Lean Transformations Group

Training is Obsolete, It Won’t Fix Today’s Complex Problems

According to Training Magazine, U.S. companies spent $83 billion on training in 2019, despite the fact that training does not make for sustainable performance improvement. No matter how excited participants are at the end of a training session, old practices, habits, and behaviors re-emerge when people return to their workplace. Things evolve back to normal, and training almost always fails to result in the performance improvements that everyone hopes for.

The problems we are experiencing are no longer simple. We have rapidly changing business situations and complex, interdependent processes that need a different approach for solving these difficult problems. Instead of looking for training, we need to consider how to develop a more effective problem-solving culture that is capable of solving complex problems.

As a lean coach with Lean Transformations Group and former Chief Engineer, I get requests for lean training all of the time. What is my standard process for responding? I typically have a discussion with the person and ask questions to understand their problem situation and the background. I want to understand that person’s thinking for expecting to fix a problem with training. Why? Because training is most often requested as a solution to an undefined problem.

Here’s a recent example. The director of an engineering group decided his team needed to adopt lean principles. The manufacturing organization had been on a lean journey for several years and were now expecting other functions to follow their lead. As leader of their engineering organization, he recognized that just picking up Lean from manufacturing was not the right approach, so he decided to get some expert training on Lean Product Development at the University of Michigan. Sounds good, right?

He decided that his team needed a general overview of the key concepts so that when he returned, they could get started on becoming a lean product development organization. He asked for this basic training around Lean Product Development concepts to be delivered virtually for 20-30 people (he said he didn't have the time to do the training himself). When I asked what problem he thought he needed to solve, I did not get a clear answer. He expected to “roll out” Lean to his broad organization through the training modules he defined.

Training is the first response to a need

Training is a concept or a fad that we unconsciously believe is a solution for nearly all our problems. Google “lean training” and see what you get. When I did the search, I got 291 million hits! But here’s another way to think about it: there are many training solutions in search of problems to solve. Unfortunately, training programs generally miss the point of what is needed to be done to achieve ongoing performance improvement: using the collective intelligence of the entire organization to solve critical business problems.

How do you develop, invite, and use the collective intelligence of the entire organization? Well, to start, training—which is fragmented and event-oriented—needs to be replaced with a systems thinking approach of continuous practice. As a leader, you and your team members need to create the conditions for a different approach to problem solving to occur and essentially rewrite the culture of the organization. Ideally, you will find a way to guide your organization through this transformation process for creating distributed problem solving at all levels and functions. Your focus should be on developing a culture of problem solvers, not a smorgasbord of training programs.

If we look at Schein’s definition of culture to guide us, real change takes place when people solve problems by integrating the problem-solving process into their own work process. Then, the people doing the work make continuous improvements to their own processes. So, instead of agonizing over how to select one of many event-oriented lean training programs out there, just focus on the continuous development of problem-solving capabilities. When you do, you’re engaging in a much more organic model of transformation.

What does this look like?

  • Create a problem-solving culture by eliminating the tendency to jump to solutions without clearly defining, breaking down, and focusing on problems.
  • Structure and empower cross-functional teams for focused/rapid learning by expecting teams to create weekly plans and check their progress every day.
  • Eliminate wasteful delays and rework by creating knowledge about customer needs in the highest quality and shortest possible timeframe.
  • Manage projects by first deciding on the critical questions to answer and then selecting the fastest actions for answering the questions.
  • Make structured learning a priority through a disciplined PDCA (Plan, Do, Check, Adjust) process with an emphasis on reflecting and adjusting the plan every week.

Focus Points for Leaders

Leadership, culture, and company performance are all linked (Edgar Schein). Leaders can initiate a new approach by thinking about the problem you need to solve and considering how these four key focus points for leading an effective transformation can help you and your team effectively address the problem:

A new mindset: This is about creating knowledge and delivering that knowledge to either your external customer or your next internal customer. It involves using questions to drive the process instead of managing tasks. It requires thinking in terms of closing problem gaps and then answering the questions through cross functional teams. Also, the people who are doing the work are simultaneously experimenting with ways to improve their process of doing the work. All of these new processes require effective problem-solving skills and enhanced social skills for building trust and respect.

A new process: Teams learn how to adopt Fast Cycles of Learning through this process. The knowledge creation process is based on nested PDCA (Plan, Do, Check, Adjust) learning cycles. Everybody is learning every day about problem solving and how to create more respectful social connections.

A new focus on developing personal capabilities: Team members and leadership team members develop new capabilities while they create a culture of problem solvers. They acknowledge that each person has a personal goal to achieve and embrace self-determination theory as a way of connecting personal aspirations with the organization’s goals.

A new transformation process: We already know that organizations are complex adaptive systems and that real change comes from within, not through training. Change happens when the people in the organization have a shared understanding of a problem and then experiment on ways to close gaps in performance. When this approach is applied to real problems by the right people at the right time, incredible learning takes place that eventually makes the change to a focus on developing new capabilities. The creation of problem-solving teams starts in small, well-defined problem-solving groups and grows organically across the organization, even huge organizations.

More than just ineffective, training is too antiquated an approach to performance improvement for today’s businesses. It is time to think differently about training and commit to transforming organizations through developing a problem-solving culture. This is what will actually give you a chance of achieving your greatest expectations.

Significantly improving your
operational performance.

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