Top 10 Lean Education Mistakes (and a Few Recommendations)

By Jon Miller Updated on September 23rd, 2022

Here is a mixed bag of thoughts on common Lean education mistakes and a few recommendations on how to avoid them:

#1: Teaching things rather than teaching thinking

If one thing can be said about the Lean tools, it is that they work. Yet Lean transformations don’t work so well when the emphasis of Lean education is on things – the Lean tools – rather than on the thinking that got people to the point of finding or developing these Lean tools. The Lean tools and the results they bring are the most tangible and easiest place to start education, but not the best place.

Recommendation: Teach the tools, but make clear the thinking behind them.

#2: Having no focal point

Presentation and speaking coaches recommend having no more than three main points per speech, and repeating these points three times, once at the beginning, once during the body of the presentation, and once at the end. The three ideas should have a common focal point. The delivery of the training should match this so that the learner can anchor on a key image, piece of text, exercise, or story. Presenters who walk all around the room and use every possible writing and presenting surface waste not only motion but erode attention and focus.

Recommendation: Stand in a circle when presenting and have a purpose if you leave it.

#3: Positioning lean incorrectly

There are different levels to and reasons for Lean education, generally for the purpose of building awareness or knowledge. Context is at least as important as content, so carefully consider how you position the content you deliver before and as you deliver it.

Recommendation: Position Lean within the stream of what is important to your organization in terms of values and purpose.

#4: The doom and gloom kick-off

Would you dim the lights, play somber music, put up cobwebs and release bats in preparation for Lean education? Not unless there was a Halloween party scheduled right after it. Yet many Lean education sessions begin with “change or die” as the message. All this does is confirms in people’s minds the negative aspects of what they have heard about Lean. To prime people for learning, emphasize the positive reasons for Lean and kaizen. When people need to know why fact-based statements about the competitive situation can be made to motivate people.

Recommendation: Go with a more festive theme.

#5: Confusing Lean education and Lean training

As a rule, education should provide some new knowledge and training should involve doing. It’s not cut and dry, but think of it as theory and practice.

Recommendation: Remember that Taiichi Ohno said, “Understanding means doing.”

#6: Shutting down the naysayers

Some of the most valuable insights you can gain about what it takes to make Lean succeed in your organization come from people who say “It will not work here.” Provided you ask “Why?” and really listen, you can quickly enhance your Lean education efforts from the theoretical to the practical.

Recommendation: Thank people who say nay to lean, write down their comments, and address it during the class. Remember that you are on the same side.

#7: Putting more emphasis on the presentation slides than on what you say

Education requires a sensei (teacher) and one or more students. Presentation slides are optional.

Recommendation: Use a few slides, a few high-impact visuals, and a few high-impact statistics.

#8: Reading or reciting from a script

Whatever you say should be genuine and relevant to the people who are listening. The words you say should be of higher value than the words on the screen. For the most part, adults want what they learn to be practical, and of use. Know your material deeply enough so that your value to the class is in answering questions and providing relevant examples, rather than being PowerPoint made flesh.

Recommendation: Don’t be afraid to go off-script and teach what the class wants to learn.

#9: High-tech waste of processing

In 1998 the state of the art for Lean education for Gemba clients was a hollow box containing a light bulb, an articulating arm with an adjustable mirror, and a transparent surface for placing the mylar sheets otherwise known as our training materials. It wasn’t animated, but it worked. We knew about PowerPoint, and in fact, used it to design slides that we printed on plastic. We never had problems with sleeping laptops, connection problems, or hot training rooms due to the cooling fan of the electronics. Times have changed, computer projectors have gotten smaller and cheaper, and it’s rare that we have to take our own. Now in the training rooms of our most technologically advanced clients, we can amaze the students with all sorts of fiddly lasers, wireless devices, remote controls, and retractable screens. These are all very good until they start acting up and wasting your time.

Recommendation: Use only proven, reliable technology to assist you in Lean education.

#10: Setting a “sufficient” level of education for Lean

One of the aims of Lean is the continuous development of people and their capabilities. So it would be a contradiction to intentionally limit the amount of Lean education or any type of education.

Recommendation: Get started with Lean education and stop only when you have attained perfection.

  1. Erik

    October 22, 2007 - 8:20 am

    How does point #4 compare & contrast to Womack & Jones’ “Seize (or create) A Crisis”?
    I talked to Mr. Womack about this and he responded that his experience was simply that most companies won’t change unless they absolutely have to. This is the “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.” mentality. And while that is definitely the slogan of the complacent, it’s remakably common.
    The company I am working for right now has had two consecutive quarters of losses (to the tune of 126% of last year’s profits) and my message has been change or die simply because if we don’t, we will.
    While I agree with you 100% about not being negative for negativity’s sake, isn’t clear, open and honest communication of the facts a prerequisite for Lean? My current sensei has always told me, “Happy talk kills companies.” Your thoughts?

  2. Jon Miller

    October 22, 2007 - 8:50 am

    Hi Erik,
    I was thinking more about tone than about content. I fully agree that transformation requires a catalytic sense of urgency.
    Crisis and urgency should be approached as positive things, and that Lean thinking enables overcoming challenges.
    Harvard Prof. and author John Kotter makes the same points about needing a strong sense of urgency to move people out of their comfort zone when leading transformation efforts.
    “Happy talk” is delusional, wishful, and facing away from the facts. “Happy thought” is very important however. Facts are what they are. If we talk about them as if they were something else, that is happy talk. If we talk about them not only as what they are but what they could be, that is happy thought.
    One of the first lessons in Lean education is “it may not be broken, but it’s far from ideal, let’s fix it!”

  3. Erik

    October 22, 2007 - 9:23 am

    Got it! Thanks. I really like the delineation between “happy talk” and “happy thought”. That’s a key distinction I think. Facts are neither inherently positive nor negative; they simply are, so it’s important for us not to assign something that’s not there. Rather, let’s share information in a fact based environment so we can all work on problems together. Thanks again Jon.

  4. Rick

    October 22, 2007 - 9:55 am

    Great point about educating and learning. It is one thing to teach and explain something like the major wastes. It is a totally different thing to go on the floor of the factory and through seeing and coaching, identify the wastes. Our current Lean Steering Committee is completing John Kotter’s book and have found it invigorating in challenging our Lean focus.

  5. John Rumler

    October 22, 2007 - 7:10 pm

    What do you see as the number one reason why “Lean Transformations” fail? I’ve seen my share of reasons, but would like to hear what you think. I hope this is an acceptable question to ask in this forum.

  6. Jon Miller

    October 22, 2007 - 7:22 pm

    Giving up. You never really fail until you decide to stop trying.

  7. Alberto

    October 29, 2007 - 10:32 pm

    I think there’s more to point #8
    Educating people by reading right off a script or a slide is offensive to attendants. remember:
    PEOPLE KNOW HOW TO READ, by reading from a presentation slide or a script, be sure to give them more, give them what they want to learn and also give them time to read the slide/script

  8. nate

    November 16, 2007 - 1:22 am

    i just started Lean Education with all our new employees.
    i had a 110 slides on my slide show. i only used about ten.
    and they were all pictures.
    i focused on Lean,Kaizen and 5S. When i got to my 5S portion i stopped,picked a random person (someone who didn’t like lean) and told them to get up and go over to that pill of papers and grab my 5S portion. i told them that i was in a hurry and i had no time to get that ready. before he could say anything i said i had to get this presentation started due to that fact i was running behind. i said ya thats it, right there,now its messy (sort) and that it wasn’t in order(set in order) then i told him im sorry for the ripped and discolored paper. as they started to do this for me, they always seemed pissed and some were upset that i didn’t have it ready. once they started too look at the papers, the knew what i was talking about.
    i told them how much it took for them to get up,get it ready, then notice it was a joke. your work cell has to be ready for anything i told them. 5S is predictability, everything in its place and a place for everything. it worked.
    i recommended anyone who is doing lean education to use small groups and to try this technique. it really works.

  9. Anonymous

    November 16, 2007 - 1:24 am

    when i train people i use small groups and for the 5s i make one person get up and go get my 5s portion, saying id not have time to get it ready and using some of the excuses they use for not sustaining 5S. they go do it and i tell them to sort it set it in order and sorry for the mess. they understand the point.

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