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You Can't Learn Lean by Talking About It

by Larry Navarre
September 8, 2015

You Can't Learn Lean by Talking About It

by Larry Navarre
September 8, 2015 | Comments (9)

Theory: Important... but insufficient.

We academics love theory and feel an obligation to deliver the principles of any topic in a compelling way. I teach Lean Operations, Supply Chain, and Product Development at Kettering University in Southeast Michigan. After 20 years in industry, I began teaching the way I was taught: by carefully crafting engaging lectures with examples intended to deliver the material in a way that transfers learning. For my first few terms, after completing instruction in class and inviting questions I heard... crickets. 

I needed to make a change. There was a lot of teaching going on, but not a lot of learning. So I reflected on the best instructors of my industrial career. The most powerful lessons, the ones I remembered, were the ones where I experienced the learning principle through an activity. No wonder I was having difficulty. I’ve now come to appreciate that you can’t learn Lean by talking about it; you just need to do it. 

Practicing Principles through Quick Cadence Simulations

Over time I’ve found that one of the most powerful and enjoyable methods of teaching is the hands-on simulation. This places the learner in an operational setting so he/she can practice the principle presented in the theory. These are simple activities, which often don’t involve computers.

Simulations are particularly helpful because Lean is such a different way of thinking that explaining it is not convincing. Few learners get it. Compound this with the contradiction of Lean to traditional production and management methods and it is difficult for students to accept one versus the other. Explain Kanban, for example, and people just don’t believe it’s better than computer scheduling backed by a warehouse of inventory. To really understand Kanban, you need to do it. Students who complete a simulation have a visceral feel for the principle. So much so that I often joke to my students that they will quickly forget the information delivered in the course, but they will remember the simulation forever. The power of a simulation is to give students enough confidence to apply the principle in their workplace.

This matters even more because Lean practice in the real world is important at Kettering. We are fortunate to have 600+ co-op partner employers. Our students work every other quarter at their co-op employer as a curriculum requirement of every degree program. We have a concentration of lean enterprises in the region, and our legacy is in the automotive industry as the former General Motors Institute. At least half of my students are exposed to Lean in their co-op work.

How to Design a Good Simulation

A big challenge of training is that there is never enough time. Using rapid learning cycles in a simulation has several benefits. The obvious one is that your total time for the exercise is less. Rapid learning cycles also allow for more experience with the skill. A quick cadence keeps student attention. Plus, students don’t have time to game the exercise; they simply focus on doing the task well.

Anything that does not contribute to the learning exercise of students making decisions and taking action, is waste. To eliminate waste, remove complexity, cost, or activity that does not add value. Materials can be costly so design the simulation using simple, cheap materials like tape, cards, paper, cups, and other craft items. Calculations take time from the exercise. Find a way to automate them by using a spreadsheet prepared for the task. As much as I appreciate hand drawn VSM or written A3, a template with preformatted structure and palette of icons allows students to focus on substance. This isn’t intended to cheapen the exercise, but to help teach lean principles at a pace that keeps students engaged.

I design simulations so they start with a challenge, even a failure, then follow up with success. One simulation I use in my supply chain courses is The Beer Distribution Game, a classic simulation of system dynamics created by MIT that’s been in use for 50 years. The game teaches the principle of the Bullwhip Effect and ends with students messing up the supply chain resulting in huge oscillations of overstocking and understocking inventory. Epic fail!

To make it stick, I run the simulation a second time implementing the principles of modern SCM that mitigate the Bullwhip Effect. The result is typically a 70-80% reduction in cost per pallet of beer distributed through the supply chain. Students get it. This contrast of methods demonstrates traditional versus Lean approaches. To allow time for two simulations, a spreadsheet is substituted for the traditional board game calculations reducing the total simulation time from about 90 minutes to 40.

What’s Next?

I’m currently developing a simulation for Set-Based Concurrent Engineering (SBCE) in my lean product and process development course. This one is challenging since SBCE is not widely applied, and there are few examples of it. But I’m experimenting. In the simulation I run, I ask students to design the concept architecture of an electric vehicle powertrain. The challenge is to design four subsystems to achieve a given speed.

To eliminate waste, a workbook of calculations with one worksheet for each subsystem is provided. Students form teams of four and take on one subsystem each, working together to design a powertrain that results in the given speed. Within 30 minutes every team has a solution. What occurs is dozens of trial and error attempts of setpoint changes until the teams find a reasonable solution - classic point-based design iterations.

In the next class, we go through the concepts of Trade-off Curves and Knowledge Briefs with examples from literature and industry. SBCE is summarized again, and students are asked to use the SBCE approach in a second round of powertrain design. To eliminate waste, Knowledge Briefs are provided including design principles and trade-off curves. Also, the challenge is elevated to include not only a speed element, but also a minimum acceleration rate and the goal of optimal efficiency. At this point students begin to use the trade-off curves and have lively discussions about which setpoints should be optimized to achieve the goals. There remains a lot of trial and error, but students get the idea of a trade-off curve, knowledge briefs, and how SBCE could be a better way to design a system. There is much to improve in this simulation, but it’s proving to be a powerful learning experience. 

What simulations, if any, do you use to teach lean thinking and practice?

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
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9 Comments | Post a Comment
Ken Hunt September 08, 2015

I also enjoy coaching, teaching, and training but I keep the amount of classroom time as short as possible. It's when we go to the Gemba that the "lights" start to come on.

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Larry September 10, 2015

Ken, I can't agree more.  I actually remove pure content delivery outside of the class time with the "flipping" technique.  But the availability of the Gemba is priceless and by far the best training.  Thanks for contributing.

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Theresa Coleman-Kaiser September 14, 2015

Larry, I've found in higher ed that its very difficult to convice an audience that "Lean is such a different way of thinking that explaining it is not convincing".  There is a reluctance among faculty and staff to learn by doing without having already establishing a deep understanding of the theory behind it.  What is that, when these same people are deeply committed to the scientific methods which is based on rapid learning cycles?

With students in the classroom, you are definitely on the right track with flipping your approach.  The quick cadence simulations you talk about sound engaging and model real-world situations...although at an accelerated pace.

Developing good simulations is hard work and takes time and experimentation to get them perfected, but they are well worth it.

Thanks for an inspiring post.




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Larry September 15, 2015

Theresa, thanks for your gracious comments.  So much here we could talk about.  I guess the best consideration is that we academics are typically capable of learning by lecture, so we hope everyone can.  But we learn many different ways.  I believe in a "rich" set of coursework delivered in many modes that allow learners to learn the way that is best for them.  Search for the information on VARK - visual, auditory, reading, kinesthetic.  Students seem to appreciate the effort.  It is another reason why flipping is successful.

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Joe Hesch September 14, 2015

Hi - simulation excellent in training! I try to use simulation...then go through the concept with traditional lecture/audio/visual. In training Lean - experiential learning really drives the message home. With any topic, I try to hit all four of the adult learning styles and simulations really help.

I use a simple tennis ball exercise with 3 rounds of trials. It gets people engaged and they see Lean work right in front of their eyes. I use it on C-level people as well as front line workers. I find that the game levels the playing field and moves people out of their positions of authority to experience Lean in a safe environment. And bottom line...simulations get the blood flowing and break the "death by powerpoint" syndrom that can occur in traditional training.

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Larry September 15, 2015

Joe,  I can tell you are an experienced (and successful!) trainer.  One tidbit that didn't make the cut on this piece is my early influence of very experienced trainers in the 1980's and 1990's.  That was back in the day when corporate development was still strong and the pros at my companies taught me how to deliver training that is memorable and durable in the minds of students.  Changing up any session with an exercise is well worth the effort.  Do good works!

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Lynn Whitney September 18, 2015

Hello Ken,

Do you have any suggestions for a Lean simulation for stay-at-home moms?  You obviously nailed the beer simulation for students!!  We have been taught for generations to do things in batches.  (Wait till you have plenty of stuff to wash before you do a load of laundry, etc...not to mention baking and canning and freezing in large quantities!!!)  

I'm trying to encourage other moms to practise Lean at Home, through my website successful-sahm dot com.  The challenge is that it is an entirely new concept to most, while in manufacturing people have usually at least heard the term 'Lean' before!

Any suggestions highly appreciated!



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Lynn Whitney September 18, 2015

Oh I'm so embarrassed!  I meant, Hello Larry! 

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Larry September 20, 2015

Hey Lynn,

Great idea.  First, I have tremendous respect for the SAHM as it is the seemingly less common, but chosen direction that Rose and I have taken with our kids.  Only now in their 20's have our older boys begun to appreciate Rose's sacrifice.  I admire your passion in your web presence.

One of my favorite exercises is T-shirt folding.  (I am reminded by your web site post on laundry!)  In this I teach Standard Work with the clever alternative method of t-shirt folding. (search YouTube for "fold a shirt in less than 2 seconds")  Then I follow with a template for students to create standard work instruction with this method.  There is also a great video by LEI on this example that is a great guide to training people using the principles of Training Within Industry. (search YouTube for "TWI Job Instruction")  Think about using this to teach your kids how to do the laundry!

How about 5S at home?  One of my favorite examples of 5S is Lean Bathroom.  (search YouTube for "Lean Bathroom")  Here you see Paul Akers, the lean leader of FastCap.  FastCap is a provider of time saving materials and tools to the cabinet making industry, but Paul is a lean innovator providing products and videos to organize anything.  I have even used FastCap Kaizen Foam to 5S my car trunk. You can surely build on similar themes for the home.

How about Kanban at home?  I do our routine groceries since I pass the store most frequently.  I dream of a Kanban pantry.  Our pantry is full of waste and a good 5S followed by a simple Kanban card system would work wonders.  Why make a shopping list?  Just take the cards to the store!

In each of these examples it goes back to the principle of showing the waste of traditional approaches with the benefits of Lean methods.  Every simulation benefits by showing the contrast of these approaches and the application of Lean principles.

I predict you are going to come up with my next best simulation for students.  Thanks Lynn!


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