There is nothing special about a "learning organization", and, for my money, the folks out trying to forge a consulting and writing career on the strength of creating ‘Learning Organizations’ don’t know much about people or organizations. Now if they could figure out a good way to create an ‘Unlearning Organization, they would be onto something. Learning is easy and it comes naturally. Unlearning is almost impossible, but it is the big problem with lean manufacturing.
How many millions of people do you suppose line up and pay good money to visit Epcot every year?, or wander through the entire Smithsonian complex?, or save up for years so they can see the Louvre or the Vatican? As far as I can tell, the History Channel, the Discovery Channel, the National Geographic Channel, the Food Network, the Home and Garden Channel, Public Broadcasting and the Travel Channel are all doing a thriving business – and they are almost entirely devoted to learning. People are cruising the Internet, thumbing through two year old issues of Time Magazine in doctor’s offices and scheduling dinner around Jeopardy and Who Wants to be a Millionaire. Europe is the same. In Asia many people are so wound up in learning that you want to tell them to shut down their brains for a few minutes every now and then and have more fun. Anybody surrounded by non-learning people must be working at a cemetery.
There is no trick at all to learning something new – as long as it is something extra – something to supplement what we already know. The problem with learning comes when we have to replace something we already know with something new. Unlearning that which we know and believe in order to replace it with something new is hard for all of us, and virtually impossible for many of us.
It seems to me that the widely accepted elements of lean are those that have been presented to manufacturing as ‘extras’. They don’t necessarily replace any old manufacturing principles. Instead they just add to them and sort of flesh them out. Unfortunately, they don’t help much either. Kaizen events, for example, and six sigma projects are pretty easy to sell to manufacturing. They don’t require manufacturing to abandon anything, except for a few details that are the focus of the project. For the most part, however, they do not need manufacturing to completely reorganize or to abandon any of their old management systems and tools. They are just projects, and manufacturing has been launching improvement projects since the beginning of time. These are just new tools for projects, and no one has to ‘unlearn’ much of anything.
Balanced Scorecards are a great example of this principle in action. It is not too tough to convince management that they need some new measurements – some non-financial stuff to look at alongside their old cost numbers. Lean Accounting, however, is another matter all together. Lean Accounting demands that the old accounting system be scrapped. Management and the accountants have to forget about the old ways – unlearn them. Management has to look at a whole new set of numbers, not just a few extra numbers. That has proven to be a very hard sell indeed.
The same is true with MRP. The fact that putting pull systems into MRP is putting a square peg into a round hole has been commonly known for a long time. Articles explaining how to supplement MRP with spreadsheets to facilitate lean are widely written and widely read, and they do not stir up any controversy. Going the next step, however, and writing an article suggesting that the shop floor control half of MRP be tossed out entirely and replaced with something new rouses passionate objections. Supplementing MRP is one thing, forcing people to forget they ever knew about it and wrapping their minds around a new approach is something else, and another very hard concept to sell.
People are probably the best example. It is not too tough to bring managers along the path of engaging and involving people more in the problem solving and idea generating aspacts of lean transformation. When you have to cross the line and stop treating production folks as variable costs and start categorizing them as fixed, the journey slams to an abrupt halt. Production workers have always been variable costs and everything most people know about planning and budgeting, cost measurement, and capacity management revolves around that principle. The benefits of stable, perhaps even lifetime employment are not hard to sell, but tossing out a whole bucket of management principles is virtually impossible.
It takes a sound intellect and a fair degree of self confidence to abandon something you know and have believed in, and replace it with something new. That is especially true if your faith in that something has served you well and your knowledge of the new thing is a little shaky. The easy path is to keep all of your beliefs intact and only adopt the bits and pieces of the new idea that supplement those beliefs. The same is true with the lean facilitators and experts. Selling kaizen events, suggestion systems and philosophy lessons is much easier than selling lean accounting, organizational restructuring and skills based compensation plans. Unfortunately for both buyers and sellers, however, the unlearning and relearning path to lean is the only path that gets worthwhile results.
It makes sense, though, that the path that is toughest for the individuals involved and the organization as a whole is the only one that generates the lean promises of radical cost, profit, delivery and quality improvements. The one management principle that will never change is that the amount of return on any endeavor is directly correlated to the risk. The organization that refuses to take the risk of ‘unlearning’ their old principles will never realize much of a return on their lean learning.