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SME Speaks: Learning Is a Key to Lean

Lean is not only implemented; it’s a journey that both enables and captures everyday learning. But learning by itself is useless. It is only with the rigorous application of those lessons learned that results are achieved. Learning and action go hand-in-hand. But creating, and sustaining, a culture of learning is not easy. It requires a special combination of curiosity and humility that allows people, and entire organizations, to admit happily that there may be better ways to do almost everythingthen the persistence and discipline to figure out how.

When lean is approached as a one-time implementation, not a sustainable learning process, organizations attack the lean journey much like they take on new ventures, retool for launches, or manage major projects. Companies identify the waste, reduce it, eliminate it, then claim proudly that the organization is now “lean”: mission accomplished.

The flawed assumption in this approach is that the bulk of lean improvements are made during the first major pass of improvement. If true, this assumption suggests that only wasteful, inefficient organizations will find they need to keep “doing lean”; efficient and effective organizations will be smart enough to catch the waste the first time. So if you’ve already implemented everything from kanban to andon, what’s missing?

In lean-learning organizations, experimentation and reflection are embedded parts of the way business is done. Decades ago, the world was introduced to a simple but profound concept now commonly known as the “Plan-Do-Check-Act” cycle. Made popular by W. Edwards Deming, the essence of this process is the scientific method utilized by inventors and scientists. But despite having all this time to learn this simple concept, which has turned into the acronym, PDCA, companies have yet to master its true meaning.

I recently spoke on this topic to attendees of The Total Manufacturing Experience in Los Angeles in March. After learning the principles of lean, we challenged the participants with a special simulation that utilizes the game Mousetrap that many of us played as children. In this “lean” version of the game, teams have five minutes to run this disturbingly unreliable contraption, given certain restrictive rules, and record how many cycles they can successfully complete by catching the mice and collecting pieces of cheese. These are the teams’ baseline results. Then, the teams have only 10 minutes to kaizen—or apply continuous improvement to their process. But the team only gets to actually use two ideas. The team must also create a hypothesis. This is the heart of the PDCA cycle. A hypothesis can be a simple statement of expectation: “if I take this road, I should save myself five minutes.”

Having an expectation helps several things happen. First, it forces you to deeply understand current reality. Second, it helps you establish a Plan. Third, it provides a gage to perform a Check against. Fourth, and perhaps most important, it drives learning as you seek understanding whether you met, fell short, or exceeded the expectation you set.

Returning to our friendly Mousetrap competition, the teams run their processes a second time, and record the differences between the hypotheses and the actual performance. This approach provides the focus for a deeper understanding of the process. Then each team takes what it learned and can keep, replace, and add to their improvements, again requiring a hypothesis. A third and final round provides yet another test of their hypotheses.

While this game is played in rounds, business and life are not. A one-time great result is not enough. Only constant learning of what works and what does not provides a long-term advantage. To be lean, we must learn how to keep learning.

Jamie FIinchbaugh is the co-author (with Andy Carlino) of a new book, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Lean. He conducts customized lean training at the Lean Learning Center, which he co-founded. If you are interested in purchasing the book, contact the SME Resource Center at 800-733-4763 or 313-271-1500, ext. 4500, 8 am–5 pm Eastern Time. If you’d like to find out more about the services offered by the Lean Learning Center, go to


This article was first published in the April 2006 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine.  

Published Date : 4/1/2006

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