Shifting the Learning Zone

A client and fellow lean learner today shared a cool extension of the Toyota Kata model for establishing target conditions.

Mike Rother’s Improvement Kata Handbook establishes a couple of key concepts about where a target condition should be set. The key is that the target should be somewhere beyond the learner’s knowledge threshold:


The knowledge threshold marks the point where the process is not yet fully understood. Setting a target inside that boundary is simply a matter of executing a plan, no learning is required.

A target beyond the knowledge threshold is true improvement, because we don’t know how to do it yet. We just have a reasonable belief we can get there.

This is the concept of challenging the learner, depicted here:


Here is another way to look at it – thanks to Matt – though I have altered the geometry a bit here.


In the “Comfort Zone” we are, well, comfortable. This is the daily routine, things are predictable. As our brains are wired to seek predictability, most people seek out activities they already know how to perform.

Beyond the knowledge threshold is the “Learning Zone.”

We know from the principle of Deep Practice that skill only develops when we are striving to perform just beyond the limit of our capability – on the edge of failure.

It a zone where small mistakes can be made, realized quickly, and corrected immediately for another try.

If, though, we ask someone to do something that he perceives carries a high risk of failure, he enters the “Fear Zone.”

The boundaries for these zones are individual, and are a mix of the person’s skill and knowledge base + his tolerance for risk.

What I like about this model, though, is that can be extended.

Our brains are incredible simulation machines. We can imagine an activity or event, and feel the same emotional response we would have if it were real.

But we have a heavy, survival based, bias for loss avoidance. Simply put, we have a stronger drive to avoid loss than we do to seek reward. This is why people hold on to investments that are tanking, and remain in bad jobs and unhealthy relationships. The predicted sense of loss is actually stronger than what would actually be felt.

This explains the seemingly backward effect of high stakes incentives that Dan Pink talks about in his book Drive and in this TED Talk. (Skip ahead to 1:50 to get to the main points.)

If the leadership climate sets up fear of loss as a consequence of failure, we have a very strong force pushing the boundary of the fear zone to the left:


But what we want to do is, over time, shift the learning zone to the right. That is, the team member is comfortable in increasingly complex situations – her skill levels for dealing with the unexpected are much higher.

So how do we get there?


We can look at the highest performing people, and look at the social support networks that nearly all of them have.

If you want performance, you have to (1) remove fear and (2) provide safety for experimentation and learning.

One final note – changing the culture of an organization is not easy, and the appropriate tools to do so are highly situational. You can’t just say “You’re empowered” and expect a transition. More about that in a few days.

Struggling to Learn

One of the challenges of teaching and consulting is resisting the temptation to give people the answers. Honestly, I like giving people the answers. It feels genuinely helpful, and it provides a nice ego boost.

But according to this article on Time’s “Time Ideas” site by Anne Murphy Paul titled “Why Floundering is Good,” that isn’t the best way to teach.

In fact, it can hinder learning.

The key point is summarized at the end:

… we need to “design [teaching] for productive failure” by building it into the learning process. Kapur has identified three conditions that promote this kind of beneficial struggle. First, choose problems to work on that “challenge but do not frustrate.” Second, provide learners with opportunities to explain and elaborate on what they’re doing. Third, give learners the chance to compare and contrast good and bad solutions to the problems.

Right now we are (hopefully) in the midst of a paradigm shift in how lean practitioners and teachers go about what we do.

Traditionally, a lot of us have simply given people the answers, or at least strong suggestions. Given the time constraints and overly ambitious targets of a typical 5 day event, that is understandable.

But now we are starting to see these events as skill building, which means learning, which means the teams need time to muddle through.

I have been structuring my approach quite differently for about a year now. I’ll be the first to admit that I, too, am figuring it out, reinforcing what works well, altering what needs to work better. These days I am far more comfortable letting things move through this struggle in order to set up deeper understanding once the light does come on.

The trick is to let them fail small, and not let them fail big. The problem has to have a solution that is within reach, or they will only come away frustrated.

Thus, teaching is becoming a matter of judging the knowledge and skill threshold and making sure they don’t take on too much at once. That is part of respect for people.

One problem at a time. Single factor experiments.

A great deal of the power in the “Coaching Kata” is turning out to be the question “Which *one* [obstacle] are you addressing now?” as it rules out working on everything at once.

Decisions, Decisions

How many “If-Then” steps do your team members have to deal with in the course of their routine work?

Every one of those branch points is a decision. It is a point where the team member must memorize decision criteria and the correct choice(s).

Each “If-Then” in the process flow potentially doubles the number of possible paths the process can take.

Each decision is an opportunity to make a mistake.

The more complex a process, the more time and experience the team member requires to master it.

Mental bandwidth is limited.

The more attention they must expend to do it right, the less they can devote to thinking about how it could be done better.

How complicated a world do you create for people trying to do the work?

The more “flexible” your human interface with the process, the more complicated it is for the person who has to use it.

Do they have to enter ad-hoc query criteria into computers to pull information they routinely need every day?

How many decision criteria are things that people “just know?”

How often does someone encounter a problem or new situation and get a verbal instruction from the supervisor on how to handle it? What happens then? Maybe a general announcement at the next team meeting, if you’re lucky?

Go down to your work area.

Watch how people interact with the routine work.

Each of those decision points is an opportunity to simplify your process flow and make life a little less stressful for all of you.

“Find the Bright Spots”

One of the problems facing all of us – from pundits to practitioners alike – is “too much information.” We look at a complex state, like the way Toyota operates, try do describe it in great detail, break it down, build models, and say “OK, make it look like that.”

So one of the most common questions is “Where do I start?”

The platitude is “start with 5S” but in reality, that doesn’t really work very well either. It doesn’t really drive a cultural and behavioral shift. If you have to audit people into compliance, that’s how it is working for you.

What we know today is that TPS is much less about how it looks than it is about what people do.

I have seen a handful of other companies who have managed to get a true continuous improvement culture running (at least for a while). There is something very different about them vs. a standard “lean implementation.”

Yet these companies have the same caliber of people, the same resources, the same baseline problems as everyone else. They operate in the same environment, and yet operate differently.

A key point in Switch is “find the bright spots.” That is – look at who has success in the same environment, and grasp what few factors are actually making a difference.

Perhaps, rather than “looking for waste” we ought to be looking at what few things make a big difference. Just a thought.

If The Student Hasn’t Learned…

The teacher hasn’t taught.

This article, titled “Why China is Not Ready for Lean Manufacturing” presents an account of trying to teach “lean manufacturing” in a Chinese factory. The experience is summed up in a couple of key paragraphs:

The team arrived in Dongguan and went to work giving an overview class on Lean techniques. The factory workers seemed attentive and interested in learning. The next day, the Silicon Valley Lean team gathered the people from the assembly line to begin the process of working on the quality problem. After 3 hours, the Lean team ended the session in utter frustration. No one participated. No one would identify problems on the line. No one knew how to approach gathering or analyzing data. No one volunteered.

So what happened? The training was adequate and the Lean principles and methods are sound and easily understood. Why weren’t the Chinese factory workers participating?

Why indeed?

The author’s conclusion is that Chinese worker’s culture and values conflict with the idea of collaboration and contributing ideas to improve production quality and efficiency.

But the article brought up two separate thoughts.

First, there is nothing magic about Western culture. These concepts can, and do, fall just as flat in the USA and Europe as they did in this factory. The problem in these cases has less to do with the national culture, and more to do with attempting to apply a rote approach to teaching.

Second, the result cited here was exactly the opposite of my own experience in a Chinese factory.

It took some persistence, and it took some deliberate steps to remove fear from the factory floor, but in the end we had these Chinese workers making some very innovative contributions.

400ArmBoringMock01 This photo is an old boring mill. It was a slow old boring mill. We needed to squeeze cycle time out of the process to make the projected takt time. We showed the workers some photos of other teams’ efforts to mock-up fixtures so they could quickly try out ideas. The workers, after a few false starts, constructed what you see here, and ended up with a pretty good set of fixtures that could be loaded and unloaded quickly. After some trials, they figured out on their own that they could fit two fixtures on the platform, which allowed them to be unloading and loading one while boring on the other.


One of the machinists complained that the machine could run faster if it had a liquid cooling system. With encouragement, he designed and built a simple, but working, cooling system for the cutting tools. (The steel box in the foreground with a pump on it.) The clever part was the chip filter made from a bottle cap and a nail.

400BucketCellMock01 Another team was working on a welding cell. They ended up designing and fabricating more efficient fixtures than had been provided by the engineers. Then they set out to develop the most efficient way to get parts positioned, to load them quickly into the fixture, and weld up the part.



What was different?400CellWorkDesign

First, we didn’t do any classroom education. Not quite true. We showed them photos of really good welding fixtures that had been designed by a sister company. That took about 30 minutes. We explained what features made those fixtures good. Then we continuously encouraged them to try things so they could learn on their own. And try they did.

We didn’t ask them to go beyond mock-up. We fully expected to take their ideas, turn them over to engineers to get them finalized and drawn up, then have the fixtures fabricated. But the workers took it on their own initiative to dig through the (embarrassingly large) amount of scrap metal out back, bring in what they needed, machine parts, scrounge others, and built their fixtures in steel.

A number of ideas were things I could clearly see would not work. I knew that heat distortion from welding would make a particular fixture design difficult (impossible!) to unload after welding. I could tell them it wouldn’t work, or I could let them try it on their own. I chose the path that would engage their curiosity and let them learn through experience. They became better welders for it.

Honestly – this was a slow time while we were working out other issues with market positioning, sales, design and sourcing decisions, and most of this activity was intended to keep people busy and engaged. But what we ended up with was production-ready work cells, all built upon ideas from the workers.

So why did I tell this little story?

First, I will admit that I was pretty proud of these guys. This was a few years ago now, but it was fun blowing away everyone’s stereotypes about Chinese factories and Chinese workers.

But I wanted to make a key point.

Instead of looking for cultural reasons why “this won’t work here” we kept faith that, if the initial response was silence and non-participation, there was something that we needed to address in the way we taught, and in the environment we were creating.

Indeed, what the Chinese culture brings to kaizen is a centuries-old tradition of improvising with what you have to get something done. This is a great strength that can be hard to find in cultures with longer traditions of wealth.

Just as we were encouraging these workers to try things so they could learn what did work, we had to do the same thing. We didn’t give up after three hours. Eventually we managed to remove the fear and bring out the best these people had to offer.

Classroom education is actually a very poor way to teach people how to study a process, understand it and improve it. Sometimes it kind of works, but I think that is because it is marginally effective if all of the other conditions are right. Perhaps in some cultures that starting point is past the limit of what classroom education can handle. That isn’t a problem with the culture, it is revealing the inherent weakness in the approach.

There is no cookbook. There is only a clear objective, and good faith effort to keep trying until a solution is found.

Epiloge: Yes, this factory got into production. However the parent company could never get traction in this market with this product and recently made a decision to close this plant and pursue a different strategic direction. That is not a reflection at all on the people who did the work in these photos. “10 Lean Things Not to Say”

Fellow blogger Mark Grabon recently posted “10 Things I Wish Lean Practitioners Wouldn’t Say in 2010” on his

I like it enough that my thoughts won’t fit in an appropriate comment on his blog, so I’ll write them here. Go back and read his post first, though, or you won’t make sense of this one.

Added last: This turned into a stream of consciousness that ranges on a variety of topics. You are getting a bit of insight into how my mind works here.  🙂

“Lean them out” — “Get them lean” — “What would lean say?” — “Is that lean?”

In the context of “lean production” or “lean manufacturing,” the word “lean” is an adjective. It is not a noun, it is not a verb. I would argue that you can’t even get agreement about what it means in a room of “experts.” Today we have spliced other words to it, like “Sigma” that dilute it even more – implying that it needs something else to be complete without every saying what was missing in the first place.

The word “lean” has taken on a life of its own. As Mark points out, it even issues judgments as in “What would lean say about…” as though phrasing the question this way somehow quotes an objective source instead of someone’s opinion.

Sensei says…

Aside from introducing the word “lean” into the vernacular, Womack and Jones also made having a “Sensei” an imperative. Now I am seeing consultants, even non-Japanese ones, brand themselves as “Sensei.” Worse, there are consultants and other agencies who preport to “certify you” as a “Sensei.”

As Mark points out, the Western use of the term differs from the everyday use in Japan. Our meaning likely comes from martial arts classes. When I was at a previous company, people I worked with tried to apply the term to me. Like Mark, I objected. As they were insisting, I “allowed” them to use the word “sempai” and told them that was just someone who had been in the martial arts class a week longer. In reality, the only thing that differentiates teachers and students in the business is a bit of experience and something to say. But, as I said previously, what sets apart a master is that he has mastered learning.

Counting kaizen events.

Bluntly, this is one of the most effective ways I know to derail a journey of continuous improvement. The behaviors that are driven by counting kaizen events are counter to the very things we are trying to accomplish. If you aren’t sure why, ask yourself if a team member taking his own initiative and drilling some holes in a block of wood so that he can hold his bolts is a kaizen event or not.

Variations on the theme of Buy In / Resistance to Change are pervasive in the forums and in real life. And professional kaizen practitioners are not immune to denying that someone has found a breakthrough that they hadn’t.

But, sorry folks, there is nowhere on Earth where you can avoid the necessity to understand other people’s needs and feelings and take them into account. Not, at least, where you are dealing with other people. So, even if you are in a company that totally “gets it,” you had best develop the skills to do this.

Why? Because you aren’t going to “lean anybody out” without their total, complete and enthusiastic cooperation. The reason is simple. Until they are doing it themselves, without prompting, without being pushed, without being boxed in by coercive approaches, it simply isn’t working. You can’t force people to be creative problem solvers. They have to like doing it.

This is the challenge of the true change agent. Like what I said in the previous post about job shops, if you aren’t getting clear answers about how to get people involved, you are talking to the wrong person. Try someone else.

And finally is the jargon of our community. Some of it is Japanese, other terms are inherited from other disciplines like organizational development.

Jargon has two purposes. One is it provides people in a specific field or organization a clear means of communicating with one another. The legal profession, for example, is full of Latin terms that require paragraphs to define. So are military organizations. And an organization will often have a language of its own that members use internally. You won’t know the difference between a blueline, a greenline or an IW unless you have worked in Boeing Commercial Airplanes.

Toyota has this corporate jargon. They have redefined a fair number of common Japanese terms that, today, carry very specific meanings within the Toyota context. Kanban, jidoka, yamazumi and even kaizen are some of those words. That is all well and fine for Toyota. It gives them a common shorthand so they can communicate more efficiently.

The more insidious use of jargon, though, is for a group to use it to exclude others from the “in” circle. Rather than being a shorthand to enable communication within the group, jargon becomes an obfuscation to disable communication, establish a sense of mystery, and differentiate those who “know” from those who are not yet enlightened.

So how do I feel about Japanese jargon in this context? Only you know. Look in the mirror. Check your purpose. Why do you feel the need to use it? How do you feel when you use it? Do you feel that it shows you know more than someone who does not use it? Do you take pride in making elaborate explanations of these terms? If so, I feel you are doing it for the wrong reasons. I don’t say not to use it. I do say to check your intentions. Are you doing so out of respect for people, or to elevate your own status? Then act according to your own conscience.

I have gone a lot deeper into this stuff than Mark did, and I am not nearly as well organized. Ah well. You get the benefit of seeing one of my raw brain dumps.

Values Checklists

I am in the process of going through a lot of old files and filling up recycle bins. Most of this stuff was collected back in first half of the 1990’s when the world wide web was just gaining critical mass, and a half day on Alta Vista, or the brand new search engine, Google, turned up new stuff all of the time. It disappeared just as fast, so the rule was “if you want it, copy it.”

A lot of this material comes from the TQM community. But what struck me enough to sit down for a minute and write about is checklists that include values like “respect for people,” “openness and honesty” and “teamwork.”

This was an era when companies were creating “values statements” and publishing them.

Many of them followed by trying to measure compliance with those values, putting them in performance management reviews, etc.

Of course since the mid 1990’s we know better. . . don’t we?

Values are tricky things. Certainly if a company is sincerely trying to change its culture, the values are going to have to shift. The question I have is not whether this is true, but whether writing them down and trying to enforce them is an effective way to go about it.

Consider how a company with a long, entrenched culture of conflict avoidance is going to transition itself into one which truly respects people?

In a conflict avoidance culture, the people who are truly open and honest tend to ruffle feathers and find themselves in the “out” crowd, isolated in the eddies, and often are never told why.

The people who have flourished in that culture now are saying they want to change it.

Let’s assume that the handful of people at the top – whose behavior has likely been rewarded by promotion throughout their careers and possibly even molded the rest of the organization, can even see that they have not been respectful of people.

If they truly want to change the values of the organization, the only way I can see for this to happen is if they, personally, are totally open and honest that (1) What they have been doing is holding the company back, and is disrespectful of people; (2) They intend to change it starting today; and (3) Ask for help and support from others around them to make a personal change.

If these things don’e happen, then it really doesn’t matter what they put on the wall or say they want everyone else to do.

This is a tough one. It is what Peter Senge calls “personal mastery” and what Jim Collins talks about in “Level 5 Leadership.”

Honestly, I don’t think it is a hard prerequisite for a fair degree of success. I know a few companies who have done pretty will without ever addressing this issue.

But I also know they are hitting the limits of what they can accomplish. As I am someone who sees things in terms of their potential I just wanted to take a couple of minutes and toss this one out there for everyone to think about while we (in the USA at least) stuff ourselves with turkey.

Are You Ready for the Upturn?

Many pundits out there think the economy has hit bottom. If the last couple of cycles are any indication, when things start picking up again, it is going to happen fast. As people scramble to retain or gain market share they are going to want more and want it now.

And, if the last couple of times are any indication, many businesses are going to be caught totally flat footed and struggling to increase their output. I would also imagine that the “never again” vows that they made as things were going down will, once again, go out the window.

So, short of building up a lot of inventory and/or investing in excess capacity, what can you do to be more prepared?

Continue to work toward the ideal of one-piece-flow.

This does a few things for you. If you do it right, you will progressively collapse the throughput time of your process. This will make you more responsive to changes and make you less vulnerable to forecast errors.

More importantly, though, is the understanding you gain as you do this work. You want to know the cycle time constraint of each and every process in the value chain. With that information, you can predict what will constrain you from reaching any given level of production, and start to work on those constraints. That does not mean you increase production, nor does it mean that you add capital equipment. It means you know exactly what you are capable of doing, and exactly what you must do to get to the next level. In other words, you have a plan that you can put into motion at any time.

Work to standardize and stabilize your processes.

This effort helps make your work more ready for people. Many operations today are running well below their capacity, and they have lost their performance edge. Problems are going unnoticed and unaddressed because they aren’t really affecting production right now. That will change, and change fast, in a ramp-up situation.

Worse, unstable and poorly understood processes translate to long, error-prone learning cycles for new people, or current people in doing different work.

Re-energize your daily kaizen and problem solving and start seeking out the things that are disrupting the work. That investment will not only develop your ability to respond quickly and robustly to growth, it will develop people’s skills as well.

Develop your people and organization.

This will help your people become more ready for the work.

Things may be slow today, but do you know who you would put into your next leadership positions as they open up? Have you developed those potential leaders? Have you thought through how you will organize and support the work as business expands?

The more preparation you can make now, the easier it will be when you get into a fast-moving dynamic growth period. You will already have a baseline plan, so you will only need to assess the situation, modify as appropriate, and carry it out. The more of this planning you can do now, the more thinking you will be able to put into execution.

Even people who are already in leadership positions can probably use skills development. There are a few easy things you can do that will pay great dividends in a fast-flux environment.

Look into the TWI programs. These address crucial skills that line leaders need to succeed. Ideally, people would demonstrate those skills before being put into leadership positions.

The side benefit is that these programs give people skills they can use today to make the workplace safer, more consistent, and more stable. In a growth situation, Job Instruction gives you a standard method to bring new people on board, or to flex people quickly into different work and get them up to speed.

Free up as much capacity as possible.

The bottom line results of kaizen are seen primarily in the form of additional capacity – you are able to produce more with the same resources. You might not need that additional capacity right now, but if you are living within your means today, you can put that additional capacity in your hip pocket. Then, the first round of sales growth can be met without any additional resources. The better you are at kaizen, the longer you can hold your resource levels the same while growing output. The only way to get better is to practice, and just like learning to play the piano, this means practice every day.

Understand your supply base.

How well do you know your suppliers? How quickly can they respond if your needs change dramatically? Do you know which supplier controls how quickly you can increase output? Do you know at what point that bottleneck shifts to a different supplier?

The other thing to consider here is the length of that supply chain. If you are bringing in things from overseas, there is one fundamental that many people try to wish away:

No matter how hard you try, you can’t change what is on the boat.

That might seem obvious in saying it, but it is amazing how many times that four or five week transportation time ends up negating any “cost savings” in lower prices.

I am not saying this is good or bad. I am saying to look beyond invoice and transportation prices and understand your enterprise value chain as a dynamic, moving thing with a response time to change. That response time becomes critical when things are changing. Know what that response time is, and manage to it. If you don’t like the answers, you have to alter the system somehow.

Bottom line: The time to get good is now.

When you are scrambling to meet demand, “there won’t be time” for kaizen, and there will be even less time to learn how to do it. The time to get good at it is now. Your alternative is growing your cost structure at least as fast as sales are growing. Experience has shown that your cost structure likely grows faster than sales, and additional earnings come only with non-linear growth – relying on volume to make up for ever thinner margins. That might look OK in the short-term, but it is a strategy of becoming ever less efficient.

The better prepared you are for the upside, the stronger you will be the the inevitable next cycle.

Continuous Erosion

“Sustaining the gains” is a frequent topic of discussion in the continuous improvement world. Often the discussion degenerates into a rant about “management commitment.”

But in the real world, people generally don’t sabotage improvements on purpose. (Though I have seen it happen, but only once.) The mechanism is far more subtle.

Before we get into what happens after improvements are made, let’s look at a common improvement process itself.

In many companies, the primary method for making improvements is through special events or projects. These are usually planned, organized and led by a staff specialist.

Although the exact methods and words vary, the general process usually looks something like this:

  • Identify an opportunity, select an area for improvement.
  • Analyze the current state.
  • Select an improvement team.
  • Teach the team members how to apply the improvement tools.
  • Facilitate the development of improvement ideas.
  • Work with the team members to implement them.
  • Wrap up with a report or presentation, including remaining action items for management.

A variation on this is where the team is chartered, and it is up to them to identify an opportunity. This approach was more common in the late 1980’s than it is today.

This process actually works. It is capable of making pretty dramatic changes over a short period of time, often only a few days.

So why do the results erode? Or put another way, what is the problem?

Take a look at the routine decisions that are made during normal work, especially the ones that result in some change to the process. Those decisions must be made, because people have to get something done. The question comes down to whether those decisions result in improving the new process, or eroding it somehow.

Once things are in operation, some kind of unforeseen event always happens. Guaranteed. It can be something that the improvement team didn’t think of. It can be a piece of malfunctioning equipment. Maybe there is a material shortage or a defective part is delivered. The same things happen in administrative processes, only the words are different. Incomplete information arrives.

It could even be a deliberate decision. A production rate change. A software upgrade. Making room for some other activity.

All of these things, no matter how small or inconsequential, force decisions to be made. “How do we deal with this this and get production going again?”

The person making that decision is either:

  1. Fully capable of applying kaizen principles, and applies them in a solution to the problem.
  2. Is not fully fully capable of applying kaizen principles, but knows that, and seeks assistance in finding a solution to the problem.
  3. Is not fully capable, may or may not know this, and does the best he can to get production back on track.

Both (1) and (2) result in making the system better, more robust and more responsive.

(3) usually results in a little bit of erosion. Variation is accommodated, things are made a bit more complex, the layout is now less than optimal, the old process does not work as designed anymore so the team member must improvise a bit. That, in turn, introduces more variation into the process, and usually drives a cascade of these little decisions.

If there is no mechanism for problem escalation (and if there was, we would likely be in (1) or (2) in the first place), then this becomes the new way, and things are steadily creeping closer to where they were before the event happened.

Given enough time (which can be amazingly brief), the process reverts back to where it was, or morphs into something else entirely – but equally wasteful.

Meanwhile the improvement specialists have moved on to the next project. Even if the local leader did ask for assistance, they might not be available, or worse, they tell him to figure it out.

Follow this with an “audit” that dings the local leader for “not supporting the changes” and wonder why he is less than enthusiastic about this kind of help.

Here is the question I want to leave hanging out there:

What was the intent of the kaizen event? (and was that intent accomplished?)

Learn how to Learn

John Shook’s latest column on 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.