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Skip the (Lean) Training, Get Results Now!
December, 2015

A recent LinkedIn post highlighted that when a song is heard over and over again, people tend to remember the lyrics. We've all experienced this, and we even observe it on a daily basis. How can all this 'learning' be happening, without any formal training behind it? Could it be that the workplace conception that formal training is required for learning is wrong?

This may start a firestorm, but there is thousands of years of evidence that formal training isn't the best way to learn, well, anything! Early humans and proto-humans learned by observation, and learned by doing. There was no such thing as classroom learning, because there was no classroom. In antiquity, and all the way up to a few centuries ago, mentoring, and especially text copying by scribes, was the primary way knowledge was transferred.

Only when tasks & knowledge sets were broken down into their fundamental elements were 'classrooms' invented to transfer simple facts to larger groups. But up to that point, listening, doing, and rote copying were the natural

Bill Kluck
The Northwest Lean Networks

mechanisms for learning. All 3 of these lead to 'subliminal learning', where people connect background activities (the subliminal) to current situations (the experiential), making real learning possible.

That said, subliminal learning works! I know the Training folks out there hate this when I say it: Training has a half-life, and much of it is a waste of time, because it is lost before it can be used (and actually learned). I no longer advocate ANY training with respect to lean. Bill Gaw (author, trainer, lean advocate) is famous for saying, "Lean is not an add water & stir initiative." I still have no idea what that means, but he quotes it to me whenever I tell him I'm an advocate AGAINST training. But he does get great results, and uses training (and so do most, don't get me wrong). I get great results without training. But if we never question the status quo, how do we ever make extreme breakthroughs?

When I was at Coca-Cola, there were a great many training sessions around lean (hell, I wrote most of the core material!). But I was an early adopter of subliminal learning. We used the DOWNTIME acronym to remember the 8 wastes. We created an 8 waste poster, and I was known for saying, "Post this on every hall, on every wall, and in every bathroom stall. No one should have to be more than 1 step away from being reminded of the 8 wastes."

"Training has a half-life,
and much of it is a waste of time..."

True learning is demonstrated when associates make connections on their own, without reminders. Much of the success of conventional training is measured by test scores & surveys, conducted immediately after the training has occurred. But this can't possibly measure learning, which can only be demonstrated much further after the fact. Short-term memory is very powerful, but doesn't last (hence, the half-life analogy). Long-term memory is where we live, making decisions & solving problems based on our experiences. Subliminal learning therefore makes experiential learning possible.

But if not TRAINING, then what? Conventional wisdom is to identify opportunities, training teams in lean tools, then implement. The challenge is that most lean training (have you ever sit for hours or days in these sessions?) doesn't enable us to 'do' anything. Leave for a moment that lean really isn't about the tools (then why is the training always about the tools?); Everyone can agree that the purpose of training is to enable associate to 'do' something. Why don't we measure that 'something'? Only because the measure is difficult. But not impossible. What isn't hard to measure is the cost of training. The prep time, actual spend, lost productivity, even the cost of instruction. A definite cost, and they add up quickly. Funny that the results don't seem to add up as fast, isn't it?

In order to be efficient, conventional lean training is very generic, and very tools oriented. Because there are around 30 specific lean tools, and we don't know which ones will be needed, we tend to teach them all. This takes quite a bit of time, and most of them (if any) will actually get used. Even targeted training, for those who believe that 5S, VSM, A3s, etc... is foundational, is rarely used to any great effect. Opportunities are always very specific. Training is always very generic. Most people won't learn how to change the world in a classroom, they learn by hitting challenges head on. Most of lean training is really about identifying & eliminating waste, so why not use your 'opportunity' as the learning ground?

"...why is the training always about the tools?"

What I do today is more mentoring. Sometimes at a high level (in the trenches with the project teams) or remotely (for those I've mentored, who have moved on to a level where they can attack problems from a lean perspective by themselves). It is very effective, allowing increasing numbers of leaders to hit the ground running, and hard!! With over $1B of qualified savings (and that's not even the most important metric!), we must be doing something right!

Instead of training, when specific opportunities present themselves (and ONLY in the context of tactical or strategic project implementation), I use simple 'orientations'. These are 'like' one-pg lessons (but they aren't), never more than a few minutes in length. They point out specific opportunities for learning lean concepts. A handful of these during implementation, and people get energized!

I'm interested in your thoughts!


no_photo.gifBill Kluck is the Founder and Director of Operations for The Northwest Lean Networks, a professional society which connects the community of lean professionals worldwide.

Bill has over 20 years of experience implementing lean in a wide variety of industries, both public and private. He has trained thousands of leaders & associates in various lean strategies and techniques, and has facilitated billions of dollars in impact. Bill's main focus is building transformational change and evolving business culture.

Bill earned his Bachelor of Science in Industrial Engineering from the University of Washington, an MBA from Seattle University, and holds several continuous improvement certifications (including a Six Sigma Master Black Belt, and a Masterís Certification in Lean Methods). He currently works as Assistance Vice President for Genpact, LLC.

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