The Lean Learning Cycle

The Deming Cycle & Learning

[tweetmeme]Lean Manufacturing is much more than a set of tools.  Lean is a way of thinking that can and should result in a culture change.  Part of the culture change is becoming a learning organization.  Since Lean Practitioners embrace Deming’s Plan – Do – Check – Act cycle (PDCA), it makes sense to utilize PDCA as part of the learning process.

As a leader, you need to create opportunities for your team to learn and to reflect on their new knowledge.  Translating “Plan – Do – Check – Act” into “Learn – Do – Think – Apply” will enhance the learning process:

  1. Learn – You and your team need to be learning daily.  There is the formal training but your learning opportunities are not limited to the classroom.  Some of the best learning opportunities are when mistakes are made and when equipment breaks down.  Dig for the root causes and learn from the mistakes.
  2. Do – Give your team the opportunity to try out what they just learned as soon as possible.  Doing will re-enforce the learning and will help to clear up any misunderstandings.
  3. Think – Make opportunities for your team to reflect on the learning and doing steps.  Regroup after the team tries out what they just learned.  Give them the opportunity to learn from each other as they discuss how step 2 shaped what they learned.  I also recommend that you have discussions about what was learned at the end of classroom training.
  4. Apply – Get your team using their new knowledge as soon as possible.  Training is a classic case of use it or lose it.  They’ll forget quickly.

[tweetmeme]What learning opportunities do you anticipate over the next few days?  How can you apply Learn – Do – Think – Apply to these opportunities?  Will you go the extra mile to make your training great?


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About Christian Paulsen

Christian Paulsen is an Executive Consultant with 20 years of Lean Manufacturing. Chris adds value to organizations by driving process improvement and bottom line savings. Chris intends to help others by sharing the lessons learned after a quarter century of operational leadership, marriage, parenting, and even longer as a Cubs fan. Your comments on this blog are welcome. You can also connect with Chris via LinnkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook in the right sidebar. Chris welcomes your comments. Christian's professional services are available by contacting him through LinkedIn (right side bar)
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15 Responses to The Lean Learning Cycle

  1. Tim McMahon says:

    Nice post. I will have to share this.

  2. Matt Wrye says:

    I liked how you turned PDCA into LDTA. I agree that we have to see every experience as a learning experience. Even our normal day-to-day routines need to be learning experiences. The learning comes by asking the question, “Did I finish this task in the time I thought it would take?” If no, then ask why? If yes, then ask why? also. Either way you are learning something about what you just did. This asking why is the Thinking part you mentioned. Without the thinking we really don’t internalize what we just did. Without internalizing we aren’t learning.

  3. Gerhard W.Kessler says:

    Should be part of every mission statement ……..and be used as a mandatory screen saver !!

  4. Nic Oliver says:

    Hi Christian

    You may also be interested in looking at the work of Peter Honey and Alan Mumford. They are 2 psychologists who created what is known as the learning styles model, looking at how individuals learn.

    More information about them can be found at

    The 4 styles they describe fit nicely with both of the models you describe.

    Light, Love and Peace


  5. Posted on LinkedIn in response to this article:

    from Steve Phillips • Yes, I think so now that I am an adult and have a choice about the learning experience. I pick subjects that relate to my job, show up on time, pay attention, study assignments, think how lessons apply to my job and apply what I have learned.

    from Harlan Goerger • Great post Christian, does remind me of the Dale Carnegie growth cycle, Attitude (I will, I Can) Knowledge, Practice (with a coach), Skill through application. Most training/education stops at knowledge, thus only half the cycle. I see similarities yet differences. Thanks!

  6. “All models are wrong, some are useful”
    Although it is always great to adapt a model to your own specific situation, rather than adopt without conscious thought, I do wonder what the added value you get from your conversion from PDSA to LDTA.
    Nic oliver is absolutely right about the link with learning styles, and I always reinforce this link between people’s preferred learning style and the PDSA model, definitely worth understanding deeper.

    I will explain my views below, which may add additional insights to enhancing its application to learning. For me the PDSA model is a more powerful tool than the proposed LDTA as it misses out some fundamental concepts:

    0. PDSA is a learning model. It IS THE model for daily learning. Companies which apply this are often called “learning organisations”. by changing the model, you miss out that fundamental aspect. I apply it daily myself.
    1. It is a misnomer to think that PDSA is the exclusive domain of lean practitioners. It is a universally applicable model, which I even teach to kids.
    2. PDSA is cyclical, never ending, it focuses on small step change improvements in your learning and understanding, allowing you the opportunity to learn, make mistakes, adapt abandon or accept and move on.
    3. Learn = Study, but learning happens at each stage of PDSA.
    4. making predictions is a key aspect of PDSA, and then comparing this with the outcome of your application. Again I feel this is missed out in LDTA. if you just Do after learning, the risk is that it turns into “trial & error” or “Do-Act”, synonymous with the (honey & mumford) pragmatist approach.
    5. Do is the application of Apply, but in a small step change method. thus minimising the risk to the organisation and individual of creating greater harm if you just were to learn-test it once in a safe environment-review that-apply it wholesale.

    in Summary, I’d rather teach people the PDSA model, link this to their preferred learning styles, and then spend the remainder of their lives enhancing this as one of the fundamental principles of managing themselves and others.

    Looking forward to your response.

    • Dennis,

      Thank you for your thoughtful insight and comments. I’ve been pondering your comments and re-reading the original post for a couple days. I’d certainly agree that PDCA is a key ingredient for learning organizations. My original intent was not to suggest that LDTA should replace the Deming / Shewhart Cycle. LDTA is one way to apply PDCA to learning. My motive is to get the lesson out of the conference room and into application. Training is usually wasted without practical application.

      I’d also agree that PDCA can be used in all walks of life. I was initially surprised with the number of comments I received from people who were not in any of the fields that have widely embraced Deming. I’ve received several comments & e-mails stating how they could apply a Lean principle in their small business or at home. I think that there are many lean principles that are truly universal.

      Thanks again,

  7. Karen Martin says:

    Great discussion! Dennis, I very much agree with your position that PDCA/PDSA is a proven model and there’s no need to reinvent the wheel (my interpretation of your words). DMAIC is an example of this – why wasn’t PDCA good enough? However, in this instance, I agree with Chris. PDCA is a problem-solving model, whereas the stages of adult learning take a similar, but slightly different, path.

    For example, the Plan stage in PDCA has a very specific purpose in problem-solving — defining the problem, getting clear about the current state, defining a target condition, and identifying gaps/roots causes. What would be the similar steps in adult learning? Someone new to Lean may not even know that pull systems exist, let alone the fact that they need to develop the technical expertise to know when and how to apply them.

    Likewise, on the other end of PDSA – adjust or act – I suppose the A could be used to represent the stage when the learner realizes he/she needs deeper learning, so they seek to “adjust” the knowledge they have, but why confuse the learner with terms that are best-suited for the process of identifying and implementing countermeasures to problems?

    The model I use for developing expertise has 4 primary stages: awareness, understanding, skill development (with three sub-stages: beginner, advanced beginner, intermediate), and proficiency/master status. I can share more if you’d like. To Chris’ point, all learning must include application, so getting out of the classroom is essential. But that doesn’t eliminate the need for classroom to grasp necessary theory (depending on the topic).

    The biggest problem I see happening currently in Lean work, is that people are “getting” PDCA but they still don’t have the knowledge and skills to apply effective countermeasures. They are getting much better at understanding and executing the P, C/S and A stages, but are still quite limited in knowing what to do and how to do it for D. And even in the P stage, I find people leading Lean efforts who have no clue how to create true value stream maps.

    So, yes, PDSA/PDCA is THE model for learning organizations. But the actual act of learning and proficiency development could benefit from a model specific to the adult learning process. The most important thing for all of us is knowing what we don’t know and actively seeking the means to develop the understanding and skills we need. Only then will PDSA serve problem-solving in the brilliant way it was intended.

  8. Absolutely agree that training without practical application is wasted. And this starts during the training itself. by ensuring this includes not only theoretical instruction, but a safe opportunity to test out that theory in practice before applying it in the “real world”, followed by self-reflection to compare the outcomes of the testing with the theory and how it felt.
    This is a great way of getting all learning styles to experience the full PDSA cycle, which normally they would have shied away from. For example, pragmatists to get to terms with the real outcomes and answer a lot of questions they would have had without the “DO-ing part”.

    Of course, the other thing to realise is that the Deming cycle is not new in itself, but has its origins in the “scientific method” ( and all the way back to the Greeks with their application of induction and deduction.

    So I would reverse your final sentence: there are many universal principles that are applicable to lean! 😉

    • Interesting perspective, Dennis. Many lean practitioners say that lean is really common sense which is true to a certain degree. To that extent, one could certainly say that universal principles apply to lean. Dr. Deming referred to the PDCA as the Shewhart cycle. Maybe it should be the Greek cycle?

      Thanks for the discussion.


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