To succeed with lean you can’t side step learning
On the long train trip back from the gemba yesterday evening, a consultant next to me was checking his slides on the “management culture transformation” program he was selling. I couldn’t help myself from sneaking a peek: it had it all – project steering, deployment plan, co-construction, assessment measures, the works.
I was thinking about my own day: walking the shop floor discussing with people what they thought their performance was, bringing back the customer (or internal customers) into the discussion, pointing out problems and listening to their take on them, sketching the lean system, looking some more at machines not doing what they were supposed to do and listening to people dismissing this as exceptional – and asking them what they intended to do?
I’ve learned from practicing lean that lead-time is cash and precision is cost. The more precise your operations, the lower your overall cost. But precision requires competence. To be specific, precision requires knowing what to do when something goes askew. Everyone is precise at some level. Yesterday in the maintenance shop, they were precise at the day level. They started the day with a plan, and then checked how well it’d gone in the evening. I asked them about being precise at the half-day level.
This means being able to handle unexpected events faster, which is in fact the basis of “jidoka” – see the problem earlier, react sooner, fix it quicker, find out the real root cause faster. Being more precise lowers your overall costs as it increases right first time and reduces lead-times (by dealing smartly with mishaps) but it requires skill – and skill requires the intention to learn.
Problem solving and kaizen in lean are not about solving problems per se, but a method for adults to learn through problem solving, what, in medicine, is called problem-based learning:
- Activation / elaboration: looking into a problem, adults activate their experience and prior knowledge, and elaborate on it.
- Situational interest: looking into problems as a team, sharing observation and reflection, and presenting to each other and to management, creates social motivation to support the research effort.
- Self-directed learning: the real learning moment is always personal, when someone goes and check something in a book or experiments with a new idea by themselves – learning springs from the person herself, not from any collective magic.
- Scaffolding and coaching: a good coach can support the process by “scaffolding” it: presenting relevant analysis methods, orienting the search, discussing findings, pushing people to think more deeply and check their ideas more rigorously and so on.
Problem solving or kaizen moments create context for learning – but you can’t shy away from the simple fact that learning is truly and always self-directed. In order to learn, the person has to want to learn and be ready to make the effort. That’s it.
The only thing you can actually do about this is establish a norm that “learning is good, refusing to learn is bad” – culture indeed. But doing things to people won’t help. The only way to do so it to model learning yourself and hope that people will follow you through shear mimicry, the most powerful organizational force of all. Doing something to them won’t help.
Very concretely, what makes lean a superior management method it that it teaches you to focus on putting customer satisfaction first and organization second (which increases sales), on reducing lead-times in logistics through greater flexibility and faster problem solving (which improves cash) and on technical precision at all levels and responding sooner and smarter to unavoidable hitches (which reduces overall costs). These three levers can’t be just organized – they depend on people’s independent, autonomous, intention to learn through deliberate effort and practice.
Which means you, us, first. It is our own intention to learn which translates into legitimacy to teach, which will inspire people at the workplace to find out more and – ultimately – will transform the organization’s performance. The tools and techniques are scaffolding, nothing more. The building underneath is the learning culture you’re growing every day by demonstrating it yourself.
This is it. Without the magic powder of going to the gemba to learn from others as well as teach, the lean cake simply won’t rise, and the promised results won’t materialize. Go, see, learn.