Articles / Introduction to Lean Learning

If you’ve been around organisations for a while, you will have come across “Lean”. It’s an approach to managing processes that was developed by Toyota, but is now seen across the manufacturing, software development and service sectors.

Lean is basically about getting the right things to the right place, at the right time, in the right quantities, while minimising waste and being flexible and open to change.

NHS Institute for Innovation and Improvement

Lean thinking is based on a handful of core principles:

  • Identify customers and specify value
  • Identify and map the value stream
  • Create flow by eliminating waste
  • Respond to customer pull
  • Pursue perfection

Together they become a philosophy, “the way things are done“.

Lean Learning is about taking these principles and applying them to the context of learning:

Identify customers and specify value

  • Who are the customers for the service you’re offering?
  • What value do they gain from your service – from their perspective?

Let’s assume your customers are the learners themselves (big assumption, I know!)

From the learner’s perspective, what are they getting from your service? Is it a qualification? The ability to do a particular job? Help to perform a task?

Identify and map the value stream

  • Look at every activity that takes place, from beginning to end, that is involved in providing the service to the customer
  • Draw that journey in a process map

Your journey will probably start with the point of first contact with the learner. It could be a website, a prospectus, an advert.

From that point, list out everything that happens. Consider each stage of administration, content production, teaching, content delivery, assessment, certification, support.

Draw that list in a process map, known as a value chain, showing how you provide your service to the customer.

Create flow by eliminating waste

  • Separate the steps in the value chain into two groups; those that add value for the customer (actual work) and those that don’t (waste)
  • Then sub-divide the waste steps into those that need to be done but don’t add value (auxiliary work) and those that are pure waste
  • During this process you will have to challenge a lot of assumptions and core beliefs!

There are a number of different types of waste that you can find listed on Lean websites. They include:

  • Transportation – does moving something around add value to the customer? Eg. Travelling to a training room
  • Inventory – does keeping something in storage add value to the customer? Eg. Printed workbooks
  • Waiting – when nothing is happening then where is the value to the customer? Eg. Waiting for a course to start
  • Over-processing – are I doing more than the customer needs? Eg. creating elearning when a one page document would do
  • Over-production – are I creating more than the customer needs? Eg. Large batches of printed materials
  • Defects – do I have to fix problems? Eg. administration errors
  • Non-used employee talent – do I have people who are working below their optimum? Eg. Highly qualified classroom assistants

When waste is eliminated, then you end up with a smooth flow of work, all adding value to the customer.

Respond to customer pull

  • Only produce or do something when the demand is there

In learning circles, that is often known as “just in time” rather than “just in case”.

Matching the needs of the learner (at the time that need becomes real) is the primary objective.

Pursue perfection

  • Doing “Lean” isn’t a one-off operation
  • It’s a philosophy of continuous improvement that constantly tries to achieve a perfect state of customer-driven work with zero waste and maximum flow

Continuous improvement is closely linked to the concept of the Learning Organisation:

Learning organizations are characterized by total employee involvement in a process of collaboratively conducted, collectively accountable change directed towards shared values or principles.

(Watkins and Marsick 1992: 118)

Many organisations have implemented a “Kaizen” approach to continuous improvement. This has characteristics such as:

  • Improvements are based on many small changes
  • Ideas come from the workers themselves, which means they are more likely to be easier to implement
  • All employees are continually seeking ways to improve their own performance

How this gets implemented in your organisation will be unique to you.

If you want to explore more, then join my Lean Learning Masterclass (see below to buy tickets directly).


Cardiff University: The Five Principles of Lean Thinking

Wikipedia: Muda

Wikipedia: Continuous Improvement

Infed: The Learning Organisation

Kaizen Institute: Definition of Kaizen

Watkins, K. and Marsick, V. (1992) ‘Building the learning organization: a new role for human resource developers’, Studies in Continuing Education 14(2): 115-29.

Sell Tickets through Eventbrite

Posted: 03 December 2014

Tags: Learning