Planet Lean: The Official online magazine of the Lean Global Network
Advancing learning in a lean organization

Advancing learning in a lean organization

Dan Prock
October 11, 2022

FEATURE – Our disposition towards learning changes depending on the amount of things we don’t know. The author explores this topic and the role of the sensei in enabling learning.

Words: Dan Prock Ph.D, lean author

One lean coach – I’ll call him Sam – was surprised when he first learned about Lean Thinking, saying, “When I began learning about the Toyota system, our consultants told me that the lean approach entailed creating a learning organization. Actually, I was expecting something more striking,”

With these words, Sam put his finger on a lasting problem. Rather than learning as they go, both managers and employees prefer tangible methods and tools that seem to offer immediate help in their jobs. In Sam’s early days as a coach, he tried to deliver the “more striking” tools of Lean Thinking to the engineers in his company – plan-do-check-adjust (PDCA), value stream mapping, kaizen and pull methods for timing in design tasks and decisions. In the first few years, process improvements came from Sam’s initiative, and not surprisingly, the engineers didn’t sustain them. Eventually, they joked that Lean Thinking was just “Sam’s Kool-Aid”.


So first, what is learning? There are about a zillion books on this topic, and Wikipedia summarizes: “Learning is the process of acquiring new understanding, knowledge, behaviors, skills, values, attitudes, and preferences.” It can be conditioned through repeated experiences, through lessons assimilated into a complimentary mindset, or initiated by disruptive teacher or event, one that unfreezes old thinking and wrecks one’s existing paradigms about how things work.


The learning approach used in a lean operation depends on the degree of unknowns in the situation to be improved. Let’s define them in these terms.


The first domain of learning – the known domain – is where employees develop skill sets, gain trouble-shooting ability, and define safe ways to do the work. In the known, training takes employees through orientation, training and involvement in learning standard work through passive techniques, like reviewing manuals, watching videos, and observing role models. The domain of the known enables much in modern life to work so plumbing drains and airplanes fly.

In the known domain, a learner typically experiences minimal anxiety and stress because she climbs a defined learning curve step by step and becomes increasingly relaxed and competent.

In Sam’s engineering company, for example, numerous successful characteristics from previous mechanical or electrical design work were known and retained in a database for quick reference and reuse.

In the case of a lean transformation, training enables employees to run a stable work process, which is the necessary foundation for continuous improvement.


The second domain of learning – the known unknown – is where coaches or leaders engage employees in learning through scientific problem solving in actual work situations. The general pattern is to first go/see an actual problem situation; ask questions of the players; collect data on likely causes, prioritize a known unknown; analyze data; confirm the root cause; create alternative solutions and test them; and once proven out, standardize the solution as a “known”.

The value of learning through actual problem solving is that people learn to slow down and grasp the situation, drop old solutions, examine the known unknowns, dig down to potential causes in order to find and test solutions or countermeasures. Although anxiety and stress arise early on when problem solving in the known unknown, as a reasoned approach take shape, they typically recede.

In Sam’s engineering company, technical staff spend most of their time problem solving within the known-unknown domains of design or validation work on new machines, improved systems or updated software.

In the case of a lean transformation, known unknowns would include, for example: the needed takt time for various products and models; the standard work that will balance each workflow; how to reach consensus among a diverse management team on a future state and the priorities, approach, and timing that will best create continuous improvement in a complimentary lean culture.


In the third domain, that of the unknown-unknown, learning happens through inquiry. It serves as the approach when “we don’t know what we don’t know”. Inquiry begins by asking broad questions, gathering expert opinions, examining past cases in the field, then gathering data, analyzing it, and discovering facts and potential causes. The goal is to get a hypothesis, a “theory of the case”.

The value of inquiry lies in its wide scope and its potential for discovery. It gradually illuminates the unknown unknowns, identifies variables that are a potential cause (or a correlated predictor) of a complex issue or anomaly. Once sufficiently understood, an issue in the unknown unknown is reduced to one in the known unknown and becomes subject to problem solving.

However, dealing with the unknown unknown triggers anxiety and stress in people, especially those who need structured problem solving or are more ego driven. Due to its ambiguity, it can threaten people’s self-esteem. As a result, some may assert premature closure over an inquiry process.

In Sam’s engineering company, the cause of a new machine breakdown in a mine was an unknown unknown. An engineering team went into the mine and opened inquiry into several potential failure modes. Their “theory of the case” was that stress caused metal fatigue on a particular bolt hole. Laboratory experiments later confirmed this hypothesis: the metal had not been sufficiently hardened or reinforced and made fit for use.

Leaders pursuing a lean operation face many unknown unknowns, such as where and when to begin, how to get a management team consensus, and what lean value stream projects, tools and coaching practices will best result in the development of a lean operation and a culture of kaizen mind. (For a review of lean transformation, read The Sensei Way at Work: The Five Keys to a Lean Business Transformation.)


Old school command-and-control managers trained people minimally and motivated them to work hard by aggressively challenging them, generating fear for their job security, or insulting their self-esteem. Conversely, in a learning organization, motivation stems from people’s intrinsic interest, from their curiosity. It is a human resource, and when evoked by coaches and managers, it generates effort, performance, and continuous improvement.

Given good leadership and coaching support, most employees will become aware of the conditions that cause problems. When they do arise, most will then exercise their curiosity and mindfulness to improve the work. This is what a kaizen mind does. It is defined as being mindful of “what is” in a job or process (without expectation or regard for role) and applying innate curiosity to solve problems and reduce waste. When a critical mass of employees possesses a kaizen mind, a learning organization grows and thrives. However, there are obstacles to sustaining curiosity and effort in everyone.


We all feel both curious and motivated at times, but it doesn’t last. Why not? Consider the core problem as our human propensity for anxiety and stress. Stress is the bodily reflection of anxiety, and both are inherent to human nature. They trigger instincts, emotions, and ego defenses, all of which obliterate the kaizen mind. So, the first barrier to continuous improvement and a learning organization is a mild form of fear, the human propensity to feel anxiety and stress.

Yet, who hasn’t felt stressed when learning challenging material or in the presence of an intimidating teacher? At such moments, anxiety flips our brains back to prehistoric times and we re-enter our primordial psychology of fight, flight, or freeze. Once there, we may be overly aggressive toward others in a learning situation, or conversely shrink from even asking a question. In either case, learning stops.

And, when employees go back to their job, they may feel anxiety and stress when applying new work standards, processes, systems, or technology. Then they may well snap back to doing work the old way. When anxiety and stress dominate, lean tools  become embarrassing artifacts, and even a strong start to a learning organization  becomes a “dead man walking”.


Author Kelly McGonigal defines stress as, “what arises when something you care about is at stake.” Stress can, at times, be helpful because it can raise energy to “fight”, that is, assert or defend important goals or principles. It also focuses us people on a challenge, fueling harder work, energetic problem solving, or efforts toward conflict resolution.  Problem is, we are prone to feeling much anxiety and stress too often and, when that happens, it disrupts learning.

The general relationship of performance varies with effort, which in turn move with an increase or decrease in anxiety and stress levels. The U curve shown below (from Dr. McGonigal) uses a vertical axis for performance and a horizontal axis for an individual’s stress/level of effort, moving in sync.

Performance and unknowns

A new challenge sparks mild stress, jolting initial effort up and pushing performance on the high left side of the U. However, when one’s initial efforts disappoint, anxiety and stress rise, reducing one’s level of effort and causing performance to fall to the bottom of the U. So, what can coaches and managers do about too much anxiety and stress? They can lead people into the “challenge response”.

The challenge response results from a leader or coach clarifying a fitting challenge for people. For example, in the known area, where confusion can be an issue, a challenge might be to refocus on the specific instructions. In the known unknown of problem solving, re-confirming or re-clarifying the challenge in specific, tangible terms may reinvigorate people’s efforts. For example, a manager or coach might spark the challenge response by leading a 5-why exercise to drill down and reclarify or reframe the challenge, thereby moving performance up the high right side of the U. In the unknown unknown, a leader or coach might lend emotional support and raise confidence by clarifying a path of investigation.

The next barrier to learning happens when a new process or higher standards trigger the ego defenses of the learner back on the job. Psychologist Erik Erickson wrote that we humans form our identity during our teenage and young adult years, when we ask questions, such as: “Who am I?”, “What am I good at?”, “Why do people like/dislike me?” and so on. The problem is, when we become emotionally attached to the identities or “selves” we form (they are numerous), the ego – which is the “enforcer” of the self – tries to assert control over others and in work situations. When the ego is in charge, mindfulness and curiosity are displaced, and the employees’ kaizen minds dissolve.

In a lean transformation, the redesigned processes of new systems may threaten the employees’ sense of competency and trigger their ego defenses, causing them to revert to old habits or retreat into their comfort zone.

So, how can coaches and managers activate the challenge response in employees? First, they must learn to manage their own anxiety and stress! This is the sensei’s purpose. He teaches first those in charge, and ultimately all employees, not to mollify or react to anxiety and stress, but to overwrite it with a kaizen mind.


Of course, most of us prefer to stay in our comfort zone, that is, learn at the “right time” and in a safe space. However, a sensei knows that safe learning is just a wish, a fiction. He mandates a challenging task, thrusting people into a temporary crucible of stress, and stays available, yet offers little or no help.

Since people get anxious to perform under pressure, they often quickly assert old thinking and try previous solutions, but they rarely fit or resolve a new, arising issue. Then following a likely setback, the sensei guides a newly humble person or team to reflect on their misperceptions and see things as they actually are.

The teacher uses a dose of anxiety and potential conflict to disrupt peoples’ old mindsets. The sensei sparks the challenge response, which awakens people to their own potential.

In summary, the sensei’s ultimate goal is to teach both leaders and employees not to take flight into instincts, emotions or ego defenses, and that by staying present and going right into problem situations with their eyes wide open, everything is workable. How so? When people activate their kaizen minds and work together, solutions to problems and continuous improvement are inevitable.

Sam eventually helped his engineering staff discover their kaizen minds. When they became overwhelmed with too many meetings, they requested help and he suggested to a pull system on design work and decisions, which they implemented and sustained. He recalls the awakening of the kaizen mind this way: “I finally succeeded in getting the engineers to ask, ‘Why do we work the way we currently do, and how could we do it better?’ If you get to that point as a company, you’re in great shape.” Perhaps that's not striking, yet Sam had learned how a learning organization actually works.


Dan Prock photo
Dan Prock is the author of The Sensei Way at Work: The Five Keys to a Lean Business Transformation

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