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How should I accelerate my own learning?

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Dear Gemba Coach,

How should I accelerate my own learning?

Hmm, interesting question. If I reflect on the learning I see at the Gemba, I can suggest basically three mechanisms for learning:

  1. Epiphany: the “aha!” moment in which something hitherto unseen clicks into place and your understanding is permanently changed;
  2. Practice: the step-by-step learning through trial and error and repetition.
  3. Adaptation: the unconscious changes we go through by adapting to the group of people we belong to;

One way to look at your question therefore would be how can you maximize these effects, or take away the barriers that hinder them.

Epiphany is probably the most fun but certainly can’t be planned for or programmed, no one seems to know exactly how these “aha!” moments occur, and mainly they seem to be in-the-shower kind of moments, times when you’re not actively thinking about the topic and something random creates a serendipitous click. Evidence with insight problems seems to point towards problem framing, how we look at the problem. The practical way to enhance this would be to continue to read about the topic and around it. By exploring peripheral concepts, some ideas will be seen through a different light, and so more likely to trigger an aha! moment.

Of course, aha! is also linked to practice as the more often you see a situation the more likely you are to have a sudden insight about it. Practice’s main difficulty is that we tend not to be very rigorous with what we learn and confuse ourselves precisely by looking about and around. For instance, it’s very hard to stick with one lean tool before immediately exploring the second. By the fifth or sixth lean tool, we’re overwhelmed and practice is confusing.

How to Maximize Learning

In the early days of lean, some senseis would have you practice 5S for two years before teaching you anything else, in a parallel to the famous “sweeping the yard” stories in zen practice. There is some sense to it, even though it’s not very appealing because of the great discipline it requires. Without being so extreme, the way to maximize learning from practice is definitely to task oneself with learning one thing at a time and moving from one chunk of knowledge to the next.

In this instance, TWI methods are very useful. Practice means not just dumb repetition but repetition with the aim of understanding step-by-step what we’re doing:

  1. What is the overall goal of the activity?
  2. What are the detailed steps of the activity?
  3. For each step what is the key point to succeed at it?
  4. Why is each step necessary?
  5. What could we do better at each step?

It’s definitely easier with a trainer keeping you on the straight and narrow as it’s hard to both do something and watch oneself doing it, but just the fact of breaking down activities in steps is helpful. By example, writing is a large part of what I do and I’ve learned to break down writing in terms of arguments, points, paragraphs and sentences. Each of these chunks have their own problems: the argument needs to be persuasive, the points clear, the paragraphs tight (without too much wandering) and the sentences easy to read and grammatical (no passive forms, fewer adjectives, etc.) In writing fiction you’ve got to add character design and plot, and so on. A clear understanding of the key steps definitely increases how fast your learn.

Monkey-See, Monkey-Do Methodology

Finally, a little thought about a way to learn is to join a group of people who mastered the knowledge you seek – our profoundly social natures will make sure that you’ll pick up unconsciously many aspects you’re after. This is a completely different kind of learning as, for instance, many ex-Toyota people discover that what they did naturally at Toyota doesn’t apply so easily when they leave the company because the environment is completely different. They then have to make a conscious effort to practice what they did naturally before which brings us back to epiphany or practice.

Yet, definitely, consciously choosing who your role models should be and copying them deliberately will certainly speed up your learning curve, if only because by using the monkey-see, monkey-do method you’ll discover that some things your models seem to do effortlessly are in fact very hard to achieve – and thus trigger a new cycle of learning. Asking yourself with care “what should I learn from whom?” will clearly improve your learning ability (as well as make you realize your picking up unwanted habits from people around you don’t necessarily appreciate).

In the end what counts most is the passion for learning and I have no recipe for that. Some people keep it their entire life. For others, it comes and goes. Ultimately, is learning filling a vessel or lighting a fire? Probably a bit of both, but without keeping the fire burning,  it’s unlikely we’ll have the patience to keep filling the vessel (or, should I say, we’re unlikely to fill the vessel – those passives!). In any case, what a great question to ponder!

3 Comments | Post a Comment
Philip Teater September 23, 2014

Michael, I found 5 grammatical errors so far through CH4 in the book Lead with Respect.  I am enjoying the book immensely.  I would like to show you the errors found to permit correction in any further printing.  If you are interested to correct, send me an e-mail at philip.g.teater@Delphi.com.

At Delphi I serve as a Chief Engineer and global director of Launch Readiness.

Kind regards,


Steven Kiebach September 23, 2014

This is great adivce, as I'm one who has had to take a path of self-learning.  I never really had a sensei or coach to teach me anything on the job, so I've followed groups, attended webinars, bought books & DVDS, and interact on social media to try and learn the correct path to take (on Lean thinking & management system).  When you are stuck in a culture that doesn't want to change or just becomes "tools" focus, it's a lot harder to learn the "thinking & practicing" aspect behind lean.

So, it's taking what I can learn, how I can apply it, how I can relate it, and then suddenly that "aha" moment kicks in and it starts to make sense.  It's sort of like a interpersonal PDCA as well.  Without this webite, with the experts in the field, it would be a lot harder to learn and see.  I'm a lot more of a visual learner.  

My first inspiration to learn lean from an expert in the field was when Brian Maskell visited a company I was working for.  To learn about VSM, Lean Accounting, & Lean in general was like "What's this? It seems to make sense'.  From there it's a neverending journey of what you note "Epiphany, Practice, & Adaption". 

Thank you again for sharing your great insights & indepth knowledge.


Michael Balle September 23, 2014

Thanks Steven,

I was very fortunate in two ways, first, I was doing my PhD at a very unique time when Toyota was setting up operations in Europe and trying to develop suppliers as they'd done in Japan, so I could witness how a top sensei who had worked with Ohno coached my father, and second, I have a sensei at home (yes... I know) and Freddy has amazing clear ideas about lean so can microcorrect details (and he's not slow about it LOL) - which is essentially what one needs from coaching theory: the big picture and the constant nitpicking.

It's indeed much harder to learn by oneself, from books or other resources. I realize that, and this is why I write both the novels (the feel of practicing lean thinking) and the column (the nitpicking) to try and share what I was offered. Thanks for your comment - positive reactions like this make it all worthwhile!

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