Proponents of the lean enterprise system trace its lineage back to Benjamin Franklin, who included adages on thriftiness in his “Poor Richard’s Almanack,” including “A penny saved is two pence clear” and “He that idly loses five shillings worth of time, loses five shillings.”
It’s a little more difficult, however, to pinpoint when the modern application of lean concepts in businesses came into play, as well as who was responsible. Some point to Henry Ford’s “just-in-time” approach to Model T car manufacturing, while others cite Toyota founder Sakichi Toyoda’s processes around his automatic looms. (Unbeknownst to many, the prodigious Japanese automaker actually started out as a textile producer.)
Regardless of who came up with the idea, there’s a general consensus that lean philosophy — as it is known today — began to emerge in line manufacturing environments in the early 20th century.
Since then, large and small organizations across various industries have benefited from the waste prevention and value creation that customer-centric lean principles provide. What’s more, this ideal has been implemented in enterprise learning, often with impressive and immediate results.
The Lean Framework
Any discussion regarding lean enterprise systems necessarily begins with the value proposition for the customer, said Mike Morrison, vice president and dean of the University of Toyota. He also said the company’s employees regularly answer a series of questions to determine how customer-oriented they are.
“It always starts with value,” he said. “To what degree are we really serving our customers? Does value flow to the customers, or are there lots of barriers in terms of poor processes, consistency or quality? You can’t be lean without that. If you don’t have an absolute sense of what value looks like, waste builds up like crazy.”
Waste, then, essentially is defined as any resource that doesn’t contribute to the products and services demanded by consumers. Once that is identified, it has to be eliminated as quickly as possible.
That’s not the end of the process, however. After the waste has been removed, practitioners of lean must start another cycle from the top to uncover more inefficiencies. This circular procedure is referred to in lean circles as “Kaizen,” which loosely translates to “a change for the better” from Japanese, but it specifically signifies a continual improvement mentality.
Lean breaks down waste into the following seven categories:
1. Too much production in relation to demand
2. Too much wait time between stages of production
3. Superfluous logistics
4. Overprocessing of parts and/or products
5. Defective outputs
6. Excessive inventory
7. Misallocation or misuse of workforce
The lean system relies on two tools in particular to enforce its stringent policies with respect to waste. The first of these is “Poka-Yoke,” which prevents errors in production. The other is known as “Kanban,” a notification system designed to report inventory levels and alert managers to any shortfalls.
The Role of Lean in Learning (and Vice Versa)
In “Lean Thinking: Banish Waste and Create Wealth in Your Corporation,” James P. Womack and Daniel T. Jones discuss the core aspects of the system. They say one of the central concepts of lean is including and empowering employees in decision-making processes. They’re the “troops on the ground,” so to speak, and they need to be able to observe, decide and act quickly for the system to work on its self-imposed tight schedules.
This means development of the workforce is key in all of this — knowledge workers and line laborers alike can’t run the lean enterprise if they don’t know what’s going on around them. Thus, for success in operations, employees should be highly competent in their given skill set or job role, or they should be developing themselves so they will be.
Employees also have to be knowledgeable in lean principles. These must be understood and accepted by the workforce, which comes to “own” the process. Employee buy in for lean methodologies is a prerequisite for their success in any organization.
Once applied, lean learning rapidly can enhance the performance of the workforce, Morrison said.
“The ROI on that is nearly 100 percent immediately because they’re more productive,” he said. “They’ll complete projects and improve processes that will drive more customer value. When they spend time with this, they’ll see the immediate payback because they’ll perform better.”
Lean also influences the ways learning programs are delivered. Because of its strong emphasis on saving time and money, much of lean education tends to be provided to learners while they’re on the job — the content is often short, digestible and dispensed virtually. Additionally, it’s typically just-in-time and just-for-you, designed to support employees at the point of execution.
Obstacles to Lean Learning in Organizations
Why do learning professionals have such a difficult time educating organizational leaders about how lean works in enterprise education? Partly because executives just want them to solve problems, and partly because they don’t always agree on how to operate learning and development functions within an organization.
Here are some of the common challenges that hinder lean learning functions in companies:
Arguments over centralization and decentralization
Lack of subject-matter experts
Conflicts between technical and educational departments
Depth and scale of content
These issues, whether they’re brought up inside or outside of the learning organization, come up often, but they can be dealt with by customizing the system according to the needs of the enterprise.
Despite the apparent strictness of lean, it’s very flexible — there are many different approaches, and learning professionals should weigh the pros and cons of each. Tom Kelly, NetApp University (Network Appliance) vice president, said this means asking “the hard questions” and considering the answers.
What if the training group focuses on subject-matter competence (general areas of broad understanding instead of expertise)? They could cover more products with fewer training resources, and communication with subject-matter experts becomes more efficient than it would be with pure designers.
What if you don’t own the search or the registration process or even the learning management system (LMS)? What if you think of those things as services that can and should be provided by IT? That might work wonders on reducing upgrades and repetitive customization of internally supported applications, tools and systems, as well as head count in both IT and learning.
What if you acknowledge almost any enterprise will ship a certain amount of products with errors, bugs and omissions? What if you similarly recognize any learning (especially in the classroom) should hold the workforce to a higher standard than that? What is a realistic bar to set?
Make Lean Work for You
Kelly agrees lean learning organizations face obstacles related to structural fit within the enterprise. To work properly, it’s important to establish the best balance between ownership and collaboration, as well as between centralized and decentralized models.
“Obviously, a highly centralized deployment will give the learning function almost total control of the tools, systems and services,” he said. “It offers a one-stop URL for all users (even if they see a different landing screen, it’s the same repository behind that screen), which gives the training function the strategic leadership position as the broker for the audiences inside and outside the company.
“But we don’t really need — and can never truly achieve — control over all the content creation in the company anyway, so why strive for that mythical nirvana? Plus, the learning organization should have influential advocates in other departments that communicate with it frequently, so employees will have the educational support they need, when they need it.”
Kelly also said lean helps learning functions strike the right balance between centralized and siloed employee education programs. It encourages a “federated” arrangement, where all the learning needs are met based on the goals and priorities of the enterprise, not based on the group with the most funding or the squeakiest wheel.
It places the correct emphasis on development as a strategic part of the enterprise’s success, and it demonstrates learning’s rightful place as a tool to leverage any strategic or product advantage the enterprise has in the marketplace.
“Learning professionals with a lean mindset won’t be building cumbersome just-in-case training classes,” Kelly explained. “They’re focused on just enough training for each audience to do their jobs better, and because of what they measure, they understand how their programs impact individual and workforce performance.
“A lean and successful enterprise learning organization is focused on results, particularly business results — not training metrics or proof we’ve been busy. (How many training days did you deliver last quarter? What was the occupancy rate of the classrooms?)”
At that point, he maintains, learning leaders can show how their programs are improving the overall operational and financial performance of the organization. Further, the training function can stop arguing with the various other parts of the enterprise about the size of and funding for its offerings and focus on results, leverage and capacity.
– Brian Summerfield, firstname.lastname@example.org