Continuing education is key to any lean deployment strategy. Unfortunately, most manufacturers put little thought into how to do this the correct way.

Here are a few tips for rethinking lean learning:

* Understand your environment. Every organization is different. You have to know your environment before designing your approach. Culture, operating patterns and past experiences can all affect training.

* Develop an “ideal” state for your education plan before working out the details. Budget and time constraints must be built into training. If you try to manage what you want to do with those constraints, you will likely end up with a less-than-creative outcome. Figure out what the ideal state is before trying to figure out the barriers to getting there. That’s the same thing we do when applying lean thinking.

* As you develop your education plan, think long-term. Specifically, learning should be a career-long process. When we think about it as a process, we can build one learning step on top of another. Lean training should be handled just like doctors, lawyers and accountants approach continuing education. To stay up to speed, they continually learn about new advances in their field. Knowledge advances in the lean world as well, so we all must continue to learn.

When we think of learning in terms of careers, we think in terms of needs. This ensures we design for the customer. Without it, we’ll often design based on what we want people to learn regardless of what they need.

* Education is broader than training. Training is just a tool. It is structured and controlled. But, relying solely on training is a mistake. Consider other tools, such as coaching, reflection, experiences, and self-directed learning activities. A structured, well-managed coaching program is one of the most effective tools available.

Instead of a generic training program for everyone, consider a role-based program that’s specific to people’s individual needs. For instance, what does an executive need? Does a front-line manager need different training than a manufacturing engineer?

* Consider your constraints. Once people have developed an “ideal” state, there will probably be valid constraints that must be taken into account. Cost vs. budget is one of those realities. I often hear folks say, “I’m trying to train x number of people for $y.” After you apply budget constraints, be careful not to take the teeth out of your continuing education program.

Avoid taking out so much of the strength of the learning effort that it has no impact at all. If you conduct training with no impact, it’s waste. If you roll out useless training, you’ll end up with organizational baggage and numerous problems. If lean teams have trouble operating with only a few people away from work, long classes may not work.

If nothing else, train a fraction of your employees more deeply and get some real progress. Or, be creative; integrate your lean training needs into other training already being conducted.

Education is a vital part of your lean journey. It’s too important to ignore.