I’m back from a workshop with a client in Denmark. The room was filled with continuous improvement experts from about a dozen companies, all of whom were looking for inspiration and ideas for accelerating the promotion of lean in their organizations.

I was struck by how little variety and innovation exists in the way we teach lean. Whether you’re in the US or Europe, it seems that the formula is pretty much the same: one part classroom lectures, two parts PowerPoint presentations, a dash of simulations, and a tablespoon of shop floor kaizen. Based on the results over the past thirty years, as a recipe for improvement, it’s guaranteed to produce a pretty flat soufflé. 

We spend enormous effort on improving our organizations’ various processes, but I don’t see the same effort in improving our own processes in teaching lean. You see periodic spasms of innovation—teaching through A3s following the publication of Managing to Learn, or direct coaching following the publication of Toyota Kata—but by and large, it’s year after year of boring lectures and soul-destroying, bullet point-choked slides. I wasn’t at Toyota in 1951, but I’m pretty confident that Taiichi Ohno wasn’t dragging his welders into day-long workshops to teach his 8 Wastes. 

My friend Sally Dominguez (a keynote speaker at the recent LPPDE Conference) has developed an approach to innovation that she calls “Adventurous Thinking.” In her “parkour” exercise, you identify five characteristics (or norms, or expectations) of a product or service, reverse them, and then figure out how to make those ideas workable. When we did this exercise on “teaching lean in your company” in Denmark, the results were fantastic. People started thinking creatively about teaching:

  • If you’re training for a marathon, for example, you get an individual, customized program—we don’t force everyone to train together at the same time and the same speed. So why can’t we individualize lean training?
  • People love playing games, especially on their phones and computers. Why can’t we make lean into a computer-based game?
  • Ant colonies (yes, ants!) don’t rely upon one ant or group of ants to direct the activities of each individual ant. Broadly dispersed pheromones provide the direction. How can we replicate that idea in a company?

Here are some of the specific ideas the group generated:

Current Norm Reversal New Idea
PowerPoint slides No presentations Experiential learning – practice on the job, and then follow up with explanation of theory
Classroom based Gemba based Instruction done at the gemba w/o any classrooms.
Inside the company Outside the company Observe work at other companies and invite other firms to observe (and improve) your own processes.
Driven by the kaizen office Driven by the workers Gamification through badges, leaderboards, etc.
People trained in groups People learn at their own speed Tablet/phone/computer-based simulations, learning modules, and games.
Departmental learning/successes not aggressively shared Learning/successes shared with everyone Capture improvements when they’re made with iPhone videos and show at daily standup meetings.

Will all of these ideas work? Will they work in your organization? Who knows? But that’s not the point. In about 90 minutes, the participants came up with dramatically new ideas and frames for thinking about their work—frames that will help them do kaizen on their own work, and that will hopefully drive their organizations to new heights.

What have you done recently to improve the way that you teach and promote lean within your company?