Beyond Lean: Building Sustainable Business and People Success Through New Ways of Thinking

May 1, 2004
by Jamie Flinchbaugh, Lean Learning Center Create a Learning Organization Creating a learning organization at every level and through every activity is

by Jamie Flinchbaugh, Lean Learning Center

Create a Learning Organization

Creating a learning organization at every level and through every activity is the most critical of principles. This is the "glue" principle; it holds everything together. Without integrating learning into how your firm works, you are sure to be stagnant. We spend most of our time working in the business that we have, serving customers, solving problems, dealing with employees, but very little time working on the business -- such as how the business does what it does.

When there is a problem or breakdown in the company, within the team or between two people, do you hear questions such as?

o What is it about how we work that allowed this breakdown to happen?

o How is our thinking serving us well or not?

o Is the system creating unintended consequences such as this breakdown?

o What can we do together to prevent this breakdown from happening again?

If you hear these kinds of questions, you have started to adopt the learning principle. The consistency, frequency and distribution of these conversations will determine how ingrained this principle is. How many of these conversations result in changing actions -- specifically, in changing the system including activities, connections and flows as well as the way people think -- will determine how effectively the learning principle has been adopted.

There are two elements to the principle of create a learning organization:

Create frequent points of reflection -- be a learning organization. Most organizations limit their learning to training activities, but this should be only a small portion of the learning activity (don't reduce your training to change the ratio; increase the other activities). Reflection on how the organization works, thinks and improves should be a daily activity integrated with your operating activities. Reflection is not reserved for a 3-day off-site senior management retreat or other such one-time events. Reflection should happen at every level of the organization and at different frequencies. Teams should reflect on their improvement process. Supervisors and their employees should reflect on their role clarity and communication process. The more points of reflection you create, the faster, deeper and more sustainable your transformation process will be. This can happen in the middle of the day and happen spontaneously. The next time you encounter a problem ask, "What is it about how we think or work that allowed this problem to occur?" This conversation cannot happen every time you have a problem, but try it, see the result, and learn under what conditions these conversations should happen. Of course, these conversations require new skills and tools for how we expose our own thinking and the thinking of others and for thinking in the language of systems -- activities, connections and flows.

Leaders must be learners and teachers. Throughout lean transformation, leaders have new roles. First, leaders must be learners. They must be open to changing themselves and involving themselves deeply in the learning and experimentation process. This requires giving up some control, and it requires being more focused on what is effective rather than on being right. If the complete and total transformation has not occurred, it is safe to say that you have more to learn. Leaders must also be teachers. Simply put, if you can't teach, then you can't lead. This doesn't just mean classroom teaching, although that is certainly one place we should see leaders. Leaders also must teach lean systems principles and rules to all involved and demonstrate how they will be used, starting with their own behaviors. They must also ensure that others are teaching the principles effectively. The list of who is considered a leader also changes. Leader is not a title reserved for CEOs and vice presidents anymore. Everyone from the CEO to line supervisors and workers are leaders. Facilitators are leaders. Change agents are leaders. Union representatives are leaders. Leadership means understanding current reality very deeply and clearly, having a vision for the ideal state, and having the understanding and ability to close the gap. Focusing on how to close the gap is where the learning of the leader plays a part. Helping others close the gap is where teaching surfaces. Leadership is hard, but worth the effort and is also essential for lean transformation.

These five principles enable us to apply the four rules effectively. The four rules are the laws of lean transformation -- they are the bedrock. The principles are the lens and the thinking to enable us to apply the rules and enable lean transformation to come alive. The principles and rules fit together, as shown below:

Learn, teach and apply these principles and you will begin to internalize them into your hearts and minds as well as the hearts and minds of those around you.

Start from your current reality. Understanding the principles and rules of lean systems and applying them are two different things. How to get a company moving in the short-term while keeping in mind the long-term involves many variables. Here are a few key goals to keep in mind.

o Start changing the thinking of the people in the organization;

o Move the current reality of the business closer to the ideal state;

o Learn more about how to move the organization forward;

o Test the use of the tools against the rules and principles;

o Develop a commitment to and understanding of the long-term journey.

These goals are the challenge of any significant company transformation. We can start to explore the possibilities by returning our focus to Toyota.

Many people, including Toyota's leaders themselves, have called Toyota a deeply ingrained learning organization. They have been at this for half a century, and they aren't done. In 1999, its Georgetown, Kentucky, plant implemented more than 150,000 improvement suggestions. They have developed many tools and techniques that help them do this, mostly centered on the systematic elimination of waste. They have spent a great deal of time and resources working on the flows of material and information and, specifically, all the interconnections within those flows. They have worked on the connections between equipment and workers, including the identification of problems. They have structured and improved their work practices in great detail to improve efficiency and effectiveness. They have worked to make their processes capable and predictable through quick problem detection and correction. They have gone to minute levels to apply the rules and principles to their operating system, the Toyota Production System, over a long period of time.

There is nothing we can do to jump to the end state of Toyota's learning and just implement the final result. They have been moving through this journey for 50 years, and some of their lessons were learned almost 100 years ago. The only real answer is to actively cultivate our learning skills and activities to create a learning culture. There is no shortcut to the learning process, although articulating and applying a set of rules and principles as explained here can help dramatically reduce the time to success. Of course, that sounds just as daunting as designing and improving millions of interconnections. So where can we really start?

We believe that every organization must create a learning laboratory, a focused place to learn and experiment, within their enterprise. This is because we only truly learn by doing (which means you aren't really learning by reading this article) and through the integration of doing (action) and reflection. Only when we integrate action and reflection can we begin to understand how to start this long journey.

So what is a learning laboratory? It might look different for each organization, but it is a place where real work is done and where true experimentation and learning-by-doing can take place. It might be one of your many assembly lines, a dedicated process team, a customer service center, a specific project or a financial process. The learning laboratory will go through tremendous transformation as everyone works to understand and define what the ideal state of the company might look like. Throughout this process, those closest to the work as well of the leadership of the organization will be engaged in reflection during action so that they can understand not just what does and doesn't work, but why things do and don't work. This is the first step on a continuous journey toward creating lean systems.

Consider a plant that has several machining lines. Pick one area and start by training those involved, not just in the line, but in supporting the line including the material, engineering, the controller and, of course, the plant manager and her staff. Train everyone first in the principles and rules. Then start building an improvement strategy based on the current reality. Learn tools as necessary and frequently get everyone together to review what is and is not working and why. Start building lessons-learned as well as a practice for change that can be spread throughout the organization. After creating significant change that others can aspire to and learn from, start spreading the practice to other neighboring areas.

Your practice field or learning laboratory may not be an area within a plant. The automatic response to needing to start lean transformation is "we already have so much going on." Pick one of those efforts and use that project to start learning. This might be the gap that needs to be closed after an ISO-9000 audit or it might be a new product launch or perhaps a plant information technology project. Extra effort will be required to learn the principles and rules and to explore how they are being applied. The overall effort of lean transformation efforts may be reduced by focusing on efforts already required and underway.

The necessary efforts to transform the system within your company or organization into a lean system are a significant commitment. It requires daily responsibility to maintain focus and overcome significant hurdles in the culture. The journey is worth the effort, however, as the results created for both the business and for the people are far superior to other journeys.

So far I have painted a picture of how your organization may look different having adopted the thinking of lean systems. How one goes about teaching and learning about lean systems depends upon the current condition of the organization. You must consider such factors as its history, culture, skills and needs. Many companies have tried mimicry, specifically mimicry of Toyota, and that can work to a point, although it can also lead to disaster. You can't learn, or win, by mimicking others unless everything about your companies is exactly the same. Since it never is the same, we have no other choice than to learn and work hard at transforming our organizations given our unique current realities. That's the bad news. The good news is that learning and teaching principles and rules and putting them into practice can get you where you need to go. Therefore, pick an approach and get started, remembering to pay attention to what you're learning. Integrating the principles and rules of lean systems with the necessary tools and actions to improve your current reality will ensure that you are always two steps closer to the ideal state than your competitors.

Jamie Flinchbaugh is a co-founder and partner of the Lean Learning Center in Novi, Mich., and brings successful and varied experiences of lean transformation as both a practitioner and facilitator. Jamie was part of the development, training and implementation of the Chrysler Operating System, a widely-benchmarked lean change program spearheaded by Lean Learning Center partner Dennis Pawley. He most recently was at DTE Energy, parent company to Detroit Edison and MichCon, as a lean thought leader to help build the first lean program in a utility and to transform the operations, leadership and thinking of the utility industry towards a philosophy of lean systems. He is also a co-founder and director of Rev! Motorcycles, a start-up company that connects design and manufacturing to the customer to build-to-order powersports products such as off-road motorcycles. He also has a wide-range of operational experiences, including production, maintenance, product engineering, manufacturing engineering and production control. Most of this was experienced while at Chrysler Corporation and Harley-Davidson. While at Chrysler, Jamie was a major contributor to the design of the new Jeep Liberty plant in Toledo, OH, a major new asset for Chrysler and their first designed using lean concepts. Jamie can be contacted at 248-478-1480 or [email protected]

If you would like to understand the ideas discussed in this article at a deeper level, or would like help in applying them to your organization, visit

Other articles in this 5-part series:

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5