In September 2010, lean sensei John Shook succeeded Jim Womack as Chairman and CEO of LEI. A longtime senior advisor at the Institute as well as author of both Learning to See and Managing to Learn, Shook has been closely involved with the design and development of LEI programs since the Institute’s founding. The Partners Program—through which LEI has hosted and maintained long-term collaborative learning relationships with select organizations in the midst of leading lean transformations—is one of the Institute’s longest running, yet quietist activities. For Shook, the research and learning generated within this sphere of the Partners Program is core to LEI’s current mission in the world. I spoke with him to learn more about what the value of the Partners Program has been over the years, for Partners and LEI, and where the program is today.
Can you tell me how the Partners Program began and where it stands today?
John Shook: The Partners Program is one way LEI has collaborated with companies over the last 15 years. Six or seven years ago, we said, let’s try this experiment of a very formal program where companies or organizations pay a sponsorship fee, and help us initiate a very clear set of ground rules about how to interact and work together. Then let’s see what we can learn from that, see how we can fulfill our mission, but also accomplish those twin pillars of what we do at LEI, which is disseminate knowledge and generate knowledge.
Interestingly enough, all but one of the organizations that signed up originally have stayed with us. So our partners are finding value in it, and we have found value in it. What we want to do now is better capture the learning that’s there.
What have you learned about how change happens from the Partners Program?
JS: We can say that the Partners Program has been very effective at the middle of the organization for the most part. An overarching question around all of this is what is a lean transformation and how does it take place? This is what we most want to learn about in the work we’re engaged in with learning organizations.
Six years ago we knew a thing or two based on our experience, but then we thought, How can we try this in a more explicit way that we can then learn from in ways that we can articulate? Many people argue that any kind of change needs to be led from the top, that if the senior leadership isn’t on board or isn’t driving things, the organization won’t be able to follow because they aren’t being led in that direction. But there’s another view that says you can start to create change in the organization from the bottom up, and that change is a kind of change that can bring the leadership along as well. With our partners, there’s been some engagement with senior leadership, but not many enterprise-wide, big projects. It’s been more about seeding the organization with different ways of thinking and working. This is an effective way to go about lean transformation.
The risk with this kind of change is that it takes longer. And something can happen along the way, and then efforts over the course of a year or two can easily dissipate. What’s been interesting though is that after five or six years you can start to see the benefits of the seeding that’s been done throughout these organizations. If you go to University of Michigan Health System, or some of our other large company partners, you see people engaged in a deeper level of problem-solving, a more collaborative kind of problem-solving. The lean transformation is less immediately visible, you don’t see the artifacts of things being physically changed quite as much, but you see something that is longer lasting. This longer lasting management thinking has supported specific changes in processes that range from the transactional office space to design, supply chain, and the customer interface.
What has been most meaningful with regard to the Partners Program?
JS: I see the Partners Program as reflective of the broader issue of partnerships in general and how we engage with the world. We’ve engaged organizations at many different levels in many different ways. This is central to what we do, this is where new knowledge is generated. The Partners Program is where we embody our core principle of gemba. As I like to say, there are only two Japanese words you need to know: gemba and kaizen.
We go to the gemba, the real place of work to see what’s happening, reality speaks to us, and then we try to improve those conditions. We’ve gone into the Community at our partners’ places of work, we’ve tried to understand the work and the problems they have and we’ve thought through those problems with them. That’s what the formal Partners Program is all about, but this is what all of our interactions with the LEI Community is about. This is what what we aspire to.
Not every interaction we have with our Community needs to be embodied in this formal way, but all of our relationships are important. They all help to paint a holistic mosaic for us of what the reality is out there in our Community and how we can best help it.
What are some of the transformation stories within the Partners Program that stand out to you?
JS: We haven’t seen one big overwhelming blast of a lean transformation take place within the Partners Program, where someone takes a bulldozer and redoes everything. This is good because whenever this happens, a few years later, another bulldozer usually comes in and tears everything down again. What’s happened is we’ve gone in at the middle of the organization and micro-level and now, several years later, we can see how individuals and groups have changed the way they do work.
Lean Enterprise Partners President Dave Logozzo and I were at one of the major organizations a few months ago meeting with senior executives. During the break I ran into a mid-level manager who had been to one of our Managing to Learn workshops. He was walking down the hallway with his A3, working on a project that he kicked off with us in the MTL workshop. He talked us through the work he’s doing today, and it was fantastic. That’s rewarding.
How have the Managing to Learn book and workshop series evolved?
JS: We began to put Managing to Learn together right around the time the Partners Program began. Jim Womack had requested a book on the A3. I knew I wanted to create a product that would do more than assist the individual to read the book and problem-solve on a piece of paper. I wanted to introduce a process whereby an individual could deeply understand the process by going to the gemba, dive deep to understand the technical dimensions of what was causing any given problem, and then work through all the social issues of coming up with a set of countermeasures that could take the organization through a collaborative process forward to make things better—for the customer, the company, and the individual doing the work.
Occasionally things in life work out almost according to plan. Things have developed with Managing to Learn as we hoped. In our partner companies and in our community, people talk about Sanderson and Porter, the two characters in the book. As an author, it’s fun to see your book come to life. But more importantly, people have taken on the task of understanding what those roles mean and how they can change their own behavior to then impact the organization and those around them. One problem we often hear is We don’t have any Porters or We don’t have enough Sandersons. How do we develop Sandersons? We need to go much farther in helping people understand what coaching and mentoring is. There’s a skill there.
Any skill I think can be learned. Some people know mentoring skills from an early age or learn how to utilize those skills more than others, but I think anyone can learn how to improve how they work with others in order to help others learn. The Partners Program has been a great opportunity for us to learn to explore together how we can do that. How we can help others, both inside our partner companies and outside, to develop themselves and play both roles, learner and mentor at the same time?
One of the core principles of lean thinking is having a learner’s attitude. If you ask what stance best helps someone be successful in this sort of system, it is taking on the attitude of learner as opposed to knower. One can be a mentor and still maintain a learner’s attitude. Our job, within the Partners Program or in any of our other activities, is to give people tools to better practice this learner’s attitude.