Achieving Lean

There’s a great quote from Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” that I was thinking of today, in relation to how we teach lean. Thecharacter Malvoliosays, “Be not afraid of greatness. Someare born great, someachieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ’em.”

So, with apologies to Will…

“Some are born lean, some achieve lean, and some have lean thrust upon ’em.”

When our organization started to explore lean methods, we were informed that we would learn by doing. No classes! (That sure felt like having lean “thrust upon us” at the time.) The Toyota way is to teach lean as an integral part of the job, asthe tasks are learned. In our situation, since we weren’t “born lean,”our sensei taught us tools and concepts throughout the firstRapid Improvement Event. When we asked how we could learn to lead events ourselves, we were told that we would have to do hundreds ofevents before we could consider ourselves to be senseis.

Well, I confess – we didn’t listen. We incorporated lean concepts and tools into our classes and taught our leaders lean right along with Six Sigma. We even renamed our Green Belts as Lean Green Belts. We started running our own events and had many successes – some failures, but with overall effectiveness.

So although we weren’t born lean, we seem to have figured out how to work toward achieving lean.

The question that I’m pondering is, how do other organizations approach this issue? Do you teachlean concepts and tools to your employees in a classroom setting? Or do you espouse the “learn-by-doing” philosophy? I’m interested to find out what has worked for you.

Comments 9

  1. Pete Abilla

    Learn-by-Doing is, in my view, about 90% of how the teaching happens, from my experience. There is some classroom training, but the classroom is the Gemba, not a literal classroom that is geographically distant from where the work happens.

    One more thing: the term "Lean Green Belts" is strange. I don’t mean to be splitting hairs, but that title just feels funny to me. I can’t articulate it, but it just seems phony; very popular culture, with not much substance.

    What do you think?

  2. Ron Pereira

    In my opinion, lean is learned best in a kaizen environment.

    In other words, if you need to reduce changeover time you pull a team together and run through a SMED training module for a few hours. Then you go do it.

    There is no need for lego simulations or paper airplanes. Get out of the classroom and onto the shop floor (or office) and make something happen.

    I tend to agree with Pete on the naming convention… but do what works best with your company culture.

  3. JConsidine

    Sounds like your sensei is interested in preserving the mystique of his title – hundreds of events? Please.

    I think the learn by doing as far as lean goes can be especially powerful. I also think not labeling things is the way to go. That way people are thinking about ways to solve problems, not "should I do lean, should I do six sigma, should I do both, PDCA, Kaizen, etc…."

  4. Sue Kozlowski

    But gee, lego simulations are so much fun!

    I’m hearing consensus among you that "learn by doing" is best, but, how long does it take to filter that throughout your entire company? We have about 17,000 employees, and 800 leaders. Even though we can do multiple events in different value streams, it’s still going to take a LONG time to get to everyone. How do you handle that issue?

    For the title Lean Green Belt, we were trying for a name that combined both Lean and Six Sigma, building on the past instead of seeming like it was a new "flavor of the month." If we had started with lean first, I’m sure we would not be using the belt designations at all!

    Thanks Pete, Ron, and James for sharing your insights.

  5. Ron Pereira

    Hi Sue,

    This is tough. You may need to lean (no pun intended) on some GOOD consultants to help get things off the ground.

    Might I recommend Gemba Research ( They are dang good and are not interested in dragging things out in order to keep getting paid like some consultants out there.

    Remember… it took Toyota 50 years to get where they are. It will take time to do this properly.

    But if you focus on big bang training in hotel conference rooms I predict mediocre results at best.

    Email me if you want to take this offline and discuss in more detail (info at leansixsigmaacademy dot com).


  6. Sue Kozlowski

    Thanks for your comment, Ron. I have no way to know whether, at Toyota, you would need to facilitate a certain number of Rapid Improvement Events to become a sensei. As a matter of fact, I have a high regard for the sensei who first taught us lean. I do think it’s tough when a consultant has to accomplish two objectives, facilitate the event per the contract, AND act as a sales agent for the consulting company!

    We are now operating pretty independently (all training & event faciltiing in-house), and we’re using both methods – some classroom training, some just-in-time training during the improvement event. We’re going to take some time this summer to revise/improve our program so I appreciate everyone’s comments on this topic!
    –Sue K.

  7. rob

    I think that you need to understand learning styles first. Personally, I like to learn the theory before I go and do. That’s just the way I learn. It allows me to understand the why before the how. Others are happy just to go and do first. No one method suits all personnel and a mix of blend is needed in any training situation.

  8. Sue Kozlowski

    Rob, your comment is very perceptive. We’ve had this feedback from our classes. Some say, THANKS for teaching it to me before I had to do it. Others say, THANKS for letting me do the project first and then giving me all the background information.

    In an ideal world, everyone could choose their best learning solution for their own learning preferences!

  9. Luis Gross

    I have to agree with the "learn by doing" and the "classroom setting" way of things.

    The classroom setting is very useful in helping people avoid mistakes they can easily gain knowledge of before hand. People can be great in the classroom, but when it comes to doing the real thing, some can feel alienated.

    On the other hand there is nothing like "hands on experience". However "hands on experience" can lead to mistakes being made, one too many, so to say.

    Both have their flaws, but with a mixture of both, things are evenly balanced out, and it’s what I feel works best in my opinion.

    In conclusion, a mixture of both works best from my point of view.

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