The Lean Learning Organization


August 1, 2004
By Darren Dolcemascolo

I remember reading Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline about 10 years ago. This book contained a curious term: “learning organization.” I’ve heard that term used many times since in different ways, but Senge defined it as a place (Senge, 1990):

…where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning how to learn together.

The focus is not only on developing new skills; it is also on how to learn new skills, knowledge, and capability- learning how to learn. How do we take this rather philosophical concept and create a lean learning organization?

Learning how to learn is important for the lean organization. Consider that lean is a journey. One does not become lean and then rest on his laurels. Training is a very important part of the process, but the concept of learning how to learn is deeper than that. It is about ensuring that an organization continues to innovate and progress toward a waste-free value stream. This means that the lean organization must put in place a system to ensure that it continues to learn. This article contains three ideas that will help organizations do this.

1. Capture and utilize lessons learned at all levels. Organizations often make the same types of mistakes repeatedly. This is true from strategic decisions down to the shop floor. The true learning organization does not repeat such errors over a long period of time. It captures the error, determines its root cause, and puts in place preventive measures to ensure this type of error is not made again. We are working with a company right now whose business is very seasonal; they have in the last year decided not to continue the cycle of layoffs and re-hiring because it has resulted in higher overall costs (re-training, re-hiring, severance, etc.). Instead, when times are slow, it spends more time on improvements. The result is higher profitability.

2. Improve Communication Through Employee Feedback Programs. It is important to encourage and implement ideas from employees. For example, each year Toyota receives 1,000,000 ideas, and 90% of these ideas are implemented. The creative yet structured environment that Toyota has fostered is what allows that astounding number of new ideas to be possible each year. At many organizations, I have witnessed the impact that employees at all levels (particular the “worker bee” level) have had on an organization after the organization had put in place an effective feedback program. An effective feedback program has three simple elements:


  • Effectively trained employees – Employees need to learn how to give good ideas; they need to understand lean, problem-solving, and how to effectively function in a team environment.
  • Incentive – There are many ways to create an effective incentive program for ideas. Awards can be monetary, symbolic, or some combination. The system should include team and individual incentive.
  • Empowerment – Employees need to be empowered to make decisions and implement good ideas. Many times, organizations give greater incentives to those who suggest and implement ideas. Of course, the employees must feel comfortable implementing ideas (and they must have the training to do it).

  • 3. Create a Lean Training / Kaizen Office that is responsible for training. Organizations should develop and annually revise training programs for all employees. For the organization that has been on its lean journey for more than 18 months, it is appropriate to have such an office plan and administer lean training. The training should ultimately be extended to suppliers and customers as well; this will help extend the reach of the “learning organization.”

    Together, these three concepts work remarkably well together to help an organization become a lean “learning organization.”

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