‘Lean’ Learning

By Andrew Bass | Newsletter

Originally Appeared in September 2009

Andrew Bass’s Pragmatics Newsletter

Practical techniques and thought-provoking ideas
The main article takes under 4 minutes to read.

‘Lean’ Learning

It’s hard to think of an area other than training where so much money is spent with so little accountability for business results. I think operational managers generally realise this, which is one of the reasons it gets the chop so early in times of cost cutting.

It’s not that managers are against people development, it’s that they are not convinced of the ROI of most programmes. Trainers often don’t help, because all they usually do by way of evaluation is hand out “smile sheets” at the end of training sessions (it’s nice if participants enjoy the training, but that has little or nothing to do with the impact back in the workplace).

Borrowing from lean thinking

Here’s an alternative which audiences often grasp best in terms of the difference between traditional vs. lean manufacturing.

In traditional manufacturing, you start at the beginning of a production line, build a sub-assembly out of components, push it down the line to the next station, and so on. Because some processes will be slower than others, inventory builds up, soaking up cash, space, and in the worst case deteriorating or becoming obsolete.

In a lean manufacturing set up, by contrast, you pull components from the customer end of the line as and when you need them, so you don’t accumulate waste in the factory – you just make what’s needed, when it’s needed.

How does this relate to training? Many businesses put people on generic courses, and then ‘push’ them back to a workplace unprepared for them to use the new skills. There are a number of problems with this, including:

  • The operating managers often don’t know exactly what was taught, so may not know how to support its application.
  • incentives are often misaligned (more on misaligned incentives here)
  • the systems and culture may make it difficult (or even punishing) to try and do what was learned on the course.

The effect is stockpiling of skills which can’t actually be used, and because people forget skills if they don’t use them immediately, they are perishable too.


  • There is a lot that can be said about matching learning to real workplace demands (check out the Snowball Projects page). Here are five points to get started:
  • The starting point for workplace learning has to be the measurable difference to be achieved in the workplace, as defined by the line manager responsible.
  • Once this is established, solutions can be organized so that the input needed is pulled into the workplace, rather than pushed into it.
  • The solution is not always the standard training day: it can be job aids, redesigns of processes, employee-developed learning, and lots more.
  • Evaluation should be made during the intervention, not just at the end, by asking “how well are we closing the measurable difference defined at the outset?”
  • Adjust the approach based on continuous feedback: often, all kinds of creative new opportunities will emerge that you can capitalise on, as long as you are not hide-bound by an inflexible or dogmatic plan.

To learn more about creating a high-performance culture where learning really takes hold, have a look at the Snowball Projects page, contact Andrew at andrew@bassclusker.com or explore the free resources available on our website: www.bassclusker.com.


Copyright 2009 Andrew Bass. All rights reserved. Permission granted to excerpt or reprint as long as you include attribution.

Published by:
BassClusker Consulting
15 Kings Rd
Sutton Coldfield
Birmingham UK
B73 5AB
t: 00 44 (0) 121 427 7217
e: andrew@bassclusker.com
w: www.bassclusker.com