Corporate trainers and lean manufacturing experts often work in the same places. At some sites, they share thoughts and ideas, each advancing the other’s cause and making progress together on shared projects. In other cases, though, they remain “siloed” and don’t have an opportunity to cross-pollinate. This is a shame because each can learn valuable tips from the other.

In this article, we’ll consider some lean concepts that can be applied to corporate training programs. If you’re familiar with lean, you know these concepts well, but maybe you haven’t considered how they could relate to training. If you’re not familiar with lean, you may find it offers some helpful ways to look at training material development and delivery.

Increase Value for the Customer

One of the foundational principles of lean manufacturing is to increase value for the customer. It can be tricky to determine the best way to do this, and that’s where lean expertise and methods play a role, but in most cases it’s easy enough to know who the customer is — whoever is paying for the product or service.

Those involved in developing and leading training should also strive to increase value for the customer. However, it can be easy to lose track of who that customer is. There really are two customers. The first is the worker who needs the training. The goal here is to do everything possible to help them develop the skills they need to excel in their job. The second is the employer who’s paying everyone’s paycheck, because ultimately training should always be directly aligned with helping the company reach a key business goal. So keep your training focused on your students’ needs and know what business goal your training supports.

Reduce Waste

One of the ways lean manufacturers provide more value at less expense for their customers is by identifying and reducing waste in the production process. Trainers can learn a big lesson here, and it’s one that’s often neglected. All training materials should be designed to teach workers to perform a task, skill or other behavior on the job. Always identify that desired skill(s), develop learning objectives to match, and then only create training materials that directly support teaching your workers to satisfy the learning objective and perform the task on the job.

If there’s something in your training materials that doesn’t directly support the learning objective or there’s something that is “nice to know” instead of “need to know,” it’s waste and you should get rid of it. Likewise, your tests should only evaluate your workers’ ability to satisfy the learning objectives. In training, less is more, and more is waste.

Go to the Gemba

Gemba is a Japanese word that roughly translates to “at the site” or “the real area.” In lean, it means at the work area. Lean manufacturing gurus are big on going to the gemba because that’s where they can see what’s working and what’s not. Even better, they can take time to talk to workers, get to know them and get their opinions as well.

Trainers can benefit from going to the gemba, too. In the work area, you can get to know the employees better, find out what kind of people they are (this can help you develop better training materials for them), and watch them perform their job tasks. You can also check to see if they’re putting their training to work and can help determine if they need additional future training as well.

As previously mentioned, the workers you train are your customers in a sense. What better way to increase value for your customers than to go watch and talk with them at their work?

Give Employees a Voice

It’s not just about watching employees. Lean manufacturers are committed to giving their employees a voice in helping the company reduce waste and become more efficient. Employees are actively encouraged to report waste and provide suggestions for efficiencies at work, and so they are active participants in the lean culture.

In the same way, it’s important for trainers to give workers a voice in the training culture. Provide active training sessions that allow lots of practice as well as questions and answers. Let workers choose when training is held and what’s covered (as much as possible). Ask them what types of training they like best. Let them lead the training while you watch and listen in when you can. Use post-training surveys or other means to get your workers’ opinions about the effectiveness of the training. The more actively you involve employees in their training, the more effective the results.

Map the Value Stream

Lean manufacturers diagram their production processes, including all the material, information and work flows, to analyze the current state as well as brainstorm more efficient future states. Trainers can do something similar by diagramming their training programs and looking for inefficiencies and waste. For example, look at the training someone in a given job must complete. Are there unnecessary redundancies? Are they currently completing training that they don’t need? On the flip side, is there training they need that they’re not getting?

You can also take a closer look at individual training activities. Again, look for unnecessary training, redundant training, missing training, etc. Remember, your goal is to minimize waste in order to increase value, with value being the learning necessary for workers to perform their jobs efficiently.

Create Flow

Lean manufacturers strive to create processes with “flow.” This means materials, information, workers and everything else move through the production process without interruption. As a trainer, your goal should be to create flow, too. You can do this by mapping your value stream and making sure you’re providing the right training, as already mentioned. Another way to do this is to focus on creating job aids and just-in-time training (JIT). Job aids are not truly training but are a supplement to your training materials. They are references that workers can check on the job to get information when and where they need it. For example, you could create a job aid that’s a table of codes needed by a machine operator and then post the aid by the machine so the worker can check it when necessary.

Just-in-time training is training that’s delivered to workers immediately before they need it. You might provide it just before introducing a new machine to a work area. Delivering the training just before it’s needed is more effective than delivering it months earlier and hoping people will remember (which they won’t).

Aim for Continuous Improvement

Perhaps the single most fundamental concept of lean manufacturing is to continuously improve. Lean manufacturers never sit on their laurels and say “good enough.” They are constantly analyzing, evaluating and seeking employee insight to reduce waste, make their processes more efficient and provide more value.

Trainers can benefit from this same devotion to continuous improvement. Don’t just train workers and assume you’re done. Collect and analyze data from tests and on-the-job performance to see how your workers are doing and look for areas where you can improve your training. Keep reviewing your training materials’ “value stream map” to ensure you’re providing the right materials to the right workers at the right time. Also, continue learning the fundamentals of workforce training and add any new approaches you learn to your training program.

Corporate Training the Lean Way

Workforce learning and development is a big field of study, and there’s certainly more to be said than what has been covered above. But if you have a level of familiarity with these lean manufacturing concepts, you should find it helpful to make sure these familiar concepts characterize your training program as well as your manufacturing processes. 

About the Author

Jeffrey Dalto is the customer success specialist with Convergence Training. For more than 20 years, he has worked with many companies — big and small — to design, create and improve their training programs. To read more of his articles, visit the Convergence Training blog.