Learn how to Learn

John Shook’s latest column on lean.org is titled “Was NUMMI a Success?” He adds some interesting thought to the mix of the ongoing post-mortem on GM and NUMMI.

John argues (successfully, I think) that Toyota’s objectives for NUMMI were to learn how to take their system outside of the safe cocoon of Toyota City in Japan; and that GM’s objectives, aside from getting an idle plant going again, were to learn how to make small cars profitibly, and learn Toyota’s system.

So both companies were in the game to learn.

But Toyota had a huge advantage.

And if there’s one thing Toyota knows how to do it is how to learn, especially where it’s important down at the operational levels of the company – a characteristic that is the embodiment of the learning organization. Toyota’s biggest strength is that it [had] learned how to learn, and it was that approach to learning that defined its approach to NUMMI from day one.

Just as strong as Toyota’s advantage here, was GM’s deficit. While they clearly learned about the system, and indeed implemented pieces of it in new plants, there is no objective evidence that GM ever really “got” that this is much more than an industrial engineering model.

It is a model about continuously challenging your understanding and beliefs.

We start teaching it deep down in the process, “Why did the machine stop?” but the intent is for this thinking to find its way to the very top and learn how to ask “Why are sales 12% under projection this month?”

Toyota has learned some hard lessons about what they did not understand in the last year. I only hope we will be able to say the same about our public gamble on GM’s learning.

One thought to “Learn how to Learn”

  1. Well said, Mark. What continues to amaze me is how seldom people in organizations (even lean ones) ask this question about all the other waste that consumes knowledge workers’ time: crappy meetings, email time sucks, etc. Whey don’t they place a premium on eliminating the inefficiency in that kind of daily production?

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