Lean Transformations Group

Creating the Conditions for Effective Lean Learning

One thing we talk a lot about in the lean community is the need to “go beyond the tools”. John Shook describes lean tools and methods as mechanisms whose purpose is to enable the practice of PDCA and also “willful” learning. Lean tools include, for example: Standardized Work, Kata (a learning routine), Strategy Alignment (aka hoshin kanri) and the A3 process, among others. Each of these is a type of PDCA-based learning cycle. The PDCA cycle is important because it is key to learning faster and more effectively in complex, real-world situations with all of the pressures that these entail. And by willful learning we mean deliberate learning with some structure around it to help us carry our learning forward. It’s easy to learn new things in many cases, but new learning gets lost without practices to ground us and serve as containers for newly created knowledge.

To make the most of lean mechanisms and practices, Shook says, we must maintain a learner’s attitude—something Sami Bahri also speaks to a great deal in his book on lean leadership and management, Follow the Learner. Lean is all about learning, so much so that one can’t happen, or stand the chance of being sustained, without the other. And not learning in silos either, as so many of us attempt to do or fall back into doing fairly regularly. Lean is about learning collaboratively with our team members and colleagues in order to address organizational needs and problems and improve our business, as well as across sectors in order to address systemic community problems.

Lean is problem-solving, and problem-solving is collaborative learning, which brings us back to the principle of the learner’s attitude. So how do we go about bringing a learner’s attitude to our lean transformation efforts? How do we go about creating the conditions for effective, lean learning with others?

We’ve been thinking about this at LEI, and in conversations with faculty members and Teresa McMahon from The Iowa Lean Consortium. Here are five key conditions for more effective lean learning that we've identified.

  • Shared Purpose
    Jim Womack uses the Purpose, process, People model to remind us that our lean efforts mean nothing unless we’re clear about and aligned around purpose. Before embarking on your lean journey, and at regular times throughout, ask yourself: What is your purpose? What is the business need, and what problem (relating directly to the business need) are you trying to solve? What is the specific aim of your collaborative learning activity?
  • The Right People
    It’s nearly impossible to improve a process, or even see a process accurately, without the right people in the room. Are the people who are the closest to the Work, performing the Work and trying to improve it, in the conversation you’re having? Unless your focus is on high-level organizational strategy, any meeting having to do with the value-creating Work absolutely must include those individuals closest to the Work. Before calling a meeting or assembling a new team, ask yourself: are the right people in the room (no less, no more)? Do you have the roles/positions you need and does everyone understand how they fit into the larger system at play? People perform much more effectively when they operate from a systems thinking perspective, or at least have an end-to-end view of the Work in process.
  • Open Culture
    A safe space is essential for people to feel free to describe problems and express ideas. People need to feel respected for any conversation, team meeting, or project to be fruitful. Lean tools are particularly effective because they are designed with respect for the worker—or in the case of lean coaching, the mentor and mentee—in mind. In most cases, lean tools and practices keep the focus on the Work itself, rather than on individuals, which makes people feel safe. But there is a people component as well that can easily turn lean transformation efforts off course if practitioners aren’t careful. Pay attention to your workplace culture and take care to encourage the free expression of problems and ideas so that people feel safe enough to participate fully.
  • Good Facilitation
    The Iowa Lean Consortium, which you may have heard about at this year’s Lean Transformation Summit, is a stellar example of cross-sector collaborative lean learning. President Teresa McMahon says having a skilled facilitator at kaizen events is what has made all the difference on lean projects involving multiple parties with different, sometimes competing interests. A skilled facilitator keeps the focus on the Work (the PDCA learning cycle) and creates an environment where people feel safe enough to think and problem-solve with others.
  • Visible Processes
    One lesson we’ve learned over the years and have seen confirmed again and again is how crucial it is that processes become and remain visible. The more complex the Work or improvement effort, the more important it is that everyone see the Work clearly. This goes beyond value-stream mapping and 5s. While these tools are must-haves, especially in manufacturing operations and in most other industries as well, every team and organization has its own unique needs regarding workplace visuals. Next time you’re lacking clarity, ask yourself, can you see the Work? How might you try to make the Work visible to yourself and others?

Certainly lean learning happens in many different ways and places, with or without these conditions in place. But we have found that having these conditions in place increases the likelihood that your lean transformations will be effective and sustained. We encourage senior leaders and lean change agents to keep these conditions in mind as you go and conduct lean experiments and let us know how you’ve gone about creating these conditions in your workplace.

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