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Are You Training People to Think or to Follow a Checklist?

by Erin Urban
December 12, 2014

Are You Training People to Think or to Follow a Checklist?

by Erin Urban
December 12, 2014 | Comments (8)

Several weeks ago, at the MoreSteam annual Executive Briefing in Houston, Texas: Excellence in Process Improvement, there was an interesting presentation and discussion on Lean/Sigma training. The conference participants were comprised of a select group of experienced continuous improvement professionals, many of whom are program leaders.

The question was raised (in essence): “Do our historical training modules provide a solid foundation for professional students to become successful problem solvers?” 

What we discovered as a group through analyzing the data was no, we are not necessarily focusing where we should with our training. The biggest issue we have is that our training initiatives stuff Lean/Sigma students in a box, and then we ask them to think outside the box.

After discussing the subject, we agreed more of the following is needed:

  • knowledge of the principles and purpose behind each step in the scientific problem solving approach
  • soft-skills training and behaviors
  • information/resources/training on how to do change management
  • perhaps more project management know-how

Without these elements, students seem to struggle to see successes in improvement projects.

There’s also a concern that people sign up for Lean/Sigma training unprepared with a sponsored project that is strategically aligned with their business unit’s improvement needs. In these cases, most projects experience a high failure rate and little to no sustainability. Additionally, further improvement projects are few to none if students are expected to practice continuous improvement as a work hobby instead of their professional focus.

Success of improvement projects are also linked to training methodology. In so many of our training programs, we focus so much on the tools used in each step of the scientific problem solving process, perhaps we don’t spend enough time on the principles: the “why” behind each step. Tools are fairly static and further details can be obtained about them as a part of the curriculum follow-through. But if there is not a thorough grasp of methods and principles (the why), many continuous improvement professionals only learn how to apply tools, not the reason they are using them or to think creatively through the process. The guest speaker, Mike Carnell, said it best: “We need to teach people to think, not just execute steps.”

In my experience, without attention to why continuous improvement is important, the purpose behind each scientific problem solving step, when tools should be used, and when to apply certain ideas in change management: we are training potential change agents to do nothing more than follow a checklist. How do you help your professional students retain information better and develop as successful project leaders? One way is through mentoring and making sure your training program has a mentoring component.

It was concluded by the conference participants: while not everyone is a great mentor, the availability of support is the key to a Lean/Sigma student's success, regardless of format. Also key: mentors need to be available for professionals on all levels. I found that the students developed a richer understanding of continuous improvement and performed better over-all when the in-class portion of training was followed up with a mentoring program. Those that do not have the benefit of a strong network of continuous improvement leaders in their organization can reach out to their professional organizations for assistance in mentoring.

Another topic that came up at the conference: “What blend of training is the best: instructor-led, on-line learning, simulation-based interaction, or a blend?”

Hands down, a blended training model won as the best approach to learning. Research into adult learning suggests that the learner must experience the Theory (the why), they must Model (learn by doing with a mentor), Rehearse as the skill needs to become habitual, and receive constructive Feedback to understand if they are within tolerance of the model and how they can improve. Interestingly, the younger generations also take a new approach to learning and most excel at self-directed training models. They do not respond well to rigorous course outlines or repetitive approach to tool-centric models without any emphasis on principles and methods. They appreciate a more collaborative style of learning that stresses creative thought and interactive discussion. They’re all about the why!

Continuous improvement requires continuous learning at all levels and also continuous learning throughout a professional’s career. To provide the best learning experience possible, as a lean community, perhaps it’s time to continuously improve our approach to training?

What approach does your organization use with success and what are some lessons learned that you have to share?

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
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Christin Spurlin December 12, 2014
1 Person AGREES with this comment
Great article on a very relevant topic. The goal of any lean expert should be to pass on their knowledge to the point that they are no longer needed and the site can then operate and train on its own. 

When my company began its lean journey almost 5 years ago, we were lulled into the belief that we could carefully execute a 2-week implementation schedule at a site that would include PowerPoint presentation training, the quick initiation of lean tools, and cookie-cutter systems and then expect the sites to be "lean" from then on.

The result, however, was really quite the opposite. As the article states, most people missed the "why" during that 2-week training. Although they understood the concept of non-value added time, they were never shown "why" the company was moving towards lean principles, how it would keep us in business, or how it was aligned with the long-term goals of the company. Tools like Takt Boards were forced where they weren't effective and the proper coaching wasn't available to help users overcome obstacles in data collection or help them fully understand the tool as a means to improvement.

Over the years the company has learned a lot through our mistakes, and we're still on that journey. However, there are two things that we've changed that I know will make us more successful in training and implementing lean principles.

The first is alignment throughout the company. We used to have lean, quality, safety, DOT, etc. departments, all of which had their own requirements, audit systems, and priorities. Managers at sites felt themselves being torn in multiple directions trying to please auditors while holding employee complaints about redundancy and inefficiencies at bay. Top management is now instead establishing strategic goals through Hoshin Planning and aligning their requirements and resources with those strategic goals in mind. Sites are now adopting the same model and those pesky, inefficient systems of the past are now up for question (and therefore improvement). This process allows our lean practitioners to choose projects that have support from top management and to know that the project is worth-while, even when difficult.

The second is that top management is no longer allowed to visit sites they manage once a quarter for a business review and complete a "diplomatic tour" (shake hands, kiss babies). Top management is expected to spend a significant amount of time speaking with site management at the Gemba and working to resolve issues together. Our Best Practices team schedules monthly mentor visits to conduct training, facilitate projects when needed, but more importantly, to coach site management on how to think. It's as simply as knowing if the operation is "winning or losing", using data to predict issues before they become customer issues, and creating that accountability at all levels to meet strategic objectives. There's accountability and coaching where we've never had it before and the results have been astounding.

The company has gone from a "checklist" mentality of simply showing that we are using tools, to showing a focus on creating value for our customer and resolving issues. Having the mentorship at our company has produced great results and I'm looking forward to a time when sites will start to provide mentors for newer sites.

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Erin Urban December 15, 2014

Thank you for sharing this story from your continuous improvement journey. It is great to read that your company has gone from applying tools to internalizing the principles behind why we practice continuous improvement and what it means to be change agents.

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Mark Graban December 12, 2014
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What is "Lean/Sigma"?

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Erin Urban December 15, 2014
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Lean/Sigma is an abbreviated method to express Lean and Six Sigma as this article addresses both. I hope that answers your question.

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Tara Moler January 13, 2015

Enjoyed your article Erin. Coincidently in the teaching with coaching model we are experimenting with, we are finding similar gaps in “soft skills” and change management.

If you have any further references on the adult learning research (Theory, Model, Rehearse, Feedback) you mentioned, I would be very interested.

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Erin Urban January 19, 2015


I am very glad that you found the article interesting! In regards to the adult learning model, this information was provided during a fabulous workshop with Quantum Learning that focused on how adults learn, methods, interactive styles, and environment. In this segment we covered ways to improve training performance.

Theory = understanding the 'why' behind a concept. Adults will put forth more energy into learning when they grasp why something is important and how it relates to them.

Model = adult leaners need to 'see' how the work is being done. It is key to give adult learners an example (ideally visual if possible), broken down into micro-steps with a review after each step: "mastering the complex by mastering the simple".

Rehearsal = practicing the skills in order for them to become habitual and to become part of the long-term memory banks.

Feeback = the adult learner must understand how they are performing against the model. Are they in tolerance of the model, what are they doing correctly, and how can they improve.

There is much more, but that is the basics in a nutshell. I hope this helps!

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Lisa Cooney August 11, 2015

Excellent thoughts on LEAN learning.  Thank you for the article.  I run an enterprise LEAN program for my company.  We are a global 13,000 employee business involved in providing data and services for Pharma companies.  I'm interested in understanding best practices on LEAN education ratios.

In other words, are there benchmarks related to the right percentage of employees who should be trained in LEAN?:

* General awareness training

* Training for LEAN sponsors

* Training for LEAN facilitators


Best regards,

Lisa Cooney

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Erin Urban September 17, 2015
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I'm glad that you enjoyed the article! Your question is interesting as there is some data on the right mix of training for certifications, but no definitive data on the exact mix of training for on-boarding employees into new Lean initiatives. 

What I can do is share my thoughts and experiences on the subject.

General Awareness Training = Everyone

Training for Lean Sponsors = Management: this is most likely the most critical training that your Lean program will undertake. The most significant role change in any Lean enterprise organization will be at the management level. Also, the drive for change and sustainability hinges on the management level. Management will set the tone and communicate what is important to their teams. It is critical that this level have a thorough grasp of Lean methodology and principles to support the initiative.

Training for Lean Facilitators = This takes a level of discernment to understand who in your organization is likely to manage or lead continuous improvement projects. If this is a management personality or if this is at the employee level. For a grass-roots initiative, I will engage the project team in a brief Lean topic-specific training as needed. For example: if the Lean initiative is still new to the company and we have a project team kicking off a focused Kaizen event - we will spend a few hours training on the Kaizen process and the project roles before we begin the Kaizen.

*Training for Executives – this is one you did not list so I am adding it just in case it is applicable for your situation. I typically give the Executives an over-view of Lean / Continuous Improvement in order to set expectations and open the floor for questions. I encourage the Executives to participate in projects when they can. I also encourage Executives to play a role in the Continuous Improvement Steering Committee.

I hope this information is useful and best of luck on your Lean program! Feel free to contact me with any questions you may have.

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