Lean Improvement is a complex skill, requiring new instincts and new behaviours. Effectively learning how to do it takes regular frequent exercise.

Walking is a remarkably tough thing to do.

Think about it — you’re essentially pushing yourself off balance and falling forward, then moving a foot (and it has to be the correct foot) forward to catch yourself before you land on your nose. While you’re doing this, you have to make sure you don’t topple off to left or right. And that’s for the relatively simple task of walking simply in a straight line. Don’t even get me started on walking round corners, or on uneven, moving or slippery surfaces, and then as a species, we’ve added in further complicating factors: walking on two legs, and having a high centre of gravity.

Doing this heuristically is really hard, which is why we don’t have many tall bipedal robots as yet.

Ruaridh, Just Walking at 15 Months

Learning to walk is a long term project for a baby. They have to build up the physical strength throughout their bodies, but even tougher, they have to build the fine motor control to be able to sense imbalances and correct them, which is a brain skill.

Any parent will tell you that it’s a slow process, starting with the child pulling herself up using furniture, usually to be able to reach stuff on top of it. This takes huge concentration and effort, and it’s quite some time before she can consistently do it, with lots of falls backwards (those nappies are great shock absorbers) and more painfully, forwards before you get there. Then you find that she can stand, leaning against the furniture, and even move round the room, still using the furniture as a balance aid.

After a while, you suddenly notice: your precious little one is standing in the middle of the floor, beaming with pride and frowning in concentration all at the same time. How on earth did that happen? But she’s up. And wobbling, and frowning, and wobbling, and then down again. Then there’s the first step, and the second, and tripping over those tricky to negotiate dust particles. As time goes by though, they get better and better, increasingly less clumsy and learning to cope with increasingly challenging environments and ways of moving. By the time they’re two or so, they’re running, and jumping, and dancing, and not putting a single thought into the simple mechanics of it.

Ruaridh, Age 5, coping effortlessly with complex balancing

As a parent, you can help the child along a little through encouragement and putting desired objects just out of reach. But fundamentally, the child has to go through the activity of trying many times, and failing — fully or partially — many times. And when I say many times, I mean many times a day.

Both physical and mental development work in the same way. When you first attempt a new skill, new muscle and new mental connections are laid down. Repeat the attempt, and those connections and muscles are built on and fine tuned by the errors you made and learned from. Repeat frequently and you build new skills pretty quickly. Repeat infrequently or not at all and the new muscle and connections die back.

It’s the same when we learn how to do improvement in a structured, successful way. For most people in a business environment, this is a new way of working, requiring much more considered effort than the naïve Ready, Fire, Aim method most often used. We need to learn new instincts of

Seeing problems
This is where the 8 Wastes are really useful aides-memoire and heuristics to help you identify what needs fixing.
Understanding Problems Before Fixing Them
Experience shows that this is the hardest new skill to learn. We all want to be positive-minded solutions people. Most problems of management are caused by fixing the wrong thing perfectly. Until you deeply understand the problem, using the intelligence of everyone directly impacted by it, how can you be sure that your suggestions will ensure it’s both fixed and stays fixed?
Empirically Verifying Results
This is also usually pretty difficult for people to do consistently, and even harder to budget for.
So often, we stop at the launch of our new ways of working, pat ourselves on the back for having introduced improvements and take a victory lap.
So often, we risk our entire operation by introducing new ways of working on everything. Until it’s introduced in a real environment, you really don’t know if your idea will help, or make things worse.
So often, we don’t know if what we changed made the difference. If you don’t have a ‘before’ state running in parallel to compare against, how do you know if it was your thing that made the results go that way?

It will take a number of cycles of PDCA before you can do this consistently and effectively, and building those cycles close together will reinforce the learning. Håkan Forss suggests a weekly cycle; that’s pretty intensive and would definitely mean you’re having to think about improvement every day, building those instincts very effectively. And of course gaining a stream of real improvements for your operation.

What I’ve found to be effective, particularly for people just starting out, is a short weekly coaching session with preparation/data-seeking work in between, using the A3 template to errorproof the more important thinking process. The sessions step through the template, section by section, only allowing the learner to move to the next section once she’s fully grasped the previous one and completed it to a standard that demonstrates this.

The True North of my working method is that everyone at team-lead level or above should have an A3 on the go pretty much at all times. This protects the consistency of learning effort to go along with frequency. This way, the improvement muscles keep developing and the learning reinforces itself, building highly effective improvers.

Learning to operate improvement takes time. But most of all it takes constant and frequent practise. The proof is in the people I’ve coached.

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Martin Burns

Transformation Consultant at CA Inc (formerly Rally)
Previously: Leader of software delivery portfolios in large scale orgs.
Specialism: Transforming complex delivery organisations to be more Lean/Agile.
Mindset: Continuous Improvement Obsessive
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