One of the important things to consider when being a general curmudgeonly old goat, especially on social media, is that you have to be willing to openly accept two inevitable consequences.
Firstly, be ready to humbly apologise. You’ll occasionally bleat at a touch of blather that got your goat up, only to discover that the old goat saw something in the blather… that wasn’t there. It’s way too easy to bleat, without understanding the context from a few words scattered across t’interwebs. Be honest and when you sincerely mean it, say sorry.
Lastly, some bloody fools will follow your goaty old ramblings and occasionally hold you publicly, to the rules:
- Check your spelling and grammar, a fat old hoof with predictive text, works considerably slower than the goatiest old brain.
- Always, always, always read the link not just the title or the covering twitterage, before bleating at the sentiments.
- Social media devices should have, a built in breathilizer function that prohibits the send button… but they don’t.
I’m crap at 1, Olympic at 2 and 3 is not my fault. But it makes no difference, if you’ve dished out a goaty old headbut, you got to own it and demonstrate why people should bother continuing to follow your curmudgeonly old goat up, what at first glance, may appear a suspiciously narrow and crumbly ledge.
That ‘Lastly’ is the inspiration for this blog when I gave a post on Learning and Development, an arguably gentle but forthright nut. I’m not going to reference the article I bleated at, nor the passer by, who nutted it back to me. This is certainly to save anyone any embarrassment and prevent any ill-advised electronic spittle from those who may underestimate my appreciation for Firstly. But to be honest, it’s about Lastly, as this particular blather dwells deep with me and so should be able to independently perch firmly on its own little goaty feet.
Whenever facing the craggy pile of old boulders that is L&D, the first thing I usually do, is cheat. I seek solice and guidance from my personal God on all things education that is the almighty, slightly quirky and beautifully truthful @SirKenRobinson. If you haven’t done so yet, devote at least a day on YouTube practicing how to listen to him. You’ve probably already seen his record breaking TED Talk and perhaps, this visually fascinating animation on changing educational paradigms. But at the end, I’m going to link to a longer discussion with Ken. Despite the similar sentiments, both are worth a little of your time, if you want to understand the L&D ledge that I’m about to leap from.
And in terms of intuitive leaps, I’ve written about the Bullshit Gland before: it starts with a little annoying ember in crack of my arse and can occasionally turn into a full blown firework display. The article in question lit the blue touch paper from the first sentence: this isn’t an article, I thought, it’s an advert! Sorry but I’m a proper nerd and just for fun, run off and read articles like this one on Lifelong Learning. I know it’s not a fair comparison but if you are going to follow that link, make sure you’re sat down first and not responsible for any dangerous machinery.
Anyway, the advert starts with a classic Aunt Sally, setting up a plausible coconut that’s knocked down and pilloried to make way for a shiny bowl of low hanging fruit. However, it is true that employees don’t tend to rate their corporate L&D departments. That’s mainly because over the years, those functions have either been starved of investment, or no longer actually provide any L&D concerned with delivering the business. Unfortunately, many of the L&Ds do little beyond injecting people crammed into passivity, with a dose of brain numbing ‘Mundatory Training’ about some utterly useless, mitigation for corporate insurance premiums. The research about lifting stuff with a straight back being gobshite, is now unequivocal and if you’ve rhythmically tapped the Q and P keys to mimic cardiac massage, I really don’t want you anywhere near me in a crisis.
A number of corporate L&Ds do manage to maintain responsibility for improving the organisation’s capability to do its business but again, that tends to be more about Leaderism than the technical operations. In Healthcare for example, corporate L&Ds don’t do Medicine, or any of the other professions for that matter. Those are typically run through a completely separate bureaucracy of learning, development, governance and research led by part time academics and a plethora of enthusiastic practitioners.
I have a personal view that all improvement activities should be part of a wider, coordinated Organisational Development function. OD is an essential institutional activity like finance or planning, but has nowhere near the same parity; often buried in a dark corner of Human Remains. As such OD itself is in dire need of transformation, as that D (in breadth) sets the context for and therefore precedes, any chance of sustainably achieving that L (in depth). Consequently, the L & the D are often confused, used interchangably, or just completely ignored in favour of some Shiny T (off-the-peg Training).
And on the subject of depth, look around many L&Ds and you’ll find absolutely nobody with any significant educational qualifications. And don’t hold your breath while searching for the philosophical precedence from which they designed the model of learning, tailored to the needs of the workforce! There are some L&Ds with a professional educational base, but they are more rare than you’d expect and over the years I’ve even found a few big organisations dependent on a lone-wolf, ex-teacher. The improvementalists are the worst culprits at this and could do with some OD themselves, to discover a considerably more coherent basis for theory and practice, than the presently ubiquitous Shiny. I reckon that any L&D function not affiliated to at least one University, soon becomes little more than a contracting department and we’re neatly back to that advert. I’ve got a whole workshop on how to spot them:
One of the other sparks for the blue touch paper is an Appeal to Authority – typically a quote from some obscure research, a celebrity Leaderist or worse, a vague survey – all of which are mostly used to fill the space where an explanation of the product should go. Detail in terms of concepts, methods and tools is remarkably absent in marketing. After all, you don’t want to give away the trick until you see the whites of their chequebooks. So on this occasion I went digging and not expecting much from the links and publications, I was not disappointed. So here goes, risking the proximity of a Firstly, I had to take a punt at the references to Lean Learning and a Just In Time approach to the world of education.
Now that last phrase seems to be a reference to saliency, providing your staff with a face full of information just at the moment, or in the place that they most need it. It’s often peddled with optional extras like; you don’t have to waste time pulling expensive workers out into classrooms only for them to forget stuff when back in the saddle. There is good evidence for the benefits of leveraging saliency with real time feedback and that’s not new. You have a speedometer in your car, BUT (and that’s a big but) it can’t teach you how to drive. They referenced the ploddy old carrot of temporal jogging – repeating stuff until it’s boring – and I also found a reference to pop-ups, like the old Microsoft Paperclip. Everyone with a PC at the turn of the century can remember yelling at the screen to “piss off” while hammering the Kill Clippy Button. An annoyingly naive interpretation of some fudged cognitive science, so hopefully, they are not selling a version of that stress inducer. A classic case of the eternal epistemological tension:
In theory, there’s no difference between theory and practice; in practice, there is.
Perhaps then it’s Lean that they are selling… as I chuckle through the purse of a wry smile. Lean is a reference to bacon in a book from 1990 all about how Toyota almost singlehandedly made every city on earth, barely breathable. The word is used as a prefix for all kinds of Tinkering With Thinkering, that mostly has nothing to do with cracking efficient manufacturing. Now don’t get me wrong, Lean or Just In Time or TPS (it’s all the same) is an approach to reducing waste, saving time and increasing production reliability that has got a real and important place in the world. That world being concerned with the ever decreasing circle of high reliability, in linear processes, in highly controlled environments. Perhaps they are selling a Lean inspired learning process with short time frames and high repeatability. Careful, I thought to myself, that probably involves sacrificing L&D to the slow dwindling decline into obscurity that is ‘Death by Standardisation’.
Believe it or not, for a complexity geek, I am a fan of this stuff in the right context and I’ve been on courses, led projects and even have friends that are proper Lean Tool-heads. And there in lies the fairly rigid boundary of its legitimate application – most proselytes of Lean, simply flog a fine collection of useful continuous improvement tools under the banner of Kaizen. For the Concepts and Methods you got to talk about Taiichi Ohno first, and then understand the wider context of the Japanese cultural landscape that conceived them. Just to be clear, that does not include Deming. Apart from teaching some statistics invented by somebody else, he spent most of his life trying to figure out what the Japanese had embedded in their fingertips. All the tales about it being the other way around, are just marketing. The Japanese had just out manufactured the mistakenly greatest industrial power on earth. In reparation, Uncle Sam sent over a pile of besuited lemings to find out how.
Ohno is most well known for his 7 wastes and 10 precepts, but the wider philosophy is more interesting in understanding how these and other concepts, methods and tools were developed in practice. I was recently reminded of Whitehead’s Function of Reason – to live, live well & live better – and can’t help see a similar logical progression in Ohno’s philosophy. Whitehead wasn’t a fan of reductive science and actively poked fun at proselytes wedded to their favourite method. He also talked about the evolution of greater complexity in the shift from adapting to the environment to, adapting the environment. A search for novelty. What we now know in philosophical terms, is that the rejection of materialism, just means you get a better view of it. Or at least you think you do, albeit that any espoused method or fad, eventually reaches a point that I’ve witnessed many times:
A final epoch of endless wrangling over minor questions.
Despite the confident proclamations of all those certificated black belts, self appointed ninjas and other tinkers, there are more ways of interpreting The Toyota Way than you can shake a stick at, but it all broadly fits into five overarching ideas. Before you start whinging, I shoot the breeze with people who were at Toyota, before it was all trendy. I’m Welsh and there’s a curious cultural resonance between us and the Japanese: just watch the videos of the last Rugby World cup to witness us being the Id to their Super-Ego. Anyway, like Japanese, there are little phrases in Welsh that would take a page full of English to explain. So my interpretation has been, as we say in Wales, Dragonised. Therefore, please tread lightly on the words in preference to rambling off across the sentiments I’m attempting to convey:
|Bushido – ‘Hiraeth’ or the old way of the place: Ok so this is a bit tongue in cheek and Taiichi Ohno didn’t have to accommodate this in his theory, as it was intrinsic from centuries of epigenetics. Truth in your thoughts, words and deeds is perhaps not quite so engrained in every organisation and I know Honour, is a wonky old Japanese stereotype. I’m desperately trying not to use the word culture, but this is the habitat you inherit, partly known and mostly unarticulated. For the Japanese, unlike atomistic western cultures, the collective mores of oriental societies played a big part in the success of this philosophy. This is also that space where – when everything else is used up – you occasion across a touch of goaty old wisdom. It starts by acknowledging that what you really know to be true, is next to nothing, otherwise there’s no room left to learn anything. This is the air you breath. To live.|
|Nemawashi – ‘Cynefin’ or working around the roots: the informal procession of quietly making sense of the place, by talking to all those concerned and half of those who are not. Gathering insight and finding the intrinsic motivations so that there is a reasonable balance of consensus and coherence, before setting off half-cocked with a stupid idea that just might work. It’s the place you find that you’ve always belonged – call it a passion if you like, but you’ll know it when you find it. In cognitive science terms this sense of belonging and relational activity is an incredibly powerful precursor of successful change, but there are no shortcuts. This is the context of opportunity that you have to connect up, to get, to set the scene and incline towards, the next little direct step forward or the next big, sideways jump forward. This is the only way to get a true sense of that last one.|
|Genchi Genbatsu – ‘Hwyl’ or real things in a real place: in other words, go and feel it for yourself. In order to truly understand the simple facts of a situation, to gain insight, you need to go to the real place where the thing is experienced. Cardiff is not simply a place on international rugby day, it’s an experience. Participating and being present in the interactions as they happen, viscerally appeals to me as well as being intellectually, the single most important activity in this entire Philosophy. In danger of horribly abridging the life’s work of Edgar Morin; you simply cannot understand the complexities of doing things in real time, from a distance. The best Baker knows the dough is done because he’s kneading it and there is no way to faithfully represent how the Baker knows that. You got to get up close and personal with the humans; the ‘Craft in the Genba’ that you found, by doing that last one. To live well.|
|Kaizen – ‘Tacluso’ or Change for the better: refers to the practices that focus upon continuous improvement of processes and being analytical in the elimination of waste and enhancement of value, with all those lovely tools and techniques. Commonly known as ‘tidying up’. All very strategically wonderful and ubiquitous in just about every boardroom because of its inherent sense of certainty and control and measurability; forget the statistical relevance, feel the quantity of my spreadsheets. Remembering the context of highly controlled environments, this is all about aligning the assets you already got, to be better at what they already do, using stuff you already know. Applying some good sense to the problems at hand, all based on the insight gained from participating in that last one.|
|Hansei – ‘fel caib a rhaw’ or humble self reflection: the Welsh version literally asks, a pick or a shovel? It is the figurative acknowledgement of one’s own limits and at the same time a pledge to live up to those limits through dedication and endeavour. Perhaps even an intuitive personal commitment to learning and self development. I’m highlighting Ohno’s advocation for a deep sense of respect for one and other and finding fulfilment in the small part each of us plays in the great scheme of things. To some degree we all tend do our best, own it and appreciate it for what it is. This is the ground beneath your feet, where you really embed the effect of that last one. These are the habits, well at least in this philosophy, required to live better.|
The five ideas together represent a more holistic depiction of appetites for L&D than just some tools, no matter how well packaged. But most importantly, the five are not a linear sequence or hierarchy, but a constantly evolving dynamic that only truly connects around moments in the Genba. There was none of that, not even a hint of it, in that advert.
You’re not going to believe me at this point, as it’s phenomenological and well you got to be there, but here goes. Behind you there are old habits to rely upon, ahead of you new habitats to explore and you’re wandering from one moment to the next with your feet in the mud and your head in the clouds. I should probably do another blog on this, but in short:
You cannot step into the same river twice.
Now concentrate, this is the bit about L&D. It doesn’t matter how cool your Kaizen tools are, if they are not set into the context of the other four, it’s not going to work. The particular tools in Lean, similar to much of our dominant learning paradigm, are mostly oriented around an industrial appetition from the early 1900s that no longer exists. Hence the nod to the Function of Reason and the fact that tools are for the most part, mechanical, designed for a specific use. Beyond that use they rarely work efficiently albeit that occasionally their function can be exapted, to be more useful at something else. Lean is certainly not about creating the conditions for innovation so any exaptation would be incidental. Hence you have to pick the right tools for the job.
Now if we shift context out of Systems ‘in highly controlled environments’ to other sorts of endeavours, say Poetry, or Medicine or even L&D, does Lean have a place? Well, you can’t do much about your Bushido, it is for the most part inherited, will kill anything that doesn’t work with it and so you got to accept it, or die trying. Nemawashi, is what normal humans do (albeit rarely within the confines of a job description) but in L&D terms, you might even see it as the method of maintaining a bloody good TNA. If you don’t already understand the universal application of Genchi Genbatsu to everything, you really shouldn’t work in L&D. And let’s face it, if your entire company has committed to Hansei, that’s half the L&D people on early retirement.
So I guess in philosophical terms this Lean lark could be bloody useful in all sorts of places, but it has got to be the full philosophy and the Kaizen is going to be different for every different place. Unless of course, you happen to be building cars, at the pace of customer demand. Not forgetting that you may be in need of some radical discontinuous improvement and that’s a whole different set of tools and techniques altogether, called Kaikaku. This is the real inconvenient thing. Tools are very rarely transferrable outside of the method they are designed to apply, coherent only to the concepts that informed the methodological design. There’s Whitehead again or is that Russel, or Heraclitus or Lao Tzu either way, it’s about ethics and every crowd of learners will intuitively monitor whether:
What you think, what you say and what you do, is consistently and closely aligned.
And talking of crowds or at least having an appreciation for the dynamics of people in various different types of group: Learning is an inherently social process. Even the most intimate fundamental relationship between a teacher, a subject and a student, is inevitably socialised, being set in a place and of a time. It’s how humans have evolved to know things and to share that embodied experience and there is no other way of doing it: to live better that is. But before I leave you with Sir Ken to explain the Habits in Humans in Habitats relationship much better than me, I feel the need to share the same essence of learning that has been distilled down brilliantly within Medicine. Many great thinkers and teachers have had a good go, but I think this lovely old axiom takes the Hemingway Six Word Story prize, when it comes to meaningful L&D:
See One, Do One, Teach One!