One company in particular has been both a pioneer and beneficiary of the lean enterprise approach: Toyota. The auto manufacturer extensively has employed lean in its operations for years, and its learning and development function is no exception. In fact, University of Toyota Vice President and Dean Mike Morrison is a great supporter of lean.
“Toyota’s kind of noted for being lean, and we like to think our education follows those lean principles of being focused on the customer and focused on work,” he said. “For example, in our ‘Lean Thinking’ program, we don’t have traditional classes. You call to schedule it, and all the learning happens around your own work. There are no goofy icebreakers or case studies — the learning is embedded into your work. We have the traditional courses too, but what represents the core, and what we’re moving toward, is a lean education model.”
The University of Toyota’s lean learning philosophy heavily relates to the way education is delivered to Toyota USA’s 8,000 internal associates, as well as 70,000 technicians, salespeople and other personnel at Toyota, Lexus and Scion dealerships across the United States.
“You could take the traditional institutional model for learning and flip it, and that would represent the instrumental values that guide us,” Morrison explained. “For example, instead of being teacher-centered, where the teacher holds all the cards in terms of what’s studied, we’re student-centered. Most of our programs are very small and on a ‘pull’ instead of a ‘push’ basis — you pull them onto your desktop and organize the training when you need it.”
In some instances, live learning events are necessary. For instance, when Toyota first introduced its hybrid auto lines, the company had to bring in technicians to practice repair work.
“We had to get them in the classroom and get their hands on them — they’re dealing with a whole new system, and they have to feel it and touch it,” Morrison said. “But they’re very busy people, so we augment that with e-learning, so that they can stay up to speed on that without having to leave the dealership. And with the measurement capabilities, we can test them so both they and we know that they have the information they need to fix the car right the first time. They can pull that information in as they need it, and then it gets measured automatically.”
The lean approach also affects what’s measured in learning. Morrison said two characteristics always are quantified to determine effectiveness: the “lean-ness” of the work culture and the impact of initiatives based on cost, quality and effect on customers.
In employee development, the first measure ties specifically to individuals’ mastery of their professions, he said.
“To what degree do we all know our jobs and improve our work? It takes years to become an expert,” Morrison said. “We’re all supposed to be on a mastery path, but often in work cultures, people don’t see that. They’ll move from job to job to get promoted, but after 10 years, there’s no sense of competency in any area — they’re generalists who are a mile wide and an inch deep.”
The second lean measurement pertains largely to the financial performance of the university itself, Morrison said.
“Our goal is to have 100 percent return on investment for the university,” he said. “We’re probably about a year or two away (in terms of the number of organizations that have learned the process) from where whatever we’re spending as a university will be totally recovered by productivity or cost savings. So, the actual bottom-line savings is in the millions of dollars every year.”
But perhaps the best reason to use lean in education is that it fits in well with the way people learn the majority of the time: through on-the-job performance.
“The way most of us learn is organic — we learn from others, and we learn it while doing our work,” Morrison said. “We’re not trying to figure out how to do more classes and coursework, but rather how to find opportunities to facilitate the learning where it goes on.
“It’s giving them just enough structure, just enough problem-solving models and just enough of the tools needed, all just in time. That’s where learning is truly powerful.”
– Brian Summerfield, firstname.lastname@example.org
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