Daryl Powell, Katie Anderson

The world is changing. Organizations are shifting beyond their lean transformations to digital transformation, and in some cases adopting a hybrid approach – a so-called digital-lean transformation. Whatever the approach, we assert that developing a learning-to-learn capability is a core and critical success criteria for sustainable continuous improvement.  In this article, Daryl Powell (SINTEF Manufacturing, Norway) and Katie Anderson (KBJ Anderson Consulting, USA) reflect over learning as a principal tenet in lean thinking and practice, as well as the crucial role of the Sensei in a lean transformation.

Sakichi Toyoda, the founder of Toyota Industries Co. Ltd., was radically influenced by his reading of Samuel Smiles’ (1859) Self-Help (or more accurately Saigoku rishi hen, the Japanese version of Self-Help, translated by Professor Masanao Nakamura of Shizuoka Gakumonsho). In a part of the book, Smiles describes the work of Sir Richard Arkwright, inventor of the cotton spinning-frame and “father of the modern industrial factory system“. It is thought that this sparked Sakichi’s desire to learn, registering his first patent for a wooden hand loom in 1890 (during his lifetime, Sakichi was in fact awarded 40 patents). Knowledge, learning, improvement and growth are the prevalent themes in Self-Help, which subsequently emerged as core elements of Toyoda’s approach to business, first by Sakichi himself at Toyoda Loom Works Ltd., and then by his son Kiichiro Toyoda, who later became founder of Toyota Motor Corporation. The evidence of such an approach is very clear at Toyota – through many years of small, step-by-step improvements (kaizen) – Toyota has achieved its market-leading position with the profitability of a luxury boutique through developing a learning strategy for sustainable growth.

“It is the close observation of little things which is the secret of success in business […] Human knowledge is but an accumulation of small facts, made by successive generations of men, the little bits of knowledge and experience carefully treasured up by them growing at length into a mighty pyramid.”

(Smiles, 1859)

To succeed with lean thinking, we must begin to embrace it as a fundamentally different way of approaching business. With learning at its core, lean is better described as a cognitive transformation than an organizational one. If we consider lean as a strategy for applying reusable learning (in the form of wisdom and actionable knowledge), then the fundamental issue lies in discovering where one should start to look. On one hand, we have the long-term learning strategy (embraced by leaders at the high level), and on the other hand we have the discovery method (the tools) to get us moving from one experiment to the next (leaders and associates alike). As such, lean thinking presents us with a structured method of learning how to learn.

Such an approach acknowledges that the first step to lean transformation is actually the self-transformation of the CEO through engaging with a sensei – a teacher that supports the process of learning how to lead and subsequently leading to learn. This has been the dominant feature of many a successful lean deployment (e.g. Jake Brake and Wiremold, in Womack & Jones (1996) “Lean Thinking“, pp.128-150). Sensei help their students to investigate waste and learn to use structured problem-solving to better understand their customers, their products, and their delivery processes; such that the organization can become more competitive. As part of this lean teaching tradition (that can be traced back to the team of engineers that surrounded Eiji Toyoda and Taiichi Ohno during the early developments of the Toyota Production System), sensei often start by issuing a challenge to the leader to solve small, specific problems that otherwise seem unrelated to the larger problems they believe to exist. To many executives, this may seem peculiar – even frustrating – but to the sensei, this is a test of the learner’s ability to progress on pragmatic problems as a way to reveal your level of understanding of the situation in real terms. The sensei is there to provide support and to help the leader learn how to progress systematically through the problem-solving process. Subsequently, the sensei will start to instruct specific lean tools one-by-one – as determined by the problem at hand – to help the learner build his or her lean learning system, in a learning-by-doing manner.

“We say at Toyota that every leader is a teacher developing the next generation of leaders. This is their most important job.”

Akio Toyoda, President of the Toyota Motor Corporation

In this sense, sensei do not teach solutions, but rather use process improvement techniques to teach lean thinking. In doing so, sensei teach you how to learn. Thus, importantly, lean tools are not solutions in themselves, but rather frames for learning, presenting us with the real essence of a successful lean transformation. It is not about learning and implementing the lean tools per se, but rather about individuals, teams and organizations acquiring a learning-to-learn capability. The tools are there to support the learning. Afterall, an organization with an improved capability is an organization that has learned.

To understand more about lean as a learning system and learning as a core and critical success factor for leading a lean transformation, join us for an afternoon of learning at our LEAN4.0 virtual event on Tuesday 23rd June 2020. The event is a collaboration between the Enterprise Excellence Network (UK) and the HAN Lean-QRM Sentrum (NL). Use the links below for free registration:

14.00-15.00 CEST: Rethinking Lean as a Learning System, Daryl Powell https://register.gotowebinar.com/register/2102451357644077071

 15.30-16.30 CEST: Learning at Toyota, Katie Anderson & Isao Yoshino https://specials.han.nl/sites/lean/agenda/masterclass-learning-at-t/index.xml


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