The Lean Workplace as Classroom

The the Harvard Business Review article Decoding the DNA of the Toyota Production System Kent Bowen and Steven Spear describe Toyota as a “community of scientists” based on the their approach to management. Specifically, they describe four rules used at Toyota to design processes, train people in them and improve the processes. These four rules are:

  1. highly specify all activities for timing, sequence and outcome
  2. clearly define the transfer of material and information
  3. keep the pathway for every product and service simple and direct
  4. find and solve problems at the source using the scientific method

In essence this is PDCA and standardization. The authors imply that this is something we should emulate if we aspire to a level of performance similar to Toyota’s. From the point of view of process development that may be accurate but what about the human development point of view? Wouldn’t a school or classroom be a more accurate description of the lean workplace?
The Lean Workplace
Adults learn through application, practice and by finding relevance of their lessons to their daily work. In some ways the lean workplace is ideal as a classroom. Some basic characteristics, or we could say requirements of a “lean” workplace include the immediate visibilities of abnormalities (problems), the existence of a standardized and agreed problem solving process and set of tools, and a workforce empowered and supported to think creatively and solve problems. Continuous education of people through daily practical problem solving is a sign of a lean workplace. The result is a work environment that is respectful of people and intolerant of waste, the very definition of lean.
The Effective Classroom
There are some uncanny parallels between what makes a school classroom effective and what makes the lean organization effective. I am not an expert in education, but here are a few obvious ones:

Teacher student ratio. Classrooms with more than 12-14 students per teacher do not perform as well as smaller class sizes. In the workplace this is known as span of control and likewise when a team leader has a team size that is too large, quality, safety, productivity all suffer. Too many companies look only at the indirect to direct ratio and increase team size, reducing one small visible cost while increasing other large, less visible ones.

A textbook.
The documented, accumulated knowledge based on the best understanding of the fields of study is essential to any teaching. The textbook is the reference for the student and the teacher on facts, formulas and case studies. In many cases the word textbook itself means “final authority”. Likewise there is a clear set of methods, tools, formulas, standards, principles and guidelines on lean which we can refer to. These provide a strong body of knowledge on how to learn and function in a lean workplace.
Homework. Teachers assign students homework to make sure that they are able to apply what they have learned through practical exercises. We could argue that the bulk of learning happens no in the classroom but through repetition of exercises, completions of projects and reports based on reading and reflection. Likewise the way we check successful learning within the workplace is based on assigning “homework” which is mostly done during the working day and involves meeting daily or hourly performance targets, completion of projects, and the demonstration of personal performance improvement over a period of weeks and months.

How to Develop People
First we need to reframe the way we look at work so that instead of viewing the workday as a series of interesting or uninteresting tasks, it is seen as an opportunity to learn and grow each day. Practically, we could ask ourselves:

  1. What problems did we solve for our customers today?
  2. What problems did we solve for our colleagues today?
  3. What did we learn today?

Second, we need to look at problem solving as a shared process that follows the Plan Do Check Act cycle. The problem solving approach should be standardized as much as possible, and vigorously tested and improved. Problem solving, when it follows a process such as the scientific method and is not simply fire-fighting or heroic effort, is in essence a learning process. We define and clarify the problem, explore causes, then test countermeasures to contain and eliminate these causes.
Third, we need to share what we learn each day. In a lean workplace we say “a leader is a teacher” so in additional to viewing work as an opportunity to learn, we should find ways to help others learn. This can be through deliberate teaching, participating and contributing in a team activity, or in finding and bringing new ideas and information to the team.
Introducing Gemba Academy
For a long time we have been striving to make knowledge of kaizen and lean more accessible to all. Since mid-2008 we have worked with with partners in the business excellence community to develop a solution that would dramatically change for the better how we learn about lean for the better. With the aid of web 2.0 technology, we think we have achieved this. Some of the features Gemba Academy will offer:

  1. Convenient access to online training anywhere, anytime
  2. Continuously adding and improving content based on our body of knowledge
  3. Interactive lessons to check your grasp of the information

We will launch Gemba Academy in mid-March. Over the next four weeks we will be releasing more information. In the mean time, please visit our site for a sneak peek at our free online training videos.

4 Comments

  1. steve

    February 22, 2009 - 9:50 am

    Can you shine any light on the TBP (Toyota Business Practice) method of problem solving, i am aware this is inline with the Toyota Way, but havenot come across any web sites or books with this format ??

  2. Jon Miller

    February 22, 2009 - 11:08 pm

    Hi Steve,
    Here is the answer to your question: Ask Gemba.

  3. Stephen Wang

    February 28, 2009 - 6:13 am

    hi, we’re now try to start CI program into lean enterprise ,is there any roadmap of lean six sigma in one of enterprise?

  4. Jon Miller

    June 20, 2009 - 11:29 am

    Hi Stephen
    Sorry for the delayed response to your question. We lost track of some comments in our system.
    The general roadmap for implementing a continuous improvement program consists of education, pilot projects to test the concepts, efforts to sustain the results through daily management, and then expansion. The most important thing is to take it step by step and follow the PDCA cycle (Plan, Do, Check, Act).
    There is no manual or step-by-step roadmap that works for every company. Each situation and starting point is different. However there are certain general things that should be done before others. I recommend reading and following the advice in John Kotter’s “Why Transformations Fail” which is an article that can be purchased from the Harvard Business Review for about $5. Most of the reasons for failure are due to organizational readiness and education.
    After the education phase, there are many places you can go to learn about the lean systems and tools on the internet, in books or from consultants. The Shingo Prize criteria for evaluating enterprise maturity in lean is not a bad one.
    If you have taken some steps since February in the deployment of lean and if you have some more specific questions I would be happy to answer them.
    Best wishes,