How to Learn Lean

Lean manufacturing can help you and your company greatly. But how do you learn lean? Of course, there are plenty of Six Sigma lean black belts and other certificates available online, but do they really make you understand lean? In this post I have some suggestions on how to learn lean. These can befollowed by people with access to an actual shop floor to work on. However, I have also included suggestions for people, e.g. students, that do not have access to a shop floor. In this case, you can do … let’s call it “Home Improvement“. Let’s have a look at some suggested actions for learning how to do lean!

On Online Courses and Certificates

12 toilet paper rolls
Get your lean certificate here!

There are a myriad of online courses available that claim to certify you in lean. Six Sigma courses seem to be especially popular. The cheapest one I found will certify you to be a Lean Six Sigma Black Belt for £59, although they claim that it takes six months. If you want it faster, you can get a $99 Certified Six Sigma Black Belt course with 50 questions in 60 minutes. (If you want to know where these are, I am NOT linking that crap … google it yourself). If that is still too expensive to you, just make up and print a certificate yourself. After all, the term is not protected.

Only 5 more clicks to become a certified master SCUBA diver!

Anyway, I don’t have much trust in online lean certificates, even though there is quite a demand for theses on the market. Doing an online course in lean is like an online SCUBA diving course. No matter how good the course is, it is not going to make you a proficient diver. Similarly, reading a really good book on how to drive a car won’t prepare you for at all for driving a car. Theory, of course, does have its place in learning lean, but it is more of a supporting role.

Learning by Doing!

Scuba Diver
That’s how you become a diver!

In my view, the most important part of learning lean is to actually do it! As with learning how to drive or learning how to SCUBA dive, the most important part is to actually do it! Go out there and practice lean by improving your system.

Of course, if you are a beginner, you should look for easy cases first. Just like when you learn to drive, you do not start out with a Ferrari during rush hour in a snow storm in New York City. You need a safe and easy playground for lean. Try to work on an area where a mistake won’t break the company but is something that can be easily fixed. Also, try to take an area where you can have quick improvement cycles. If any change has a six-month delay because you need new tools manufactured, then it will be difficult to learn.

Triangle Kanban A4 Paper
Triangle Kanban for my A4 Paper

These quick improvement cycles are also easier if you improve a process that happens frequently. If you want to improve your annual inventory taking … well … it happens only once per year.  It helps if the improvement is easy to see and understand. If you need an hour of analysis just to see if something has changed, then it will be difficult to learn. For all of those reasons, try to avoid anything related to your ERP system when learning lean. Changing your ERP software usually needs a programmer, is hard to see, takes time, and can break the company if it does not work. Please note that these limitations are for learning only. Later on, you eventually may have to also tackle problems that are risky, slow, infrequent, difficult to see, or (shudder!) involve your ERP system.

Washing machine data
Washing machine data

You will certainly be able to find a problem in your company that needs improving, and does fit the criteria above. Even if not, you can always practice lean at home. After all, at home you also have plenty of frequent processes like doing the laundry, restocking consumables, cleaning the room, and many others. Can you do a FIFO for your dinner plates? Can you establish a simple pull system for consumables? We have pull systems for paper and printer ink, among others. Can you collect data on a trickier problem? For example, our washing machine has the habit of stopping sometimes, but infrequently. About a month or so ago, we started tracking washing cycles on paper and wrote down when it stopped and when not, to find out the cause of the problem.

The advantage of practicing lean at home is that you are in full control … only have to coordinate with your spouse and children. The risk is manageable, the cycles are quick, it is easy to understand, and your home probably doesn’t use an ERP system 🙂 .

Theory

Learning lean is learning by doing. Merely studying the theory won’t help. However, the theory is important to help with practicing. You learn driving in a car, but it is supplemented by classroom study. You learn how to SCUBA dive in the water, but there are also theoretical lectures. Similarly, when doing lean, the experiments in your lean playground should be supplemented by theory.

But again, you should start with an actual improvement project on which you practice your skills. Hence, the theory should match your needs for the improvement project. If your improvement involves changeover optimization (SMED), there is little need to study value stream mapping at this point, although it may be of interest for a later problem. So find yourself good sources on how to do lean. I have even heard there is a website that is All About Lean … gosh, I wonder where I saw that …

Simulations

Bottleneck Walk Poland
Bottleneck Walk training in Poland

A popular way to learn lean is to do simulations and games. John Bicheno has written a whole Lean Games and Simulations Book filled with lean games, most of them for groups. Many institutes that offer courses in lean and related methods use simulations and games. Depending on your improvement project, different games may help you to understand the behavior of manufacturing systems and their people better.

NASA Astronaut training
NASA Astronaut training in a water tank

Yet, here too these simulations and games are only an aid. No matter how elaborate the simulation is, it is only a pale copy of reality. Even fancy training factories lack the details of a real production system running under cost and time pressure. To make a realistic simulation requires more resources than what is normally available. Think NASA training astronauts. You can’t fly to the moon and figure out the details on the way. But even then, the simulations are not as good as reality. Therefore, simulations can help, but can in no way substitute practical experience.

Coach, Mentor, Buddy, and Other Support

CoachingWhat can help you, however, is another person to work with. Ideally, this other person has more lean experience than you (i.e., a coach or mentor). Your path to lean can be accelerated by the knowledge of this mentor. However, don’t expect the coach to have all the answers. On the contrary. In my view, a good coach should never give you the answers, but should ask you the right questions!

If you are lucky, there is a coach or mentor around that has time to work with you. But just as likely, you may not have such a support. Even then, it helps to work together with someone else. Even if that person does not know more about lean than you, you can ponder problems together. Hence, seek to partner up, or even make a small group of study buddies to learn from each other. While none of you may have the complete answer, all of you may have some puzzle pieces for the solution.

Regardless of how many coaches you have, you should always work together with the people using the system you are improving. They may not know as much about lean as you do, but they probably know much more about the system than you. Hence, you can definitely learn from them too.

Finally, if you are already more experienced and are coaching or mentoring someone else, you can also learn from them. You remember when I said “a good coach should never give you the answers, but should ask you the right questions”? The mentee may answer the questions in a way you may expect, but very often the answers are something you did not think about yourself. When I mentor or coach others, I also learn from them.

Summary

Learning lean is not a task for a weekend. It is a long journey. It is like learning another language; it takes time and practice to become fluent. Depending on the skill level you want to achieve, the learning never ends. It is lots of practice by doing improvement projects. It is (often) a series of trial and errors and trial again until you succeed. Now, go out, learn by doing, and organize your industry!

References

Bicheno, John. The Lean Games and Simulations Book. Buckingham: Picsie Books, 2014.

 

6 thoughts on “How to Learn Lean”

  1. Learn by doing, maybe making mistakes and learning, getting small wins with the guidance of a mentor/ coach who has got their hands dirty by rolling up their sleeves – Thanks for another great article.
    Is it possible to get your permission to share your article with a few individuals who I believe could benefit from it?

  2. I love that you said you’re not going to link that crap… just google it yourself. AWESOME! I have learned Lean by doing it, and along the way realized that I LIVE LEAN even before I knew there was a name for what I was doing, because it’s just good sense! Work smarter, not harder. Don’t over-burden your life. Keep track of where everything is so you have it when you need it. Don’t waste time and money. You don’t need to spend thousands on some fancy certification. Your post is great. Thanks!

  3. While I share your frustration about certificates and agree that the type of certificate you describe is worthless for learning – and that even the supposedly “gold-standard” six sigma certificates offered by more prestigious providers are, at best, markers of dedicated attempts to learn rather than of actionable competence – they will remain relevant as long as recruiters use them as a screening criterion. Checking this box may make sense in order to gain access to more opportunities for learning by doing.

    Depending on the environment, especially with very limited availability of lean coaches or mentors, knowing some theory upfront may be helpful to get started. Having a concept of setup time (and maybe a notion that lean might be suitable to reduce it) is required for targeted research into SMED to take place. Not necessarily a given in non-manufacturing environments, in my experience.

    Nonetheless, application is key to deeper learning – not just about lean tools pertinent to a particular problem, but about navigating organizations and managing change. Training sessions – including simulations – can be a sweet poison. Their controlled environment feels safe for trainers and trainees alike, and there are guaranteed ‘successes’ for everybody: There is quantifiable progress on the lean transformation (“We trained people!”) and serious-looking certificates (“Proof I know about lean!”).

    Tackling messy problems on the shop floor seems risky by comparison. But if you really care about learning and organizing your industry, you’ll take this route and enjoy the journey.

  4. Hi Jan, trainings (and maybe even certificates) have their role in learning lean. Not doing any training would be a mistake. But the value of certifications is sometimes overestimated.

  5. It is not unusual to see managers that, after seeing a subordinate’s certificate on lean, throw that person to the lions. They do not realize that a good gladiator begins fighting with kittens and, after a time, progresses to fight with bigger cats. I’ve seen some, having been eaten by lions. A very bad learning method.

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