Lean tool box: Cascade teaching, and how to use it

Jamie Flinchbaugh
Tags: lean manufacturing

Applying the right lean tool for a given problem follows directly from mastery of the lean principles. What follows is an explanation of “cascade teaching,” the proper way to apply it within an organization, and its connection to lean principles.

Proper uses of cascade teaching:

  1. To provide standardized education of lean, either broadly or topic-focused, to the entire organization
  2. To provide top-down connection through the organization, establishing leadership expectations and practices

Improper uses of this lean tool

  1. Cascade teaching as something good for every level below the primary leader, but which fails to include the leader
  2. Cascade teaching without proper change management preparations will likely create skepticism and cynicism in the organization

Description of the Tool – How-to:

Cascade teaching is a method to drive knowledge into the organization. It is done in order to provide specific knowledge throughout the organization in a standardized way. Two elements must be standardized – both the content, or message, and the process, or design. Let’s take an example to understand the process. The CEO may begin teaching something – a lean overview, a concept like continuous flow or a tool such as error-proofing. The CEO would teach the vice presidents at the company. The vice presidents, having taken the class from their boss, now prepare to teach their direct reports such as the plant managers. The plant managers then prepare and teach their staffs. The staff members then prepare and teach the people who report to them. This continues through to the front-line employees so that everyone has been provided the same teaching and messages.

There are two primary benefits to this approach. First, when the teaching is received from the boss, the student is likely to take it much more seriously than if it is taught by a corporate staff member. Second, if the executive or manager must teach it, then they must prepare to teach, and this helps extend the learning process much further than if they were just a student. These two benefits are very significant and powerful in spreading a message and creating alignment within the organization.

There are some barriers to success. One, it is hard to maintain a standard message when each leader is responsible for teaching. This barrier can be combated, although not eliminated, by preparing extensive teacher’s notes for the managers.

Two, managers are not trained to be effective instructors. This barrier can be mitigated by coupling each instructor with a trained instructor who can help them with the process, coach them on teaching, and take over any extremely facilitation heavy activities.

Third, it is hard to schedule. Instead of open classes that people can attend as their schedule allows, you are asking a manager and his entire staff to be at the same place at the same time for an extended time. The only solution to this is the strong emphasis on the importance of everyone participating, and then making it happen.

Fourth, the executive’s or manager’s behavior may not be consistent with what is being taught, leading to cynicism. This is a barrier regardless of who is doing the teaching, but is somewhat reduced through the cascade teaching approach.

It is best to have an extended plan for cascade teaching; don’t just do one module and then ask "what’s next?" Because of the significant work that you must do to remove barriers, it is best to leverage this over an extended series of cascade teaching. Have a plan for this. What will be taught first, second, third? With what frequency will new classes be distributed? How will we link one course to the next? If cascade teaching is done for more than a year, executives will eventually choose this process to send any important message to the organization.

The teaching that will be done, of course, must be designed. The approach to this will depend on the organization and the capabilities of the senior executive leading the effort. It may be designed by the individual executive or by a central support staff or even by an outside organization. The designer of the materials must then prepare the first teacher to do the teaching. They may also be involved in preparing other levels of management to do the same teaching, depending on need and availability.

Variations on the Tool

The practice can start at any level, depending on what level the teaching needs are identified. For example, if a plant manager decides to transform safety practices in the plant, a cascade teaching program may begin at that level and be driven down throughout the organization.

How the Tool Relates to Lean Rules and Principles

Cascade teaching applies the principle of Create a Learning Organizationby strongly valuing learning. It turns leaders into teachers. And, in order to be teachers, they must also be learners. The exchange between boss and subordinate, or mentor and student, begins to build a learning culture.

Cascade teaching also Establishes High Agreement of Both What and How. Through teaching, the company’s approach to a practice or tool is taught in a standardized way, providing a consistent application among students.

About the author:

Jamie Flinchbaugh is a partner with the Lean Learning Center of Novi, Mich. The Lean Learning Center was established in 2001 to help companies overcome the barriers to successful lean transformation. In conjunction with its corporate partner Achievement Dynamics, a provider of management consulting, the center provides a full complement of lean transformation services. Partners Jamie Flinchbaugh and Andy Carlino have recently authored a book titled “ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Lean”, published by the SME. For more information, visit www.hitchhikersguidetolean.com .

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