Sunday, January 26, 2014

A Lean Learning Organization: You Can Lead a Horse to Water.....

It is said that the ultimate compliment one can give any company is that it is a "learning organization". I have attached an article that ran in Plant Engineering magazine in 2009: click "Manufacturing Plant as Classroom: Re-inventing Continuous Learning". The article was authored by Bonnie Delconte, President of Connstep, and was all about my company, and the benefits of such a learning organization.

I realize that the company culture the article talks about is definitely the "after". Today, I would love to share with you the "before" and the obstacles to get to that after. 

1. The "lever"-the article talks about 2004 being an "awakening". That was when the bell went off and we realized what got us to today won't get us to tomorrow. One of the most important things we learn as we start down the path of lean is you need to have a lever...a reason to change. If you don't have one, then we all think we can keep doing what we were doing. 2004 was that lever. Profits were spent doing the 8 wastes. WE weren't headed in the right direction! We communicated it over and over, and one obstacle is making sure everyone heard it and believed it. 
2. The article also states that "team members are required to study the lean philosophy and methodologies." Required is the exact right word. It was not optional. To get to where we needed to get, we would need every single human being in the company to grab an end and carry the load. Businesses cannot continue to throw bodies at problems or demand. We needed to be smarter than our competitors at every single position. We also were not willing to unload the people that wouldn't participate (although a few left voluntarily rather than change their thinking). For the first six months of this "required learning", entire departments didn't talk to me. There was complaining, gnashing of teeth, growling, and tantrums. After about six months, these terrific people realized I wasn't going to give up. They also started to realize the fact that you cannot predict where genius will come from in the company. We were reading The Toyota Way as a company, and giving quizzes. People who worked in the plant were scoring as high or higher than the folks in the office. You see, the trick is to convince people that they are great learners. We tutored many people, supplied books on tape for people who didn't read well, bought Spanish versions of the text, and brought in an English tutor for those who struggled reading the language. By being persistent, learning together became part of what we did and who we were.   
3. The investment-do yourself a favor and DO NOT calculate the cost of having 93 people together for one hour once a week "in class". For a few years. The article talks about the corporate university, where classes were held on the lunch hour, but we spent 3 years studying everything from TPS to Disney to Lean to "The Goal" to how to be more innovative. 
4. The students become the teachers-by challenging everyone to learn, leadership (and ownership) comes to the surface. "Students" who didn't talk to me in the beginning became teachers at the "U". Some taught our 12 "core classes" (our value streams), and others taught "electives" (things they enjoyed outside of work, like guitar playing, knitting, or beer making). People learned how to do their taxes, or put together a home budget.  

The benefits were enormous! Titles get checked at the door. Silos disintegrate. People are together, and they realize they like each other! People became great team players because much of the learning was done with teams. (this was great preparation for doing 350 A3s per year).

Learning is hard work. Some would argue that it is harder than physical labor. It is also said that the only sustainable competitive advantage is a company's collective ability to learn.

You can lead a horse to water......and he/she will drink.....eventually....just don't give up on him/her!

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