“Build a Learning Organization” – A New Principle in Cultural Enablers

by Ken Snyder     

Before moving on to the principles in the Continuous Improvement dimension, I want to introduce a new principle that has been proposed for the Cultural Enablers dimension. For purposes of this blog, I have named this principle “Build a Learning Organization.”

Justification – “An Inflection Point”

In January 2017, I wrote a blog called “An Inflection Point.” Let me quote some sections from that blog:

A few months ago, I had the chance to visit two companies that the Shingo Institute uses as “benchmark” companies. Both of these companies started their Lean journey about 20 years ago. Both companies received the Shingo Prize about 10 years ago. And both companies have continued their journey seeking perfection since receiving the Shingo Prize. We hope all Shingo Prize recipients follow their example in continuing their own journeys.

At both benchmark companies, I heard a similar story. It caught me by surprise. Let me explain.

In my career, I’ve had four to five Lean implementation opportunities that were either start-ups where we had the opportunity to build the culture from scratch, or involved a transformation of an existing culture. After being with an organization for seven to eight years, typically another professional opportunity came up and I moved on. I’ve never seen a Lean journey first-hand past seven to eight years. In my experience, I’ve always thought the highest productivity gains come in the earlier stages of the Lean journey. In many cases, there are so many opportunities that it’s easy to cherry-pick and find places where the application of Lean can make a big difference.

This is not the report of these benchmark companies. Both companies report that they experienced steady productivity gains of 10% or a little more, compounded year-over-year over a 10-15 year time period. This is amazing enough. But then, they both reported that in the past two to three years they experienced an inflection point, where the productivity gains jumped from the steady 10% or a little more to 15-20% productivity gains the past two to three years. This is astonishing!

After verifying their reports, I asked them a series of questions so I could better understand how they could experience such astonishing results – especially after so many years of steady, great, results. Independently, both companies reported the reason for this inflection point is due to the level of training achieved by their associates. In short, their associates are now so well-trained that they can identify problems, solve problems, and implement changes so quickly and independently that the associates drive the productivity gains.

Both companies operate in-house universities where they teach lean tools and systems – things like SQC tools, error-proofing techniques, time-motion studies, TPM systems, and other problem-solving skills. Associates spend a significant amount of time on regular intervals training in these in-house universities. Over time, the skill level of associates is such that they can implement profound changes quickly and independently, without needing significant support from management or engineering.

Since this blog report, I’ve been able to follow up with our other benchmark companies and they all report the same results. These are the best of the best and they all report that the key to being able to accelerate their improvement efforts on a sustainable basis is by creating a learning organization.

Key Elements and Systems

It is important to note that people learn, inanimate organizations do not. But, just as we say an organization has a culture which is made up of the cumulative behaviors of the people in the organization, similarly, we can say that the knowledge of an organization is the cumulative knowledge of the people in the organization. A “learning organization” means that cumulative knowledge of the people in the organization is increasing over time.

Some may suggest that this principle is already incorporated in the principle of “Embrace Scientific Thinking,” and that this is not a separate and distinct principle. I agree that “Embrace Scientific Thinking” and this principle are closely intertwined. But scientific thinking is primarily a problem-solving discipline. Along with “Respect Every Individual” and “Lead with Humility,” this principle completes the Cultural Enablers dimension. Yes, people need to be properly trained in scientific thinking for behaviors to support a learning organization. As problems are solved, new discoveries are made, and those discoveries should be shared, thereby adding to the cumulative knowledge of the organization. But scientific thinking alone is not a principle that describes how to build the right culture. The two principles are closely intertwined, but they have a different emphasis. This principle is about creating a culture of learning.

A key system in the implementation of this principle is a knowledge sharing (yokoten, or 横展) system. I have seen some very good knowledge sharing systems. An example is a global company making similar product in numerous plants around the world. In this company, as changes are made to improve a common process, the party making those changes posts the details to a knowledge-sharing intranet site. There is a regular knowledge sharing meeting of all parties around the globe once per month. All parties making a similar product review the changes prior to the meeting. In this case, the policy of the company is that each team is required to review and test the changes made elsewhere, but ultimately has the authority to accept those changes in their own plant. This is a great system. But when I have inquired about key behavioral indicators (KBIs) for this system (i.e., # of ideas shared, # of ideas accepted or rejected, etc.), none of the companies I have visited were able to report any KBIs.

Knowledge without action based on that knowledge is a waste. Knowing must lead to doing, which is why measurable KBIs have to be a part of building a learning organization.

It is reasonable, such as in the example above, that local facilities are allowed to accept or reject improvements discovered elsewhere. Local conditions – such as a local supplier with different quality problems – may differ from place to place. Allowing local facilities to accept or reject improvements is a sign of respect and empowerment. However, there also needs to be a robust system in place to destroy any signs of the dreaded “not invented here” syndrome.

In addition to a knowledge-sharing system, other key systems that the benchmark companies employ to ensure the organization is learning. Some examples follow. Included are systems that are also critical to other Shingo Guiding Principles.

  • A robust training system designed to lift the skills and knowledge of all people in the organization;
  • An effective coaching system to develop people so that the people are able and willing to learn;
  • As mentioned above, a robust problem-solving system that follows scientific thinking that continuously generates new knowledge and clarifies appropriate actions.
  • And, as with all the guiding principles that enable culture, there are important systemic roles that leaders must take to make sure the systems are working and are driving the right useful knowledge and actions. This must be a part of leader standard work.

Specific Proposals

A principle similar to this was in Professor Jeffrey Liker’s book, The Toyota Way. In the book, Liker reports that a principle in the Toyota Way is: Become a learning organization through relentless reflection and continuous improvement.

Various people have suggested an additional Shingo Guiding Principle similar to this Toyota principle. Let me share a few:

Learn Continuously

Cultivate a Deep-and-Fast Learning Organization

Create a Learning Organization

Here are some thoughts on why “Build a Learning Organization” is the working title for now:

  1. “Relentless reflection” is a part of the principle, but the principle is broader than that.
  2. “Continuous improvement” is a dimension in the Shingo Model. The Continuous Improvement dimension, and especially the principle of “Embrace Scientific Thinking” in that dimension, is intertwined with this principle, as discussed above.
  3. “Learn continuously” seems to apply to individuals and not the organization as a whole. To build a sustainable organization, the organization as a whole needs to be expanding in knowledge and application.
  4. The proposal to include “deep” and “fast” included a rationale. “Deep” is associated with deep insight and expertise, whereas “fast” is about learning faster than the market moves. My thought is that these points can be part of how we teach the principle, but the principle is broader than these two points.
  5. “Create” implies a one-time event. “Build,” at least to me, implies an on-going, and, therefore, a sustainable effort.

So “Build a Learning Organization” is the working title. Other action verbs that imply an on-going action that we might use besides “build” include: cultivate, nurture, nourish, foster, support, encourage, or promote.

Principles Should Be Discovered and Shared

Since inviting people to suggest any missing principles in my first blog about Model changes a few weeks ago, some people have approached me personally or by email and requested that we not add any new principles. They argue that ten is enough, or, as some suggest, it is too many.

To us at the Shingo Institute, a principle is a principle.We don’t create principles of operational excellence, we discover them. We share them. We teach people to understand them, and then how to implement them. We don’t ignore principles. We have observed from sad experience that ignoring a principle inevitably leads to the inability of an organization to sustain their improvement efforts. If this principle is not followed, the likely consequence will be that even great organizations will plateau in their improvement efforts, and it will stifle innovation.

The Proposal

My proposal is that we add this principle as a new Shingo Guiding Principle, and that we include this principle in the Cultural Enablers dimension. This proposal does NOT mean that this change will happen. It will take a lot more discussion and deliberation. As part of that process, we are interested in what YOU think about this proposal!


Further Reading

The idea of a learning organization is not new. Peter Senge suggested this principle in his book, The Fifth Discipline, which we cite frequently in our curriculum as part of the Shingo Guiding Principle of “Think Systemically.” However, my favorite book on this topic is a book by Arie de Geus called The Living Company. I recommend it.


A Look at “Lead with Humility” 

by Ken Snyder 

With “Respect Every Individual,” the principle of “Lead with Humility” is the partner principle that together comprise the Cultural Enablers dimension of the Shingo 10 Guiding Principles. Since becoming Executive Director three years ago, my observation is that this principle has resulted in more questions and misunderstandings than any other principle.  

Continue reading A Look at “Lead with Humility” 

Model Changes

by Ken Snyder

A Look at “Respect Every Individual”


A few weeks ago, I announced our intention in the Shingo Institute to look at all of the principles espoused in the Shingo Model currently to see if there might be a better way to name the principle in order to make the principle easier to understand. This blog looks at the first principle to undergo such scrutiny: “Respect Every Individual.” In the Shingo Model, this principle is classified in the “Cultural Enablers” dimension, the foundational dimension upon which all sustainable operational excellence must be built.

Continue reading Model Changes

The Current Shingo Model Turns Ten – It’s Time to Reflect

by: Ken Snyder

In 2008, the Shingo Institute introduced to the world the current Shingo Model™ that presented the Shingo Guiding Principles of operational excellence and a behavioral approach to cultural assessment. The Model propelled the Shingo Prize into the position of a true international standard of operational excellence. More importantly, the Model has created an ongoing conversation about guiding principles, the behaviors they inform and the systems that drive them, and how to achieve sustainable results. Continue reading The Current Shingo Model Turns Ten – It’s Time to Reflect

Best Ways for Manufacturers to Boost Employee Engagement

by Dominic Bria, Psy.D., MBA of the Shingo Institute


One of the roles we play here at the Shingo Institute is that of a connector between practitioners of process improvement (by which I mean most of you) and scholars. The research done by scholars ought to answer questions asked by practitioners. Practitioners ought to use research (when feasible) as evidence on which to base their management decisions. So when we have good research to report here at the Shingo Institute, we like to get it out to you, the practitioner, where we hope you’ll find it useful.

Continue reading Best Ways for Manufacturers to Boost Employee Engagement

Employee Survey Pitfalls

by Dominic Bria, Psy.D., MBA of the Shingo Institute


Employee surveys can be useful tools that show organizations where gaps exist between employee perceptions and those of managers and leadership. There are several kinds of employee surveys available to leaders who want to measure various attitudes and perceptions their employees might hold. There are surveys that measure employee engagement, job satisfaction, symptoms of job burnout, perceptions of corporate citizenship, and others. It’s also common for companies to try to craft employee surveys of their own. Sometimes they are meant as a less expensive alternative to pre-made surveys, other times they are meant to measure elements that may not be measured by existing surveys. In either case, survey instruments—the group of questions for survey participants to answer—are tricky things to design.

Continue reading Employee Survey Pitfalls

Process Improvement Technique from a 7-Time Olympic Medalist

We do our best to bring a wide variety of great speakers to the Shingo Conference and we’ve managed to get some great ones over the years. One of the keynote speakers on the agenda for the 30th Shingo Conference is one you might not expect. She will bring a unique perspective to the topic of process improvement as someone who has spent her entire life striving for improvement and overcoming adversity from unexpected and frightening sources.

Continue reading Process Improvement Technique from a 7-Time Olympic Medalist

The Holy Grail?

by Ken Snyder

A few months ago, I spoke with an investment fund manager who invests in companies that practice Lean operational excellence. Both this fund manager and I shared our belief that Lean companies will outperform the general market, and will provide a better return to investors. This fund manager made the comment that if we could prove in an indisputable way that Lean improves the bottom line, then we will have discovered “the Holy Grail.”

Continue reading The Holy Grail?

It Shouldn’t Be This Hard

by Ken Snyder

I have often heard that “Lean takes 10 years minimum,” or “Where you start depends on where your organization is at,” or “Implementing Lean is an art, not a science,” and other excuses for why a transformation should take an inordinately long period of time. While I believed some of these excuses earlier in my career, I am increasingly convinced that these are really excuses for not having a scientific methodology for shortening the lead time in a Lean implementation. I also strongly believe that shortening the lead time will result in higher levels of achievement in the long run.

Continue reading It Shouldn’t Be This Hard

Shingo Principles + Gritty Resilience = Sustaining a Learning and Improvement Culture in a Healthcare System

by  Geoff Webster, Co-Founding Principal, Value Capture

“It’s hard work,” Dr. Richard Shannon, Executive Vice President of Health Affairs at the University of Virginia Health System, recently told the audience of healthcare leaders and performance improvement professionals at the Bay Area Performance Improvement Network (BAPIN) executive summit in Oakland, California.  “You have to be resilient and gritty in your pursuit of [safety]. It’s every event, every day, with people committed to understanding what happened and a commitment to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

Dr. Shannon has long personified the Continue reading Shingo Principles + Gritty Resilience = Sustaining a Learning and Improvement Culture in a Healthcare System