Are You Learning Throughout the Curve Or Is the Learning Throwing You a Curve?


The General Situation

There are many exemplary examples of organizations that have adopted Lean Management Systems (LMS) successfully. Danaher, Steelcase, Herman Miller, Aluminum Trailer Company, Eldorado Stone, and Mass General Hospital Center for Comparative Medicine, Arizona State Government are some examples of companies, large and small, that have adopted LMS practices, stayed the course, continued their learning, and have emerged as iconic examples of successful Lean Management Systems in radically different environments. For every one of these examples there are many more that start down the path, stagnate, and quietly abandon it, clearing the way for the next new initiative. We spend a great deal of time trying to understand the causal factors of both the successes and the failures so that we can apply that learning in a useful way and significantly increase the likelihood of success. No one wants to experience the disappointment of watching their effort quietly go off into the sunset while squandering the valuable resources of time, people, and money.

One major failure mode, and perhaps the most common, is a lack of alignment among leadership on the foundational points of LMS. Maybe surprisingly for some, for the purposes of this paper, we will not deal with why organizations that lack alignment don’t achieve their goals. While we in no way want to minimize the importance that leadership be aligned with a LMS implementation, it’s a larger topic which warrants its own examination. In this paper, we want to examine those organizations whose leadership has voiced both the understanding and support of LMS and backed it up with resources and attention, yet that still fail to achieve their goals. While this category is smaller than the prior example, it is much more frustrating to all concerned. If leadership is aligned, people are dedicated to carry it out, it gets visibility at the management meetings, and initial successes materialize, then the likelihood of profound long-term success should be readily at hand, right? Well maybe not so…

First let us start with a few basic principles and assumptions to provide context for our examination. While “success” can be viewed and articulated many ways, we will attempt to be pragmatic about it. Primarily, have you adopted a management system that has demonstrated superior business performance over the long term? Are you exceeding your growth and profitability goals? Are your customers active supporters of your company? Are you their supplier of choice? Are your costs well under control? Are you the employer of choice and do you attract the best talent? Are you meeting your growth objectives? If you’re a governmental agency, are you more effectively meeting your mission outcomes? While these are some measures of operating performance, the bigger point is that they are hard black and white examples of measurable attributes that you want to improve through a better management system. Secondly, once you’ve achieved these improvements, does the organization continually find ways to further improve, or do they wait for the next new assignment or initiative to present itself? This means more than just a few experts coming from a pool of limited resources that must be judiciously applied to only the most significant problems. Rather have you made everyone at every level part of a team-based problem-solving organization? This single characteristic is what separates Lean from other process improvement methodologies and management systems. It’s the first principle of Lean as a management system that is distinct from others.


The reality is that adopting an LMS is very rewarding, but it is also difficult work. When emerging from a Management by Objectives (MBO) system, there is much to both learn and also to unlearn as well. Success in adopting LMS doesn’t have to be long odds, but to play the game well, and to win you must understand it more deeply than many are properly prepared to do.

The Problem

The majority of venues dedicated to teaching Lean Management Systems provide a static information set with a simple set of tools that are easy to learn and apply. This popular promotion of Lean advances the idea that LMS is very simple, only takes a short while to learn, can be mastered through unmentored repetition, and in some cases, takes only seconds each day to execute. Imagine for a moment Peter Drucker sitting down with Alfred Sloan, then head of GM corporation. He is laying out a significantly different management system called Management by Objectives (MBO) then that which was then being used at GM at the time. He’s saying something like…. ”Hey Al, I have a radically new management system I want you to implement here at GM. We both know the current management system has outlived its usefulness for a company as big and complex as GM. The new system is called Management By Objectives. It’s very straight forward. You should have the entire system up and running in less than a year, it only takes a few minutes a day to implement, it’s very intuitive so people will all pick it up without much of a learning curve, and it will increase the bottom line by double digits. I’ll leave you with a copy of my book, The Practice of Management, that describes it in easy terms”.


Sound like snake oil? Of course, it does! Nothing of the sort was the reality of the GM transformation. It took years and thousands of hours of tutelage from a team of Drucker’s disciples, internal support staff coming from the country’s best universities, as well as a few misapplications, before they finally got it right. It was not simple.

It was not easy. It was not fast. But it yielded tremendous economic value securing GM’s position for decades to come.

If you contrast the reality of LMS implementation with how LMS is presented, the presentation is very often simplistic. While the fundamental steps are in fact simple, it took Toyota 40 years to develop and fully adopt them. They too have had backsliding. Our experience is that the best examples we have in the US using proven industry models, experience master teachers, and dedicated leadership took at least 5 years to succeed. But that really doesn’t sell well.

The 5 simple steps laid out by Jim Womack in Lean Thinking were in fact spot on.

  1. Specify value (in the eyes of the customer)
  2. Map the value stream
  3. Make value flow
  4. Pull from customer demand
  5. Continually strive to perfection


What could be simpler? But for an organization to learn the depth of meaning and the implications for each of these five steps has in practice proved hard. But extremely fruitfull. While it is possible, it involves hard work that requires leadership. Maybe JFK’s quote in his speech about sending astronauts to the moon is appropriate here.

“We do these things not because they are easy, but we do them because they are hard”.

JFK pointed out that the positive impact to the country would be immense and that the effort would be well worth it. We would see benefits in thousands of ways that we wouldn’t even realize were connected to a lunar landing.

Hard- yes

Impossible- no

Worth it- absolutely

How Do We Think About This Problem?

First, there are the organizational issues to reconcile, so that instruction and coaching are laid out in logical order to maximize the rate of learning and minimize the potential for backsliding. Generally speaking, the fundamental technical components are typically well served by most avenues of teaching. This is due in part to the fact that Womack’s five steps lay out a logical sequence for process improvement, while also coincidentally serving as a high-level outline for sequential learning of progressively more difficult materials. The fifth step is to continuously strive for perfection. Developing an organizational culture that does this is in fact, the most difficult part of the organizational learning curve. What gets lost in translation is that while the first four steps yield rapid initial economic value, the objectives of sustainability and subsequent continual improvement lay in that deceptively simple fifth step. Thus, for a guideline for instructional design, the five steps are a good starting point for laying out a curriculum of learning.

Broadwell has a model for four stages of learning that provide good guidance on progressive technical challenge and subsequent mastery assessment for next step readiness. In more recent evolution of the model, a fifth step has been added to include Flow and Mastery and has become generally accepted by training professionals.

 There are other models, but this is a good approach when taking a student from the point of knowing little or nothing at all to the point of Flow and Mastery.

Note that it is not critical that every person in an organization take each and every Lean concept all the way to Flow and Mastery. After all, not every college graduate seeks to earn a PhD in their field; however, their contributions may still be considerable throughout their career. But it is those with the deep expertise at a level of Flow and Mastery that would be responsible for teaching Lean in areas where the organization has little experience. For example, taking your learnings from a department that makes screwdrivers to a department that makes plyers is much more straight forward than moving those same concepts to new product development or sales within the same company. The latter will require flow and mastery to carry it out efficiently.

Womack’s five steps provide a framework for designing the teaching sequence in our instructional design work. We also have guidance on how to progressively challenge the student with each concept based on Broadwell’s model of the Stages of Learning. The question that remains is how to check and then adjust to the learning readiness of the organization throughout the process. Are they ready to learn more? Or do they believe that they have learned enough and have now closed their minds to further examination of the subject? This is different than change management, which is something that is brought to bear at the outset of a significant change program. With change management, programs such as ADKAR are utilized to reduce the anxiety associated with change in general and to set the stage for early acceptance of the change.


Instead, we have a very different problem here in that we are dealing with an organization that has already embarked on the change and now perceives that they have mastered it, when in fact they have not yet done so, thus suffocating the pull for deeper organizational learning.

When an organization decides to take on a new skill set, those responsible for teaching it must manage both the technical aspects of this new capability as well as the organization’s cultural readiness. This is necessary both at the outset in preparing the ground for change and throughout adoption as it works its way through self-perceived levels of mastery.

A 1999 study by the social psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger was published under the title of “Unskilled and Unaware of it”. In their findings emerged the framework for dealing with the most difficult aspects of teaching an organization to become competent in LMS.


What they discovered was that in the early stages of learning, self confidence in an organization’s level of expertise peaks very quickly, typically at a premature stage. This is very similar to a team carrying out their first successful comprehensive pilot kaizen in which they’ve broken down functional silos, created flow, and pulled from customer demand. This success is then presented in a very impressive close out demonstration that is surrounded with the pomp and circumstance associated with any new program in order to send the message that leadership is encouraging its adoption. At the completion of these early events, self-confidence peaks for the organization; a self- confidence that is both good and bad. The good part is that significant learning has in fact taken place and both enthusiasm and support are built for further implementation. The counterproductive aspect is that as self-confidence grows in these early stages, there is a perception that LMS has been mastered to a greater degree than is actually the case.

Dunning and Kruger referred to this false sense of competence as cognitive bias. The problem cognitive bias presents to the teacher is that the eagerness to learn more slows down or stops entirely. We have seen many organizations stagnate in their progress and then years later will say that they “have done Lean” and are on to other things. They might even bring you to the areas where these preliminary events were carried out, as evidence of their having “done Lean”.

The phases of implementation that follow the early learning stages are typically where the more difficult LMS challenges are presented. Often, the later phases are more unique, highly variable, or complex processes that require significant cross functional cooperation to be successful. Organizations don’t typically start with these difficult processes as their initial learning platforms, but rather progress to these more problematic areas only when they are ready to move forward. These more advanced events often start the organization down the other side of the curve to Doubt and potentially to the Crossroads. Their basic training did not equip them to deal with the complexities of the more challenging value streams. At this stage, you will hear that maybe LMS does not work in their world, that it’s just too hard to do in their organization, that it requires too much time and resource, or that they just had the wrong teacher. This is typically where good LMS start-up efforts go to die.

A takeaway from a study of the Dunning/Kruger curve is that those who successfully work their way through the crossroads and go on to become true experts never reach the level of self-confidence that they had as beginners. This coincides perfectly with the fifth stage of learning, flow and mastery, where lifelong learning takes place. In order to successfully continue along the learning path, you must first recognize that you have not reached the destination!

The Solution

It doesn’t have to be this way at all. A crossroads is exactly that. It’s not a pre-determined glide path on auto pilot. There are choices to be made. Do you stay the course, seek the more difficult cross functional solutions, and develop breakthrough learning? You can make the difficult cultural and organizational shifts required to enable value to flow completely through the extended value stream. You can build the Lean Leadership Behaviors required to exercise the problem-solving muscles at every level of the organization. Rather than taking the position that LMS doesn’t apply in your world, you can find new and creative ways to make this new knowledge work in places that don’t exactly match the examples you were taught in your early learning. But this requires a few factors to be solidly in place:

  • First, leadership that is committed to continual learning as a way of organizational life guided by a clear sense of direction
  • Second, students who take pride in their early accomplishments while at the same time realizing the limits of their knowledge and maintain their curiosity in order to keep learning
  • Lastly, teachers who have the depth of experience to help leaders and students through these transitions on the way to maturity. The Japanese call these teachers who have achieved Flow and Mastery sensei for that very reason

Once these enabling environmental factors are in place, the teaches must lay out a learning path that will take the organization to that state of maturity, rather than selling that it will be quick and easy. The organization will in fact see early successes that yield great fruit, but the teachers can’t allow them to become victims of that success, as that will halt the learning path to deeper and long-lived knowledge. In summary,

  • Have we set the proper expectation that adoption of LMS is a deep organizational learning exercise? While early and substantial improvements will be realized, in order for it to be sustainable, and subsequently continuously improving, a commitment to long term learning is required on everybody’s part.
  • Does the sequence of knowledge transfer make technical sense? Do we enable the team to build the foundation of the home before trying to shingle the roof?
  • Do we teach progressively deeper information with checks and then adjust cycles through all five stages of learning for each topic in a way that will support a learning journey all the way to Flow and Mastery?
  • Do we have a mechanism in place that evaluates the organization’s self-perception of mastery throughout the learning process and manages the cognitive bias associated with each stage?

A teaching methodology that combines change management, sound and comprehensive instructional design elements, technical training and evaluation of levels of mastery, and management of cognitive bias at all of the stages of maturity, while all the while maintaining positive attitudes toward past successes is critical to this process. Teachers must always assess where the organization is on both the learning curve as well as the DK cognitive bias curve and adjust their support accordingly. The larger picture has to be held out in front in a positive way in order to overcome weakening pull for new knowledge associated with early accomplishments and successes.

Unfortunately, presenting Lean as something quick, easy, and intuitive sells books and makes us popular on the speaking circuit, but does not help organizations achieve real breakthrough performance in a sustainable manner. There are exceptions to this rule, but if you are planning for your organization to adopt a pervasive, team-based, collaborative problem-solving culture, you will want all the odds in your favor. It’s no easy feat under good circumstances and becomes nearly impossible with shortcut planning and management. These are the business equivalents of fad diets and get rich quick schemes.

While you may be starting in a pilot area on the front lines, eventually, if you are successful, you will be coaching the entire organization to think differently about how it manages itself. New product introduction, Product Life Cycle Management, Sales, Fulfillment, (or if you’re in government, legislation, permitting, compliance oversight, through to agency mission outcomes) HR, Finance, and IT will all eventually do their day to day work differently. But take heart, it’s not done in 6 months. It’s done over a period of years. The positive aspects are that if you are progressing, you are continually making your organization better each step of the way and also continually improving business outcomes as well. Those who have stayed the course have yielded tremendous business success beyond their wildest initial expectations.

The only true wisdom is knowing that you know nothing
- Socrates

Teaching and guiding an organization through each learning hurdle along the path to maturity is not a simplistic task. The hardest part will be keeping the organization from crashing into its own learning curve and from thinking that they now know it all.

What do you think?


All comments must be approved by the blog administrator before they will be displayed.

Name: * for display purposes
Email: * will not be shown
Comment: *
Contact The Murli Group
Find out how we can help strengthen your company from the ground up»

The Murli Group

14 Pearl Street
Mystic, CT 06355


Follow us on: