How Lean “Gurus” Teach Lean (Or Lean Learning by Magic)

April 10th, 2021 by dayat Leave a reply »

Have you ever learned anything from a teacher who waved his/her magic wand, or sprinkled a little (English, math, reading…) pixie dust on you? Well guess what? That is precisely how Lean Gurus have traditionally tried to lean educate the average rank and file employee!

Whether you are just beginning your Lean journey in establishing a Lean culture within your company, or struggling to sustain Lean, you have probably heard that it may be next to impossible to do either. Why is this the pervading thought in the Lean world? I believe the answer is because of how Lean has traditionally been taught (or not taught) to rank and file employees – you know, the people being asked to actually implement Lean principles and tools in their daily work routines! (Author’s Note: Call me cynical, but I’m not convinced that Lean has ever been taught to the rank and file by companies claiming to be Lean).

So how are the rank and file being taught to embrace Lean as part of their personal culture? Enter “Lean Learning by Magic.” But before we explain what we mean by this, let’s look at how those traditionally called upon to teach Lean – the company “Lean Gurus” – become qualified as Lean “teachers.” The model looks something like this:

• A select few company lean specialists or key leaders are sent to distant, expensive, time-consuming Lean seminars or are enrolled in expensive week or month-long Lean courses, held either online or locally and are expected to become a Lean expert overnight.

• After becoming, yellow, green, brown, black, magenta, purple, bronze, silver or gold “certified,” they are asked by management to quickly implement numerous improvement initiatives (Kaizens) as fast as possible by utilizing a select few – Lean clueless – team members called on to eliminate waste in processes and improve productivity by X%. This is done to reap the ROI – company-wide – guaranteed by the seminar and training course Gurus – and to impress the CEO, who has no clue about Lean but is anxious for it to “work” right now, and ready to pull the plug if it doesn’t!

• If after certifying the company’s Lean Guru, and after conducting a few Lean flavor of the month improvement events, Management declares that a number of the company’s key leaders should also become Lean Gurus, well then, the company is indeed off to the Lean races, unfortunately, leaving the company’s most important resource behind – its rank and file employees.

• When finally top-heavy with Lean Gurus, all trying to initiate top-down Lean Kaizens in their department, Management decides it is time to Lean-educate a few lucky rank and file employees from the (pick any) department.

• The most qualified Lean Guru is called upon to conduct one-hour classes on 5-S, Lean, or whatever department problem needs fixing and is expected to magically transform an entire department into Lean practitioners…enter, Lean Learning by Magic, which is, in my opinion, NO learning at all!

I define Lean Learning By Magic as, the informal bestowal of Lean knowledge from someone possessing higher Lean knowledge to someone having lesser knowledge, who is expected to “magically” learn by (brief) exposure without effort (i.e., study, review, testing – Heaven forbid! – and practical implementation).

At the risk of being flippant, Lean Learning by Magic allows a Lean Guru to grace his/her presence among the rank and file and (figuratively) wave his/her magic wand, sprinkling Lean pixie dust on his/her subjects for an hour or two, expecting them to absorb the pixie dust (embrace Lean?)… by magic. Lean Learning by Magic requires no course syllabus, no training manuals, no schedules or routines, no testing, no certification, and actually produces no learning at all.

If culture is defined as a system of knowledge shared by a relatively large group of people (Oh, let’s say, ALL of your employees), i.e., the sum total of learned behavior, it follows that in order to sustain this knowledge and behavior it must be continually nourished (taught!) or the culture will cease to exist. Occasionally, magically sprinkling Lean pixie dust on a few employees – removed from the Value Stream, whenever time (demand) permits – can never produce a Lean educated workforce, and may actually prevent a company from creating a Lean Cultural Transformation.

If employees, company-wide, are asked to become Lean practitioners who passionately and routinely look for and know how to identify and eliminate waste and seek ways to continually improve work processes, then they must be formally taught how to do so. To do this, Management must create and sustain a Lean-learning environment far greater than occasional, one or two-hour classes conducted by the company’s Lean Guru waving his magic wand! Further, just because a Lean Guru understands Lean, doesn’t qualify him/her to TEACH Lean, especially if he/she has; no teaching skills (has no clue how-to teach), has no syllabus from which to teach, has no training manual to teach from or provide students with, has no regularly scheduled time or place to teach, doesn’t test for comprehension and retention, has no provision for simulated or actual practical implementation of principles taught, and in general, simply has no structured or balanced teaching program that his students can actually learn from, and feel good about the learning experience because it has value for them, i.e., can make them more valuable to the company!

Please review the following scenarios and ask yourself which scenario would contribute the most in helping a company of 350 employees establish, sustain and continually improve Lean culture:

• Company “A” has 15 different departments, two veteran Six Sigma Black Belts, six new Six Sigma Green Belts, one Lean Coordinator and one 5-S Coordinator. Excluding the above personnel and the remainder of its management force, the company has approximately 300 rank and file employees whose only exposure to Lean training has occurred during preliminary briefings prior to the start of a narrowly focused Kaizen improvement event or very infrequent, one to two-hour on-site Lean training seminars. Although at some time having been exposed to 5-S and the 8-Wastes, rank and file employees have never been asked by management to name and define each 5-S and the 8-Wastes, or prove in any way that they understand the philosophy behind and importance of implementing these two basic Lean building blocks into their daily work routine (culture).

• Company “B” has the same number of Lean practitioners as mentioned in the first paragraph above. They have also established a Lean training program, company-wide, with the goal of helping the entire workforce embrace Lean as part of their personal culture. Additionally, employees have been told that there is both a long and short term benefit to the company and to them if they will practice Lean in all they do, especially in routinely looking for, identifying and eliminating waste in department and individual processes and procedures, and in sustaining the company’s active 5-S program. Because the company’s Lean training program calls for daily exposure to Lean concepts and principles via daily, short (5-minute) lesson presentations on the shop or office floor, employees have quickly come to realize that Lean daily training is just another part of their regular job responsibilities and standards and accordingly strive to perform to standard, i.e., the standards of the company’s Lean culture – “The sum total of its learned behavior.” Utilizing a formal training syllabus, providing training manuals to both Leadership and employees, company-wide, presenting daily, brief, formal lessons and discussions, testing for comprehension and retention (weekly quizzes and quarterly exams), reviewing assessment results, and conducting practical simulations or actual implementations of the Lean concepts and principles studied weekly, the company has truly created an environment where Lean can and does flourish, both from the top down and bottom up.

Hopefully you chose Company “B” as the company that has the best chance of helping its workforce embrace Lean as part of its personal culture. Obviously, I believe the key to creating and sustaining Lean culture is to create an environment that daily and continually – no matter what – exposes a company’s workforce to Lean concepts and principles and does so in a structured learning environment.

Question: Which would you rather have, a company of 200 employees with a few, highly qualified and certified Lean Gurus singularly implementing Lean initiatives. Or a company whose entire workforce has been Lean- educated to look for, identify, and eliminate waste and continually – routinely, day in and day out – look for ways to improve department and individual processes, because (having been taught), they truly understand the value in doing so has for the company and themselves. This type of cultural transformation cannot be achieved from Lean Learning by Magic! Having Lean Gurus attempt to “teach” Lean without a formal training program in a structured environment (similar to the one where they studied Lean) is like asking them to teach Lean by waving their magic wand…it just doesn’t work that way!

John Ramuno


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