Becoming a Learning Organization

By on April 6, 2021
Becoming a Learning Organization

“Learning organizations are organizations where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning how to learn together.”
– Peter Senge, Systems Scientist and Senior Lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management

Like many of you, I have seen far too many organizations where “new and expansive patterns of thinking” were not nurtured, where “collective aspiration” was not set free. And in many of these organizations, I’ve seen gains in productivity and profitability achieved through the application of the tools of Lean Manufacturing and Operational Excellence fade away.

Work areas that were lean, clean, and orderly following the application of the 5S System, returning to being waste filled and dirty.

“We would have stuck with 5S, but we just got too busy.”
– Plant Manager

Work processes that had been optimized through the application of Value-Stream Mapping returning to their highly inefficient prior state.

“It became obvious that our plant’s leadership team wasn’t really committed to change, so we just quit trying to get line workers involved in spotting waste in the Value Stream.”
– Front Line Supervisor

Methods used to stimulate employee involvement in continuous improvement like the Idea Board allowed to stagnate and then fade away.

“When we saw that our managers were no longer meeting in front of the Idea Board every two weeks to evaluate our ideas, we just quit posting them.”
– Line Worker

Robert Mai, in his book Learning Partnerships: How Leading American Companies Implement Organizational Learning; ASTD and Irwin Professional Publishing, does a superb job of defining barriers to organizational learning. Mai lists these four major factors as Barriers of Perspective:

  1. Tunnel Vision in which employees are unaware and/or disinterested in what other areas of the organization are doing.
  2. Blind Spots impair one’s ability to imagine different ways to get things done. They are typically found in managers who doubt the ability of line workers to make meaningful improvements in work processes or their interest in doing so.
  3. Rose-Colored Glasses: The rose-colored glasses syndrome is seen in organizations where line workers protect the leadership team from mistakes that have been made on the line because they have come to know through experience that their leaders do not want to hear about mistakes.
  4. Myopia is “I’m too busy to make any improvements now” thinking. It prevents employees from seeing the here and now with the clarity needed to confidently plot paths toward a desired future.

I thought about these four Barriers of Perspective within the context of my twenty-one years of experience as a Lean Manufacturing Consultant. I realized each could be effectively addressed by the sustained application of the tools and thinking processes of Lean Manufacturing and Operational Excellence. Further, I recalled that a number of the key practitioners of Lean and OpEx had made statements directly relevant to each of these four barriers. For example:

Tunnel Vision

  1. A Continuous Improvement Tool:
    Value Stream Mapping shows pictorially, every step in the flow of material and information as a product moves from the first stage of production to the last. By doing this it eliminates tunnel vision, allowing workers to see how their stage of production is impacted by the work that comes before and after the work they do.
  2. Observation of a production supervisor:
    “The Value Stream Mapping we did of our production process really made me aware of the silo I’d been operating in. It was a real eye-opener and gave me an entirely new perspective on the work my team did.”
    – Production Supervisor in the Biochemical Industry.
  3. An observation regarding a major driver of tunnel vision:
    “We’ve hired way too many cowboys when what we’ve needed are pit crew members.”
    – Atul Gawande, MD. Harvard Surgeon; Author of The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right.
    Gawande, in a widely viewed TED talk, describes Cowboys as employees who “do their own thing” and Pit Crew Members as “employees who support teamwork.”

Blind Spots

  1. A Continuous Improvement Tool:
    Servant Leadership inverts the typical organizational pyramid. It assumes that the primary goal of all employees who are not front-line employees is to support the work of these employees. Because front-line employees are directly involved in building the company’s products their vision is not clouded by the blind spots that commonly afflict senior leadership.
  2. A Leading Lean thinker’s observations on an executive in action during a walk through a production area:
    “We started to look at a fairly simple activity. When we got to the second step the person who was trying to do it was really struggling. We asked him what the problem was. He was having difficulty describing the problem. At this point the big boss whips out his notebook and starts writing furiously ’What’s the problem here? We have got to answer this’ He was immediately off into a ‘now hear this’ mode.”
    – James P. Womack, PhD. Former Research Director of the International Motor Vehicle Program at MIT, and Chairman of the Lean Enterprise Institute.
    Womack noted that the worker had no method of defining what the problem was or figuring out what to do. Instead, he had been dealing with it in secret, keeping it out of sight so that everything sort of worked. That was his idea of the most important feature of his job, to hide problems.
  3. Comment of a front-line supervisor with a blind spot regarding his role:
    If my line workers come up with a lot of ideas, that must mean I’m not a good supervisor.

I would note that Toyota views its workers as scientists. When hired, Toyota employees are told they are being hired for two reasons, to work and to think and that of these two, “to think” is the most important. Henry Ford’s belief that all work is an experiment may have been the spark that triggered Toyota’s understanding that all their workers were scientists. The key architects of the Toyota Production system were great admirers of Henry Ford.

Rose-Colored Glasses

  1. Continuous Improvement Tools:
    a. Servant Leadership, as previously described.
    b. The Five Whys is the practice of asking why repeatedly whenever a problem is encountered. Continually asking “why” drives the discovery of a problem’s root cause. Shigeo Shingo, one of the key architects of the Toyota Production System, describes its power as: “A relentless barrage of ‘whys’ is the best way to prepare your mind to pierce that clouded veil of thinking caused by the status quo. Use it often.
  2. A physicist’s observation on the value of not seeing through rose colored glasses:
    “I just love it when I find a mistake. Doing this makes the day of any scientist.”
    – Ramanath Cowsik, PhD. Professor of Physics, Washington University in St. Louis
  3. Taking off rose-colored glasses, Dave’s story:
    A young man named Dave was hired into an entry level management job at the Toyota Plant in Georgetown, KY. Several weeks after being hired he went to his first plant manager’s staff meeting. The plant manager asked Dave to report on his area. Dave started listing all the accomplishments his team had made. The plant manager said, “Dave, stop, I hired you because I knew you were a bright young man who could be a very good performer but from now on when I ask you to report on your area, I want you to name all the mistakes you and your team have made. And I am going to report on all my mistakes. And after we have all our mistakes out on the table, we can address them.
    Recollecting this experience twenty-five years after it happened, Dave observed, “It was at this moment that I understood what the Toyota Production System was all about trust, respect, and candor.
  4. The Father of the Toyota Production System on “Problems”:
    “Having no problems is the biggest problem of all.”
    – Taiichi Ohno, Primary Architect of the Toyota Production System


  1. A Continuous Improvement Tool:
    Toyota KATA is a process identified by Mike Rother, a researcher associated with the University of Michigan and The Technical University, Dortmund, Germany. Drawing on six years of on-site research on Toyota’s employee/management routines, Rother describes the organizational process—which he labels “KATA”—as being at the heart of Toyota’s success. Using the KATA process on the line involves a mentor asking the person s/he is coaching—the mentee—these five questions, moving continually closer to the target condition/future vision they have defined.
    – a. What is the target condition? (The Challenge)
    – b. What is the actual condition now?
    – c. What obstacles are now preventing you from reaching the target condition? Which one are you addressing now?
    – d. What is your next step? (Start of the PDCA cycle)
    – e. When can we go and see what we have learned from taking that step?
    Repeated daily, this process addresses the challenge Robert Mai describes in his book, “The antidote for myopia is not a prescription for glasses that only see the horizon.” KATA is a process that extends vision beyond the horizon.
  2. Henry Ford’s commentary on the impact of myopia:
    We do many useless things solely through custom.”
  3. A commentary on the relationship between becoming a learning organization and breaking the bounds of the here and now:
    “An environment where people have to think brings with it wisdom and this wisdom brings with it continuous improvement.”
    – Tetruyuki Minoura, Former President-Daihatsu Motors, Subsidiary of Toyota

These tools of Continuous Improvement cannot be sustained without what Peter Senge calls “collective aspiration.” Employees must believe the work they do serves a higher purpose. Elon Musk, in an interview on 60 Minutes, said “The whole point of Tesla is to accelerate the development of electric vehicles and sustainable transportation, to build cars that don’t harm the climate and help save the planet.” He added, “Our employees believe in the dream.

Far too many organizations have failed to understand the vital role collective aspiration has in driving continuous improvement.

I have been fortunate to have worked for companies where employees believed what they did was making the world a better place in which to live. I have also talked with line workers who made a connection between their work and a higher purpose. I’ll never forget a worker who said to me, “George, I’ve realized I can do things that will help my teammates go home happy about the work they’ve done, that I can improve the quality of their lives here and at home. And I can hardly describe how great this has made me feel.

We all aspire to a higher purpose. Experiencing this puts a spring in our steps and warmth in our hearts. When this happens, as Peter Senge tells us, “new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured.” And we will have been freed from the bounds of tunnel vision, blind spots, rose-colored glasses, and myopia.

About George Friesen

George Friesen serves as Business Practice Leader - Lean Manufacturing for the Workforce Solutions Group of St. Louis Community College. He has led the College's Lean business practice area since 2000. Prior to joining the College, George worked for Maritz Performance Improvement Company. Over the past 35 years, he has served a wide variety of Fortune 500 companies, specializing during the past eleven years in Lean Manufacturing, focusing especially on the 5S System, Lean leadership and thinking processes, Value Stream Mapping, and Lean team building. George is a graduate of Washington University (AB), Webster University (MA), and United States Air Force Flight Training.

You must be logged in to post a comment Login