The Disaster of Lean Training

Lean Training

What have we learned after 30+ years of training people in Lean tools and methods, Lean thinking, Lean management, and Lean leadership? As I look back on my experience as a trainer, I am grateful for the opportunities, experience, income, favorable reviews, and feedback for improvement. Yet I, and certainly most other Lean trainers, are disappointed with the impact that our efforts have had. Why has our impact been so limited? Likely it is because we labored under some basic assumptions that are not true (or not generally true).

  • Training will change people
  • The training will stimulate positive emotions
  • The training will stimulate intellectual curiosity and greater interest
  • Some significant portion of the training will enter the workplace and improve it.
  • Participants will be self-motivated to apply what they learned in different ways and to different types of problems

Instead, we have learned, generally, that short-term training results in little substantive personal change and even less substantive organizational change. In many cases, Lean training backfires because:

  1. Good training leads people to think they already know and practice the material, so the result of training is inaction or complacency.
  2. Training of key personnel puts the burden of large-scale change on them, which they may resent given their (usually) lower status in the organization.
  3. It reminds people of problems — an ocean of problems — rather than motivate them to eliminate problems.
  4. Lean training invariably carries the message that the participants or the company they work for are inferior or low performers.
  5. Lean training inadvertently sets up an “us” vs. “them” dynamic within and between levels of an organization’s hierarchy, and between those who have attended training and those who have not or will not.
  6. People, no matter what level they are in the hierarchy, don’t like to be told how to think and what they should do.
  7. Despite trainers’ relevant work experience, extensive knowledge, and empathy, most participants view the trainer as unable to comprehend the uniqueness of their company or their individual work experience.

This begs the question, is Lean training counterproductive? While there are notable examples otherwise, it seems that meaningful changes in personal beliefs, behaviors, and competencies and significant improvements in organizational capabilities are rare. In organizations where training has been successful, they key seems to be cross-functional participation in kaizen — physical integration of people across functional areas and throughout the hierarchy, which is to say, everyone participates in kaizen.

That then brings us to the nasty problem that not everyone wants to participate in kaizen, particularly those at mid-manager level and above. Perhaps the key to more successful Lean training is to question our basic assumptions, understand and respond to the seven items listed above, and learn why classical management has so strong a grip on people that it subverts Lean training.


I still believe that Lean training is useful, and that training is essential for professional development. But we have a big challenge: It is to recognize these interconnected problems and identify many practical countermeasures to try.

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