In the Toyota Talent book by Liker and Meier a principle called “Simple to Complex” is discussed. Here is their description of the principle:
“When learning any new skill, it is best to begin with fundamentals and move toward mastery of the more complex techniques”
In instructional design (my field of study), this is an often overlooked principle. You might ask yourself, “How could someone overlook a concept that just seems intuitive?”
In fact, it may be easier then you think.
I’ll take an example out of one of the first projects I worked on several years ago. The training we were to provide was for a multi-million dollar piece of equipment that would be used in a number of our factories by a group of our technicians. It turns out that there were some previous training materials that the vendor had agreed to let us incorporate. A fellow designer spent some time breaking down the content prior to my involvement. His method for doing this was to take each feature of the equipment and describing it in detail by its functional area.
Does that sound familiar?
It reminds me of a factory that I did some consulting with in my college days. The first time I walked into the deafening and dirty environment I noticed that the whole factory was organized by functional area. All the welding equipment was in one location, all the paint in another, etc. It was near impossible to see any flow until you got to final assembly. The company had a virtual monopoly in their market and had revenues of nearly a billion dollars annually yet they couldn’t turn a profit due to all the waste.
This factory is a lot like the training that was designed by my colleague. The intent was to expose the learner to all the pieces of content according to functional area of the equipment. To all but those of us that are trying to implement Lean, this seems to make sense. In the end, however, this leads to tremendous waste in the learning process and reduces the transfer of knowledge. This happens because the technician struggles to pull the functional concepts together into a cohesive real-world scenario.
How does one create a simple to complex learning experience without breaking the training down by the equipment features?
The answer is simple. Focus on the context first and then align the content. So in the case of the equipment training for the technician, it means learning what is the simplest task or scenario that the technician must be able to perform on the equipment and then create a learning experience around that complete task. As part of completing the simple task the technician will be exposed to the functional elements. Now you can go the incrementally more complex tasks one at a time until the technician has mastered the most complex tasks for the equipment. This method of focusing on simple to complex tasks vs. focusing on the functional areas of the equipment provides the technician with a knowledge of the functional areas in the context of the real world tasks they will be asked to complete. In all likelihood the complex tasks will be a compilation of many of the simple tasks.
This seems like common sense to many of us but you would be surprised how often we try to teach things without a contextual framework. I bet if you walked into any class in any major university you would find a professor using the “feature” approach to help their students understand very complex topics. In fact, I bet even the classes on Lean are broken into functional areas by topic (Kaizen, Poka-yoke, etc.)
Can you think of any other places where a simple to complex learning approach would yield better results than the current method?