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Ask Art: How Much Lean Training Should We Be Doing?

by Art Byrne
May 16, 2014

Ask Art: How Much Lean Training Should We Be Doing?

by Art Byrne
May 16, 2014 | Comments (11)

I learned how to run a kaizen directly from the Shingijustu Company (men who spent years working directly for Taiichi Ohno at Toyota). They had a rather dramatic approach. “What do you want to work on?” they would ask me, and when I replied, their response was, “Ok, let's go, start moving equipment and start a cell.” This was shocking, and it worked. As we went along with this, they taught us the organization, structure, tools, and materials needed to run a kaizen. But it all started simply, on the shop floor. See the waste, eliminate the waste, right now.

Some people argue that this approach (which is at the heart of my book The Lean Turnaround) is “old school” kaizen—with the implication that Lean today has moved on to more sophisticated tools with more analysis and other practices. This strikes me as a bit sad—a sign that the traditional management approach of “planning” is winning out over the essential lean/kaizen approach of “doing.” Moreover, it helps explain why so few companies today are successful at becoming lean enterprises. They don’t trust that a rapid kaizen approach is still the most effective way to become a lean enterprise.

"Most companies devote far too much time to off-site, formal programs that tell you "about" Lean yet leave you with little to do."Let me explain how this approach affects something as simple as training. Most companies devote far too much time to off-site, formal programs that tell you “about” Lean yet leave you with little to do. When it came to training in the companies I have worked with, we didn’t believe in having a big formal process. Typically, everyone got a brief introduction to our overall lean strategy early on. We discussed why we were going down the lean path, what type of results we expected based on the results of other companies, and why this would benefit both our customers and our associates. This teaching was pretty high level and aimed at getting everyone comfortable with the notion that we would be going through a major change of everything we did. We stressed the fact that this was going to be “continuous improvement” and therefore had no end point unlike any other improvement activity they had experienced. We also explained that this was something that you could only really learn by doing and as a result we would get every one on a kaizen team as soon as we could.

Then we got right to work. We felt the best way for someone to learn Lean was to get detailed training right before the kaizen. This allowed it to be put to use immediately and eliminated the possibility of wasting the training. Even then our training was not extensive, nor did it need to be. If you were going to be on a kaizen next week, we made you go to about a three hour training session on the Friday afternoon before the event. This was conducted by our KPO and consisted of reviewing the paperwork so that everyone understood a standard work sheet, a standard work combination sheet, a time observation sheet, and all of the other paper work. We trained people in how to use a stop watch and do time observations. We also reviewed TAKT Time and the cycle time (the rate at which products are produced), so that everyone could understand how to use these tools to see the work in a completely different way--ultimately, to connect your production to your customer. If it was an office type kaizen, we also taught how to do value stream mapping so that people could begin to see the waste that existed.

That was about it. We believed in the lean concept of “learn by doing” and it always proved to be the best way to both train and get great results at the same time. As more and more of our associates were on multiple kaizens it was amazing how fast they picked things up. People knew exactly what to do when faced with the next challenge. A great example here is one of my J. W. Childs Associates portfolio companies, Esselte Corporation. Every August we hold a management kaizen in one of their largest plants, which happens to be in Poland. This brings all of the senior management team onto the shop floor for a week. They have all now been on multiple kaizen teams so they know exactly what to do and can hit the ground running. I function as the consultant, so I work with all the teams. We usually have six teams so I can’t even get to the fifth and sxith teams until the afternoon of the first day. The nice thing is it no longer matters. By the time I get to them, they are already going down the right path and making good progress.

The bottom line is this: don’t get carried away with a lot of training. Focus on the doing.

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
Keywords:  kaizen,  leadership,  training
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11 Comments | Post a Comment
Ken Hunt May 16, 2014
3 People AGREE with this comment
Great article Art!

i too am frustrated by how some have tried to make Kaizen much more complicated than it really is. If we simply stick with the basics, spend a short period of time learning the forms, and then go get our hands dirty, we will see immediate results.

A good example of complicating things is in the Lean Forums. There seems to be an effort by academics (in some cases) to hijack the forums by slicing and dicing words and terms rather than sharing experiences and knowledge. Instead of debating, if that time and energy were spent doing, imagine what could be accopmplished.


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Ken Hunt May 16, 2014
Dang it, need spell check   :)

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kevin kobett May 16, 2014
1 Person AGREES with this reply

"Halfway through the bottling run, the product would lose its color and salt. This would happen about once a week. A container from the noncolored end of the run was analyzed. It had a low density. It makes sense if someone said it was low density because of whipping due to too much agitation. Hence, the root cause was determined to be excess agitation. Keep the agitator off.

Finally, out of frustration, I climb the tank before the bottling began and looked inside. It was an astonishing sight. The product was separated. No color was visible; large globs were floating in a clear liquid. This product needed agitaion. 

Going back to a prior run revealed all the color, density and salt were in the front end of the bottling run. The end of the run was low density because insufficient agitation caused the batch to separate which meant all the heavy parts settled to the bottom of the tank. We new this product would separate because we tell customers to shake before using.

Once we started using the agitator again, this problem went away."


Lean needs to be taught through stories. Something that the student can visualize in his mind. Human see, human do.

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Michael Ballé May 16, 2014
4 People AGREE with this comment

Brilliant! I completely agree that we have been too smart for our own good. I visit factories today where everyone and his dog lectures me about lean but operations are still organized by process with isolated operator station filling halls. Nobody does cells anymore. Nobody learns to flexibilize equipment so that more products can be done on one cell. There goes Takt time and smed - the very roots of lean.

And there go lean results as well, as cells leand to lower lead-time, lower inventories and, in the end more importantly, a different way to design equipment so as to lower the equipment cost per product. Lean, in fact.

Two firms I know have created cells last years - results were just as spectacular as they used to be when we used to move robots around during the night of the wednesday in full week kaizen events.

So we grew up and we grew old and maybe we've lost our way. Thanks Art for reminding us what it was like - and whre the gold mine still is!

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Karen Martin May 16, 2014
2 People AGREE with this comment

Bravo, Art! Great piece! I, too, see a lot of Lean training that is a waste of time. I, too, believe in the efficiency that comes from "classroom training" to provide an introduction to the philosophical foundations of Lean but that's where efficiency should stop in my mind, and the need for effectiveness takes over.

I teach in the Lean Enterprise program at UCSD and I also deliver similar project-based programs internally at clients when I can't convince them otherwise and would prefer they receive excellent "training" from me and my team versus hiring a firm who delivers lesser quality.

But in 100% of the cases--even with a project to anchor the content in real-world application--only 20% of the participants AT THE MOST continue to actively apply what they've learned after the training ends. This is typically because the organization hasn’t yet developed the environmental, cultural and leadership chops to properly support Lean activity.

Plus, training programs send the wrong message from the beginning. They imply that you can "get" Lean cognitively and you're good to go. The behavioral and habitual practice component isn't front and center. Even though we provide coaching outside of class to the project teams, most orgs who provide training or send their people to training never provide coaching on any level. Practicing with a skilled coach at one’s side--or worse, not practicing at all—does not create a path to success.

Finally, organizations often assume that people who've received classroom training possess a certain level of proficiency that simply isn't there. One project doesn't create mastery -- not even close. I see people with belts, certifications and certificates (there's a difference), who can't properly define a problem, let alone solve it.

In most cases, organizations are far better served investing in coaching versus training. Then they can achieve REAL learning—and results to boot!

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Pete Abilla May 18, 2014
1 Person AGREES with this comment
I wrote about this last week. The way Lean is being taughtand marketed, primarily by shady consultants -- whose lean training itself is a bit suspect. http://www.shmula.com/lean-workshops-waste/13647/ I received my training at Toyota - and, "workshops", were not common. We learned in the Dojo - by doing. Nice piece, Art.

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Hollie Jensen May 19, 2014
1 Person AGREES with this comment
I couldn't agree more.  It is so easy to get into the trap of running around getting everyone 'trained', when what really needs to happen is getting everyone 'doing'. 

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Robert Chan May 19, 2014
1 Person AGREES with this comment

I was hired as plant manager in May 2005. When I got it shop floor. Shop floor was filled by defect parts every corner. I did stop release material to cell for 5 days to clear all WIP first and 2S cell first then restarted cell with 12pcs instead of 150pcs flow. I didn't do any training class but just tasked my staff do as my orders. The cell throughput up from 730 to 930 pcs a day,defect rate down from 6% to 0.2% in second week. Then I conducted a cell meeting to have whole cell members share their feeling. Every one were much more happy then before. 

It is too hard to change people's mindset without showing them the fact. 

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Arnout Orelio May 22, 2014

Thanks Art!

I need such a kick in but from time to time.

Back to basics for me as a coach: learning by doing, for me as well as my clients ;-)


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Dave Hogg May 26, 2014

Thanks Art, I cheered your perspective when you were at the last AME Champions Club.  Our experience over two decades of putting Consortia together was a great leveler for most.  All meetings and the training that followed were in each others plants on real world processes.  Everyone began by detailing the biggest barriers that faced them from moving ahead.  It is so revealing whether they were high tech, low teck or no tech - all were different... but in remarkably similar ways. And cell phone makers learned from chicken processors.

Rather than get them into training before they understood where they were going the first year meant visiting visioning, being in each others plants BUT in a facilitated and disciplined way.  With the only training being on what they really wanted to know.  No company had it all - even the best had a weak department, processes or other branches.  But first was getting people clear on what the end objective wa - what was world class and what were the winners doing.  We began with NCME, then with NGM, - getting folks out to Americas Best Plants or AME Annual Lean meetings did more than any coaching for training could do but the facilitation was key.  But when real training made sense, the first question was 'what recommendations are there from the 12 or 14 companies' - and if that did not provide training resources - they'd look for only those trainers whose customers would endorse them.  Over all the years this paid off.

To get to the point - If we read where we think the current thinking is on lean --- probably 80% of the companies in North America need less than that and a lot of it.  And since it will involve a culture change - they will need a few years of corporate leadership to initiate the transformaion which they could do faster with your book Art.

There will always be leaders - but there are always 'Herbies' so accelerating the core of our mfg. infrastructure (Many who will not have cells even now) will remain the challence make the difference for the total organization.  Probably the limiting rate will be the rate of consumption of change by employees.  So it all comes back to leadership. 

Thanks Art.

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Todd Hudson June 19, 2014

Great article and I couldn’t agree more! 

Art is describing what I call ‘lean learning’, teaching people only what they need to know exactly when they need it. Teach some today, more tomorrow and more next week as needed. The result is people improve, and make improvements, faster. 

Most formal training is waste. It’s a mass-production, batch model filled with the very wastes that infect the processes we’re trying to improve, e.g., defects, delay, extra steps, over teaching (instead of over production).

The fact is training and learning are non-value added activities. Customers expect your employees to have the skills they need and don’t care if it takes you 8 days, 8 hours or 8 minutes to train them. They won’t pay more for it. So, we should make learning and training as efficient, effective and waste-free as possible.

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Ask Art: How Should We Staff and Run Kaizen?
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