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When Do You Stop Learning?

by Orest (Orry) Fiume
May 23, 2017

When Do You Stop Learning?

by Orest (Orry) Fiume
May 23, 2017 | Comments (5)

I have been alive for more than 27,000 days and am still learning.  

When will that stop?

I have recently had the honor of collaborating on a new book, The Lean Strategy, with four other people* that gives insight into the answer to that question. And I decided that the answer to the question is…at the end of this article. 

One of the things I have noticed about people who have truly changed their way of thinking from traditional hierarchical thinking to Lean Thinking is their sense of humility. By this I don’t mean the false mask of humility that many executive wear (and is easily seen for what it is), but a true respect for people for who they are and not for the job they do or position they hold. The best leaders I have worked with are interested in people no matter what their role in the company and want to hear what they have to say. And people understand this within seconds. You can’t fake whether you really care about people.

In the traditional business world those of us that make it to the “C-Suite” somehow come to believe that we achieved that level of success because we demonstrated that we have all of the answers. As a result we have developed a business model where executives make the “important” decisions and everyone else’s role is to implement them.

I received my college education at a Jesuit university and one of the things that stuck with me during the early days of my business career was a lesson I learned there: never accept anything at face value…always ask “why.” Unfortunately, without realizing it, I forgot this lesson at some point after I became “management.”

Fortunately, in 1989 I had the opportunity to participate in an event that brought me back to my senses. That event was Dr. Edwards Deming’s four-day seminar. What Dr. Deming talked about during those four days made perfect sense to me. When he talked about the Shewhart Cycle of Plan, Do, Check, Act (PDCA) that resonated with me for reasons that I didn’t understand then. But it started me on the path of doing business in a different way. As we know today, that way is the way pioneered by Toyota, which we now call “lean.”

Since that initial experience with Dr. Deming I never stopped to think about why I was comfortable with this way of thinking until, in 2015, more than fifty years after graduating from Fairfield University, I returned to speak to some of the students. In preparing for that talk I did some research on Fairfield and its progress since I graduated. Among other things I found a YouTube video of Don Gibson, Dean of Fairfield’s Dolan School of Business, giving a talk in which he described the Jesuit pedagogy: 

  1. Experience Reality
  2. Reflect on that Experience
  3. Action based on that Reflection

At that point I realized that the Jesuit pedagogy and Lean are based on the similar principles. In The Lean Strategy we describe them as:

  1. Find what the real issues are at the workplace
  2. Face the real problems to grasp what is really going on
  3. Frame the situation in terms of improvements needed
  4. Form solutions by developing capabilities

At the core of both the Jesuit pedagogy and Lean Strategy is the neverending asking of questions based on real world experience and deep reflection. Both are about learning. Both are about are about learning from experience. Both are about applying deep thought to that experience to ferret out the lessons to be learned. And both recognize that learning should never end. In lean that’s the basis of continuous improvement. In the Jesuit pedagogy it’s the basis of continuing education…what a professor of mine referred to as “rust proofing.”

Also implicit in this type of learning process is the concept that the road between experience and the lessons to be learned is not always straight. Along the way we will often travel down dead ends (i.e. fail), but that itself is a learning experience. Thus, the famous Thomas Edison quote about trying to invent the light bulb “I haven’t failed, I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work." That’s the Kaizen spirit. Observe, reflect, experiment, learn from both successes and failures. 

So, why do we have so few true Lean success stories? In my opinion, for the past too many decades, business schools have been teaching future executives that they need to know how to give answers, not how to ask questions. In a very subtle way we have instilled a mindset that asking questions is a sign of weakness. Not having a brilliant answer to any problem is a defect, a failure in the negative sense of the word. And that is what led me astray…until Dr. Deming. I now realize, the “DCA” of PDCA are, to me, similar to the three principles of the Jesuit pedagogy and that’s why listening to Dr. Deming struck a deep cord within me. And although that pedagogy does not explicitly state a “Plan” step, I can tell you from experience that the Jesuits don’t do anything willy-nilly…there is always a plan. 

In order to be effective at whatever we do, we must realize that there is always more to learn. As a leader, that includes learning from the people doing the work since they know best where the problems are. So, to answer the question “When do you stop learning?” I believe the answer is when you stop asking “Why?” 

* The other collaborators of The Lean Strategy are Dan Jones (co-author of Lean Thinking), Michael Balle (co-author of The Gold Mine series), Jacques Chaize, a successful Lean CEO, and Tom Ehrenfeld, our editor (and the “silent voice” behind many Shingo Prize winning books). 

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
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samuel selay May 23, 2017

Great insights into the power of asking great questions, staying curious, and never stop learning. Reflecting on my formal education in business school, I was taught how to give answers, not ask questions (just as you mentioned in the post). I wonder why more business schools have not picked up on this? Are they stuck on a Jack Welch/GE style of management that has found its way into academia?

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Orry Fiume May 23, 2017

Hi Samuel, thank you for your question. I personally believe that this goes back further than Jack Welch...althoug he is probably the "poster dhild" for this style of managment.  Based on my research, it seems that this style of management originated with Alfred Sloane.  

To quote Wikipedia (not the best source, but adaquate for this purpose) "GM under Sloan became famous for managing diverse operations with financial statistics such as return on investment; these measures were introduced to GM by Donaldson Brown, a protege of GM vice-president John J. Raskob. Raskob came to GM as an advisor to Pierre S. du Pont and the du Pont corporation."

Not mentioned in this Wikipedia posting was the fact that GM was close to bankruptcy at this time and du Pont bailed them out.

Today one of the most highly regarded business schools is MIT's Sloane School of Management. Need I say more.  

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John Hamalian May 23, 2017

Thank You all for the rich conversation.  Part of the exchange above, especially related to modern leadership, organizational and business school practices and their possible origins going back to GM/GE practices, was covered by Jim Womack in this excellent video clip, which I use a lot in my Lean Management training.  It starts at about 4:15:



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samuel selay May 24, 2017

Hi Orry, thank you for the feedback. Yes I considered adding Sloan into my response, but more people are familiar with the Jack Welch approach to management. I would assume his approach to ROI was influenced by GM under Sloan. From your perspective are there any changes from a business school higher education perspective to change from giving answers to asking questions? I don’t completely understand why it’s considered a weakness to ask questions. Lawyers have legal briefings in which they ask questions, doctors have a standard work up for patients, just as nurses do to a lesser degree. When training new doctors the Physician asks questions to help the resident form their own diagnosis. They do not tell the resident what the diagnosis is, but force them to think deeply and critically to form their own. Lawyers are taught using the Socratic approach. Sounds similar to good lean coaching?

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Orry Fiume May 26, 2017

Hi Samuel, I wish that I could give you the answer to your question about what changes should be made to higher education to develop the ability, and confidence, to ask questions. But I can’t. A number of us have been struggling with this issue for years now, and although there is some progress in some institutions, it’s like a drop of water in the ocean.

You are right in saying that a medical education includes the asking of questions in order to get a diagnosis. Maybe it’s that scientific approach that is causing Lean to grow rapidly in healthcare. You can find lots of information about this at the Catalysis website: createvalue.org (full disclosure...I'm on their Board). 

By the way, in addition to asking “why”, one of the most powerful questions a leader can ask is “What do you think?” Think about what that does to the self-esteem of the individual being asked the question.

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