I Came To Learn About Lean… and All I Got Were These Legos ™

Today’s post is in honor of all those who are seeking a better and more productive workplace

(Trying to put some Lean back into theleansubmariner)

Establishing a “lean” culture based on continuous improvement has been a very sought after goal for many organizations over the past fifteen years. With the rising costs of labor, raw material, utilities and infrastructure of all kinds, manufacturing and other industries have struggled to contain their costs. With foreign and now even U.S. competition seeking better and more efficient methods, continuous improvement programs can provide one of the last truly competitive advantages. As many companies have found though, the concepts are indeed “foreign” and the tools are only as effective as the culture they grow.

Using Legos as an example, the core issues of eliminating waste, creating flow and demonstrating the need to have a climate of change can be shown in a small area with minimal costs. Properly done, it is a framework for future lean learning and can help to being participants more quickly on board with the ideas that continuous improvement has definite strategies and goals. Lean and continuous improvement activities have been around long enough to create concerns about ambiguity and confusing goals. I believe that is the direct fault of people who tried ot oversimplify lean and sold it to unsuspecting companies who were desperate to fix problems that had already gone past the date of no return.

One of the hallmarks of many continuous improvement implementations since 1996 has been the use of some kind of experiential learning device. These devices are used primarily when dealing with large groups in group settings to try and demonstrate the concepts. Normally time is a critical factor and finding a way to introduce game changing terms and ideas required some out of the box thinking. Companies such as Ford, GM, ALCOA and others have all tried corporation wide initiatives and at one point or another tried a cookie cutter approach to achieve lean.

Experiential learning has been around for a long time in business and industry and comes in many forms. According to David A. Kolb, an American educational theorist, knowledge is continuously gained through both personal and environmental experiences. He states that in order to gain genuine knowledge from an experience, certain abilities are required:

1. The learner must be willing to be actively involved in the experience;

2. The learner must be able to reflect on the experience;

3. The learner must possess and use analytical skills to conceptualize the experience; and

4. The learner must possess decision making and problem solving skills in order to use the new ideas gained from the experience.

The particular types of experiential learning experiences used have evolved over the years. They can be as complex as making paper airplanes in a make believe factory setting with takt times and production goals plus quality issues. The very first lean exercise I helped to facilitate involved dozens of people in a number of these “factories” with a centralized planning and deployment activity. The sales team that sold the implementation project to the customer must have promised that unicorns could actually fly since managing such a chaotic process almost created a riot among the participants. Imagine a roomful of unhappy hardened union factory workers being told they will learn a new skill from folding paper into airplanes.

Subsequent implementations have been a little less insane in scope and size. This has allowed me to make some observations over time as to which methods are more successful and how they can actually be used to have a good effect. This is not a how to list for a person with no adult learning experience by the way. If you are reading this because last week you got a new assignment from your manager to spread lean in your workplace, you probably should start working on polishing up your resume. You have just been set up to fail.

Facilitation of an experiential event of any kind requires some background work. As identified above by Kolb’s study, getting the people to participate is a critical factor for success. Forcing them to participate in any event against their will often leads to an unmitigated disaster. There are some important steps that can be taken but let me give you one last warning: the learning I am about to relate has come from a number of years of success and FAILUREs. If it possible at all, seek individual help from someone who has examples of both under their belt before you try this on your own.

Still here? Great. Let’s get started.

By asking yourself the following questions, you can anticipate and create countermeasures for the activity you are about to enter into. It is by no means complete and I don’t have the ability to fully go into every step but these are some examples.


· First and foremost, will you be using this as a part of a comprehensive plan and not just a stop gap measure? Experiential learning can be as useful as any other tool at your disposal if you have built it into a complete plan. Just as teaching someone how to organize their workplace does not make your factory lean, teaching a few concepts using any methodology will not create a lean workforce. The oldest adage in the book: If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.


· What is the target audience? Age, experience, position in the company, length of service and so on can be factors in understanding the challenges and opportunities ahead of you. Younger age groups will more than likely feel more affinity with hands on learning since their generation has already been accustomed to learning through unconventional means. More seasoned workers will probably push back if the ground is not properly prepared for their participation. In no cases should you set up an experiential learning experience where any age participants will lose too much “face”.


· Why are they here? Are they prisoners sent against their will or are they willing participants. I would love to encourage you and tell you that all participants came to your class to better themselves but we know better. In most cases, they have been sent to learn this “new stuff” and it is already a little threatening to the way of work they are accustomed to. Some will be worrying about the future of their jobs, some will be annoyed at having to be in a classroom setting and most do not want to reveal any personal weaknesses in front of their peers that will be heard later that day in the lunch room. The facilitator can make or break a program by displaying his or her own attitude towards what may appear to be push back and rejection in the early going of the class.


· How many facilitators are needed for each group? The answer depends on the complexity of the “game” selected. I have managed a typical Lego game by myself with small groups but try to have a co-facilitator/helper to manage the mechanics of the process. Special warning: Do not try and teach the co-facilitator the morning of the event. You will not only have a potentially hostile class, you will also have an actively hostile co-facilitator.


· The method for using an experiential learning device is deceptively simple which makes it all the more dangerous to someone with little experience. Understanding the adult learner is a critical first step. Understanding the need for properly laying the groundwork before using the experience is just as critical.


· Time and resources. How much time do you have to develop the process and where will the resources come from? Is there a place that can easily be converted for the task? Set up and tear down are also important. Even with an experiential learning experience, your participants will be much more at ease if everything is already set up and there is no “fumbling” around on the facilitator’s part. I will never forget when a very large truck assembler in my first event in Kentucky walked over to the obviously distressed facilitator’s table and asked “Do any of you educated people have a clue what you are doing?” I am afraid we didn’t. But no one had to actually tell him that as he walked away in disgust.


We get few chances to overcome a first impression. Any improperly used learning experience will have long lasting effects. When you are using one in an already uncomfortable setting, those effects most likely will spill over into all of the areas you are trying to change. Even though we often use children’s toys for examples, this is anything but child’s play. If it is done effectively as a part of a comprehensive program, you have a chance to help move the needle in a positive direction.

Mister Mac

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