Better Lean Leadership through Novice Learning

By Jon Miller Updated on March 4th, 2021

I read an interesting article in the Wall Street Journal titled, How to Teach Professors Humility? Hand Them a Rubik’s Cube. Professors at Furman and Denison Universities took on a challenge over a six-week winter break. They had to learn to solve a Rubik’s Cube in five minutes or less. They used an online platform to view lessons and track their practice. The purpose was to help professors become better instructors. How does learning to solve a puzzle toy do this?

Combating Expertise Blindness

“It’s so simple. Why doesn’t the learner get it?” This is a familiar puzzle for many teachers, trainers, coaches, management mentors and job instructors. We explain slowly, clearly, using visuals and examples, allow the learner to practice, and yet they miss the basic points. It’s apparent that the professor is smart enough to teach the subject, so it must be the students’ fault.

This is something called expert blindness. When we understand something inside and out, we lose the ability to see that it isn’t obvious to beginners. Expert blindness is subconscious. It’s both a bias and a failure of imagination. When teachers are secure in our expertise, this blinds them to the struggles of their students. In the case of professors, they may not have felt like beginners for years, even decades.

Learning to solve the Rubik’s Cube brought the professors back to the level of being a novice learner. This experience was designed to teach empathy with their students.

Deliberate Practice of the Improvement Pattern

Those familiar with the Toyota Kata will find some common themes in the article. The professors had to be humble, accept the importance of following the proven pattern for learning, and persist in their practice through frustration. Humility can mean accepting the need for boring repetition, rote memorization, and doing things someone else’s way. These things are essential for novice learning.

Learning is not only an intellectual activity, but also a physical transformation. We may see, hear and understand what to do, but we will only learn it by making new and strong connections in our neural pathways. This requires correct practice and repetition.

During the lean journey many organizations are guilty of changing things such as process steps, forms and layouts, but not making mental changes to match the new ways. In an interesting way, people make the mirror image mistake when learning something new. They attempt to make mental changes without putting in the work to make the accompanying physical, neurological changes. It’s important to remember that they are both essential, two sides of the same coin.

Appreciation of a System

Another observation from the article that is highly relevant to those of us pursuing continuous improvement has to do with the three-dimensional and interconnected nature of the puzzle. When the Rubik’s Cube first came out, I learned to solve one side easily through trial and error. Two and three sides were also possible much of the time. But I never learned a systematic way of solving the complete puzzle, all six sides. When two or three faces were a solid color, making a change to another face of the puzzle would undo a solved side.

One of the professors is quoted, “Every time you fix something, you run the risk of screwing everything that you’ve already done up,” comparing this to the process of editing when writing. This is very similar to how many organizations approach continuous improvement. They may make changes to one part of a value stream without first looking upstream and downstream. Output rates, WIP levels or capacity allocation may be changed for one team, resulting in unintended consequences to another.

There is an expression in lean thinking, “from point to line to plane to cube”. This means that we start with point kaizen, then progress to connecting improvements in a logical flow across the value stream. Then, these improvements must be spread across all value streams and similar processes in the organization. Finally, these two-dimensional, or planar improvements must be elevated to the third dimension. This means integrating suppliers, customers, support processes.

How to Become a Better Lean Leader

One of the tenets of lean thinking is that leaders are teachers. Building and sustaining a lean culture requires everyone learning a new way of working and thinking. It also requires learning how to learn, think, adapt and improve. For many, these are new practical skills. By definition, we are novices when picking up skills. Therefore, leaders in lean organizations must be effective at teaching novices. The Rubik’s Cube experience suggests leaders can do this by taking on their own novice learning challenge.

This could be anything such as learning to juggle, knit, play harmonica, draw or a speak a language. This would require a commitment to practice between fifteen minutes and an hour each day. Then, we should observe our thoughts and emotions while struggling as a novice. What made us frustrated? When did we give up? How did we persist through an obstacle? Where did we find the instruction materials inadequate? How well did we follow the advice of our teacher?

These observations will help us understand ourselves better as learners. But more importantly, we will gain empathy and insight into the common struggles of novice learners in our organizations.

  1. Steven Piscopiello

    March 3, 2021 - 3:31 pm

    This was a very interesting read to say the least. As a current student, I agree that expert blindness exists. So many students miss basic points and it is apparent in my current classes, especially under the circumstances we face today. Lean leaders have to be effective with teaching novices, because like you stated building a lean culture requires everyone to adapt to a new way of working and thinking.

    • Jon Miller

      March 31, 2021 - 5:40 pm

      Thanks for reading Steven


    March 31, 2021 - 11:15 am

    Very interesting blog post, expert blindness is an important topic managers or executives teaching novices seem to forget about. In everything, Individuals tend to learn at different paces depending on their strengths and weaknesses. Expert blindness theory suggests that the teachers or mentors educating an individual who knows little about that specific topic. It suggests the teachers or mentors are out of touch with the younger or less experienced novices which represents little to no progression when explaining an idea. It is important to eliminate expert blindness at all levels of business to create a firm-wide understanding or getting as many people on the same page at once.

    • Jon Miller

      March 31, 2021 - 1:20 pm

      Thanks for your comment Dylan. In Training Within Industry (TWI) there’s saying, “If the learner hasn’t learned, the teacher hasn’t taught.” That’s normally in reference to job skills, but in a broader context it applies to the need for the expert to understand the learner and teach at their level. Teaching is a skill like any other!

  3. Jake Walker

    March 31, 2021 - 3:46 pm

    I really enjoyed this post because the wa that you broke down what it means to be an expert at lean, or anything to that matter. Especially when you talk about how lean cannot be just one person controlling an entire operation, the best way to succeed at lean is to work collaboratively and get different perspectives from people who may not even have as much experience as you. Working together is a key component to any lean practices.

    • Jon Miller

      March 31, 2021 - 5:41 pm

      Well said Jake

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