We all have clients or know of companies that are losing their struggle to sustain Lean. Just yesterday, I was contemplating one such company as I strolled through downtown. As I walked, looking at everything and nothing in particular, a bright flash of color caught the corner of my eye from a slight downhill distance. Turning my head to get a better look I thought, “Wow, that’s beautiful,” only then realizing it was the side of an old building entirely plastered with graffiti.

As I frowned and contemplated what it must cost to clean that stuff off, I noticed what looked like a conventional signature in the lower corner of the wall. This I had to see. When I got closer I was able to read the following (from Da Vinci),

“All our knowledge has its origins in our perceptions.”

Toward the middle of the wall, a less dismissible version of that thought came as an accusation –

“Stay Dum!”

And my first unfiltered expert thought was…You talkin’ to me?

Later that day, still ruminating on that same client’s sustainability issues, I came upon someone’s recent description of a “lean learning formula” and how to apply it as an “effective teaching method.” Eager for a clue to my own question, I read on though suspiciously.

I’m a bit uncomfortable whenever a set of deliberately adaptive principles or practices accruing over many years are pinned to the wallboard, so to speak, and labeled Veritatis Rei (specimen). Alas, it’s in our nature to try and pin down unwieldy phenomena with words. How else to clarify, analyze, promote, handle, reassemble, and…teach? Littera scripta manet, as the Latin goes – the written word survives. Pretty convenient.

That convenience, however, can be costly. Codifying – in words – the amorphous experience of teaching and learning is problematic, and over the ages has left just as many chewing their pencils as tasting the truth.

The formula in question went something like this:

1.      Make a commitment to learn.

2.      Assess performance gaps.

3.      Acquire new knowledge.

4.      Build competency through practice.

5.      Integrate the newly gained skill into daily practice.

Despite great intentions to apply the new knowledge, the author continues, we fall short when it comes to conscious practice and integration. “This is where the learning process falls apart.”

Hmm, something just doesn’t seem right about both the simple formula and the throwaway conclusion. What do you think?

The success (or, more accurately, failure) of such standard “teaching methods” is a perennial source of debate. Rightly so. This approach to teaching/coaching is still the so-called standard in spite of the fact that – as many of us know firsthand – it consistently fails to produce lasting, sustainable changes in behavior.

Notice that I didn’t say the teaching method fails to produce new knowledge. It often does. However, the ultimate goal in personal (and corporate) transformation is a change in self-governed behavior, not merely understanding. As our daily lives demonstrate constantly, new knowledge alone rarely causes us to change persistent habits of thought or action with which we have become comfortable. This is especially true when the habit is the result of a stressful emotional, psychological, or perceptual issue as opposed to a factual misunderstanding. These types of behavior, personal and institutional, are coping mechanisms and they persist stubbornly even when tangible rewards for change are offered.

For example, I know that I should not bite my fingernails. It has been explained to me many times over the years by well-meaning folks of every sort: parents, teachers, doctors, spouses, friends, children, and counselors. I trust and respect the knowledge and opinions of these people. I know that biting my nails makes me feel bad (self-conscious, low confidence, pain and potential infection, etc.) The benefits are clear too (improved self-image, new-found confidence, better health, etc.) What’s more, I really want to change.

But although I succeed temporarily in “practice,” I fail when it comes to the full and permanent integration into daily life. The improvement isn’t sustained. Why?

The entangled reasons for this failure in private behavior change are many, and the reasons are just as numerous and profound when institutionalized behavior (change at work) in public is the goal. And this is my point: admonitions to “be disciplined, practice daily, and do better” – though logical and necessary – are insufficient on their own. Nor do they undermine the foundational paradigm or worldview of which the negative behavior is just one small expression.

But the individual/company is “on-board.” Their brain/boardroom is thinking and actively engaged. Commitment to the overt steps toward change are being sincerely embraced. Permission and encouragement from stakeholders is plentiful. And yet change is short-lived; the preexisting – though ineffective- equilibrium returns. Pessimism creeps in.

So what gives here?

Before we start to argue about why this is so and how to achieve better results, it is paramount to first acknowledge that – yes – what’s been described above is in fact what results from most training and coaching in our industry.

Let me be the first. Personally, as a “lean champion” with my reputation on the line, I profess this unfortunate state of affairs is true. Furthermore, I would add that most individual and corporate patrons of coaching/training also know this is true but are ashamed to admit it. They’ve been paying dearly for this guidance from an experienced expert after all. Their head office has mandated Lean Training. Also, in a sinister twist, clients are often taught implicitly that they are primarily responsibility for any failures in reaching the stated goals. “These are proven methods,” we remind them dutifully. “Look at Toyota.”

Sounds like a full-blown case of The Emperor’s New Clothes Syndrome, doesn’t it?

But if that’s not our goal as coaches and mentors, and that’s not the goal of our students and clients, then it’s time we reevaluated the typical “lean learning formula” as it is currently practiced here in the US.

Specifically, what dimension(s) is missing from the Lean Journeys we claim to lead?

It seems appropriate here to use the The 5 Whys approach (I don’t think it’s broken) as our tool to examine the primary symptom confronting us: individuals and companies are not sustaining the beneficial changes we have worked with them to accomplish. It’s axiomatic: If, in spite of clients’ best efforts and properly established conditions, they do not succeed, then we have also failed somewhere.

As a way of putting us in the right “12-year-old” mindset for this inquiry, I’ll repeat a conundrum described by Dr. Jeff Liker, author of The Toyota Way and 8 time recipient of the Shingo Prize, in an interview with Mike Wall on RadioLean (www.radiolean.com). Liker says that upon realizing our Lean accomplishments are being lost, we panic and resort to pushing even harder on the technical, quantifiable components in the system namely, processes. Our perceptions narrow and we lose sight of the people. “When that happens,” Liker continues, “you start asking questions like ‘What are the tools for sustaining lean?’ [At that point] this is really a meaningless question.”

This post was written by Zane Ferry, president of ADP Services. Zane has 20 years of experience with the Toyota Production System beginning in Japan where he worked for 10 years. He helps companies in many industries improve by adopting TPS principles and methods that transform how people improve processes for people. In addition to this work, he is also a Japanese-English interpreter for Shingijutsu, a pioneering consultancy founded by members of Taiichi Ohno’s Toyota Production System implementation team. Zane lives in the Seattle area and can be contacted at adp@net-venture.com.