make this difficult by not allowing you to shoot videos or even take pictures of their production lines. As a result, illustrations are limited to drawings from memory and published photographs. The pictures below contrast two views of a modification to an injection-molding machine that I saw at NIX in Japan. The mold has multiple cavities, and routing the parts from each cavity into a different bin helped detect quality problems. The picture on the left was drawn from memory, based on stock photos of injection-molding machines and robots; the picture on the right was provided by NIX. The drawing from memory is wrong in almost every detail, yet it accurately makes the main point.

Learning from Books and Other Written Materials

The professionals who can successfully implement any change in their organization based solely on studying written materials are rare exceptions, but those who don’t read and are successful are exceptions too. Self-teaching from books works in technology, for individuals already educated in the field. Professional software coders, for example, routinely learn new programming languages on their own, supplementing the books by googling answers to problems. And medical doctors stay current by reading medical journals. In Lean, likewise, the literature is mostly useful to experienced implementers.  Those who attempt to implement Lean for the first time based on readings tend to fail, perhaps because they lack the perspective needed to map generic information to their specific situation.

Socially, we are trending away from reading printed materials for information, and there are cases where print is, in fact, not the best medium, as in the examples below, that I first used in Beyond A3s:

[wp_youtube_gallery category_slug=video-instruction-examples]

To learn to fix a garbage disposal, cut a mango, replace razor batteries, or forge a gun barrel, the printed word clearly doesn’t hold a candle to video. However, on many other subjects, watching an instructional videos that just shows a talking head in front of a neutral background is slower than reading, and inferior when it comes to varying the pace or flipping back and forth between sections as needed to fully understand the whole. Ebooks beat print when it comes to carrying 300 books in a tablet, reading a book from start to finish, or searching within a book. When it comes to studying technical materials, however, most learners still prefer print.

While now abundant, the English language literature on Lean is of mixed quality, and still far from providing the wealth of practical, actionable information you find in Japanese publications. Nonetheless, maintaining a library with multiple copies of the titles you find most useful is an indispensable way to promote learning, and it’s not just putting books on a shelf. Even if it is small, you need to organize it and track borrowing. It’s work but, if you know 5S, it should not be overly challenging.

People who read books like to form clubs that meet weekly around coffee and cookies to discuss a book chapter by chapter, but, if you have experienced a successful “Lean book club,” I would like to hear about it. The closest I have seen is a Yahoo group called NWLEAN Study  that Bill Kluck started in 2006. It topped out at less than 500 members, and the last entry is from May, 2010.

Another approach, of which I know one successful example, is to compile your own, company-specific Lean handbook from the lessons learned through projects. It then serves as a reference and becomes part of the welcome package for professional new hires. The best example I have is called “JIT Manufacturing Guidelines” and is from a company involved in precision machining. It was completed in 1993, before the term Lean came into wide use, and is based on 9 years of projects.

It opens with a short statement of manufacturing philosophy, followed by detailed instructions on process development, cell design, flow diagramming, work-combination charts, Andon lights, autonomous maintenance, visible management, hand tools, perishable tooling, jigs and fixtures, quality assurance including Poka-Yoke, check sheets, work instructions, process capability studies, production planning and scheduling, plant layout, capital acquisition requests, and problem-solving. 11 years later, when I last visited the company, the original version was still in use.

Most companies today no longer distinguish between visual aids intended to support oral presentations and documents intended to stand alone as reading materials. These are incompatible goals. If you put so much text on slides that they can be understood by just reading, they compete with the presenter instead of providing support. Conversely, if they work well as presentation support, they do not contain enough information to be read independently.

Edward Tufte may bemoan the dumbing down of business communications caused by PowerPoint, but the fact is that the written report, with complete sentences organized in paragraphs, appropriately illustrated, with table of contents and index, is a dying art. Fewer and fewer professionals know how to write them and find them too daunting to read. A compromise is to generate presentation slides, but attach a full-text narration  in the notes pages that PowerPoint or Keynote let you attach to each slide.

Half-letter size printout of slides with notes
Half-letter size printout of slides with notes

For the physical presentation of the printed materials, Crispin Vincenti-Brown has found that a half-letter size booklet, spiral-bound and printed in full-color on high quality paper commands more attention from professionals than the handouts in letter-size 3-ring binders printed single-sided in monochrome more commonly provided by training organizations. These binders hog your desk when you open them, your briefcase when you move them, and your bookcase the rest of the time, but their providers seem to think it makes their contribution appear more substantial. An effective business document is somewhere between the simplistic bullet lists and charts of slides and the thick legal documents that are practically unreadable but booby-trapped with small-print.

Learning from Lectures

Lecture in 13th-century
Lecture in 13th-century

The sage on the stage who drones on and puts at least some members of the audience to sleep has been a feature of european education since the 13th century. It is now done with slides and PowerPoint, but the learning experience remains poor, particularly on subjects like manufacturing, an applied field whose practitioners have a low tolerance for abstraction.

Still, training is almost impossible without a modicum of lecturing. Knowing the limitations of the medium, here are a few guidelines to make it as effective as possible:

  1. Keep sessions to <1 hour. It is attention-span management. Not even the best speakers can keep audiences learning in longer, uninterrupted sessions. In day-long seminars, 5-minute breaks every hour work better than 15-minute breaks between 90-minute sessions, but it’s a challenge to keep the breaks to 5 minutes.
  2. Keep audiences to <20 members. This is essential for interactivity. Participants must be able to ask questions throughout, and it becomes more and more difficult as the size of the audience increases. If more people need the material, schedule more sessions.
  3. Dovetail each session with immediate application. Again, adults retain only what they find useful right away. As a consequence, a lecture will result in learning only if the concepts are immediately applied.
  4. Mercilessly insist on keeping phones, tablets and laptops off. While 13th century students had few distractions, today’s attend lectures with numerous devices that draw their attention away from the lecture. For a lecture to have any chance of being useful, the speaker must be able to command the audience’s undivided attention.

Learning On-line

On-line alternatives to classroom instruction have become commonplace over the past 5 years, through organizations like the Khan Academy at the high school level and Coursera for college. In the Coursera format, the courses are given by university professors, the lectures are broken down into series of 8-minute video clips, after which the students answer review questions and solve exercises. Free of charge, you can follow the course and, if you turn in all the homework, you receive a certificate of completion. If you pay a modest tuition, you can interact with the instructor and receive college credits. For example, the Data Science Specialization is popular among Silicon Valley engineers. It was developed by three professors of biostatistics at John Hopkins University. It is comprised of nine four-week courses requiring a commitment of 4 to 9 hours/week, and the total tuition is $470.

The format allows professionals to study whenever they have time available, without having to travel. But Coursera does not offer any courses about Lean or Manufacturing. You can teach math on line, because the student can demonstrate proficiency by solving problems on line. But it cannot be sufficient for surgery, sky-diving, Lean, or any body of knowledge about interacting with physical reality or human society. This, however, doesn’t stop several organizations from trying:

  • Jeffrey Liker’s Lean Leadership Institute offers on-line courses about Lean Thinking, Lean Leadership, Lean Mentoring, and Team Kata, at four belt levels each: white, yellow, green and black, with prices starting at $200 for a white belt level, going up to $5,000 for a black belt.
  • Leancor offers on on-line Lean Leadership course for certification for $650. For $1,200, they add biweekly individual coaching sessions.
  • The Gemba Academy produces training videos about Lean, but there is no interactivity or validation for the student.

On-line instruction is insufficient for learning Lean, but so is classroom instructions, and it doesn’t mean they are not useful. Discussing this last week with the Lean Leadership Academy’s Sam MacPherson, we agreed that on-line courses can be useful but cannot stand alone. They must be combined and dovetailed with coaching on actual project work.

Learning by Role Playing

Companies often issue guidelines on the way employees should interact among themselves, with customers or with suppliers, but these guidelines are too abstract to be directly actionable. For example, “Act ethically” may be a great principle but, if you are in customer service, it does not give you much to go by when dealing with a dissatisfied customer, and role-playing games are an effective way to give it a concrete meaning. So you give one student a customer complaint script, designate another one to play the customer service rep, have them play out the interaction, and give them feedback on the consistency of their actions with the principle it is supposed to illustrate.

Learning by Playing Simulation Games

Simulations are routinely used to anticipate the behavior of a system under various circumstances faster, cheaper and with less risk than by experimenting with the actual system. Today, most simulations are done in software, but simulation games for Lean training purposes are done with physical objects, of varying sizes depending on the objective. I believe it started ca. 1985 with Deming’s red bead experiment, which isn’t really an experiment but a game illustrating the consequences of rating people based on performance when the output of their actions is random and out of their control. Since then, many companies, including Toyota have taken to using a variety of games for training, and we have our own Leanix™ games.

Learning by Writing the Manual

If you need to learn about a new topic that is not well documented, write the manual! By the time you are done, you will know the subject thoroughly, and you will have in the process created a value for others. Early in my career, I had to replace a colleague at the last minute and travel to another site to teach engineers how to use an Engineering Change Management system. Unfortunately, it was new, ahead of its time, not well documented, and I didn’t know how to use it.

The site engineers were astonishingly patient with me, through this most embarrassing moment, and I came back determined to make it up to them by producing a manual that would walk them through every step. It took me two months but, by then, I could field any question about the system, and the users could find most answers on their own in the manual.


To speed up your team’s Lean learning, you need to create a supportive environment and give members a variety of tools. Not everybody learns the same way, and you should provide as many options and approaches as possible. Don’t get hung up on certification. The goal is to enhance your team’s capabilities, not to nail certificates on office walls. You need your team to have the knowledge and skills needed in your organization, today and in the future, and it may not match the certification criteria of any outside body.

By the way, I am still learning.

References on Learning

Over the years, I have accumulated a few books about the learning process itself:

  • Adults as Learners, by Patricia Cross, about the differences in learning styles between adults and children.
  • The Power of Learning, by Klas Mellander. Recommendation on getting employees to learn.
  • Strategies for Leaning, Robert E. Cole, about using small-group activities for learning in the US, Japan, and Sweden.
  • E-Learning and the Science of Instruction, Ruth Clark and Richard Mayer, about the design of on-line courses.
  • The Montessori Method, Maria Montessori. It is mostly about pre-kindergarten. When my kids were in a Montessori school,  I was surprised by how orderly the classrooms were. It turns out that 5S, by other names, is part of her method.

Learning is a useful topic to learn about. Please include your favorite references in your comments.