Here Comes Lean Learning Pt. 1

Lean Learning Anyone?

I have worked in the training industry several times since I left it a decade ago for the worlds of venture capital and private equity.  But, not since 2001, have I had the opportunity to spend significant time taking a deep look at it.  And coming back to it with fresh eyes and the experience of 10 years of business building has caused me to question the pace of change in the industry.

Many of the same industry players exist, as do many of the thought leaders and industry organizations. As a result, the means and techniques used to produce learning have also remained relatively constant.  While the tools, delivery channels, and underlying theories have improved, the instructional design methodology has not moved far from its linear approach {needs analysis => design => pilot => implement}.  This standard production approach, with its emphasis on needs analysis and careful progression through each step no longer fits with the pace of business.

Training Gets Lean

Steve Blank is the leading proponent of the Lean Start-up methodology.  As a former entrepreneur, and now professor of entrepreneurship at Stanford, Blank saw the traditional software development process for start-ups as misdirected.  Development’s linear process, build it and then go find a customer, led to excessive spend with an unknown result.

The development of learning events follows much the same process as software with program piloting substituting for beta testing.  The resulting problems occur in training is much the same way the do in software development.  Companies are spending a great deal on training programs that are misdirected and ineffective.  And, by the time they realize it they often feel like they have committed to many resources to change course.

I am not suggesting that the lean training approach described below is right for all training, just as lean is not right for all start-ups.  But I do believe that in many situations a lean approach is better suited to today’s business challenges.

Into the Unknown

Blank recognized that the traditional linear process was designed based on “knowns”.  These “knowns”, known problem and known solution specifications, are requirements for the traditional approach.  If either of these is not known, or more likely wrongly known, the product won’t be of value to customers. Blank’s lean approach offers companies a better way when one or both of these items is unknown.

Traditional instructional design methodology has similar requirements.  Know your learner, and know the capability gaps or, just as with software, the customer will not find value in the solution.  This places a huge requirement on upfront needs assessment, translation of business objectives to learning objectives and learner definition.  Getting to the known takes time and it is time that most businesses no longer have.  So rather than enforce a requirement on the business to satisfy a methodology why not find a methodology that meets a business environment of speed and unknowns.

What Is Lean?

Blank’s lean methodology is just such a methodology and its adaptation to learning presents an interesting case for a new method of driving performance fast.  The biggest change in Blank’s lean approach is the blending of the needs assessment/specification stage with the development stage.  Rather than assuming “knowns”, Blank’s approach embraces unknowns.  By using a hypothesis of the customer and the solution, a company releases what Blank calls a “minimum viable product” (MVP).    This is the smallest possible example of the value of the full solution. The company then uses this kernel of its solution to attract early adopters who in turn, through their behaviors and feedback, teach the company what additional features and functions are most valuable for the company to build.

Iterate through this cycle as fast as you can and the result is a solution with market validation that is ready to scale and a group of evangelists for the product to help it find more customers fast.  Companies often have to “pivot”, according to Blank, based on customer learnings and often find their ultimate solution in a place they had not originally thought of.

Lean Learning: What’s the Value?

In my search for a clear value proposition for lean learning’s approach, I found what I often find; someone smarter had already solved this problem in another area.  In the recently released book “Strategic Speed: Mobilize people, accelerate execution”, Authors Davis, Frechette and Boswell describe successful strategy roll-outs as having faster time to value and more value over time.  Perfect!

For the lean learning approach the same is true.  Through the use of the MVP or in this case “minimal valued learning” (MVL) the organization can almost immediately begin to reap the benefits of improved performance.  The value of this improved performance can rapidly grow through end-user feedback and proper metrics.  By including end-user content and validation this learning resource also remains ”evergreen” reducing the maintenance costs and extending the shelf-life of the learning.  This drives increased value over time.

What do you think?

I wrote this post to take advantage of another technology phenomenon, crowd sourcing.  This idea is not fully baked, nor is it perfect.  It is the seed of idea that I feel strong enough about to share.  Over the next few weeks I will be working to further develop this idea through feedback that I have already received from the unlucky few folks that I have already made to suffer through my ramblings on this subject.  What you find appealing and well-thought out in the above is likely the result of these kind souls’ feedback.  What you find wanting is all mine.  Add you voice below.

Part 2 here

5 Responses to “Here Comes Lean Learning Pt. 1”
  1. Jocelyn Davis says:

    Hi J! Great to see your comment on Strategic Speed, and glad you like the book. I love your point about lean methodology applied to training design–and especially the point about embracing the unknowns and using them as a way to speed up rather than slow down. Looking forward to reading your future posts. -Jocelyn

  2. Rick Harris says:

    The concept of lean learning has intuitive appeal. Who could be against time-to-value? Here are two reactions:
    1. Where are the proof-of-concept opportunities? Teaching product knowledge to sales people? Teaching a scientist to become an entrepreneur? Teaching a team leader how to leverage the skill of team members? Teaching an investor where to put her money?

    2. What do we do about cultural assumptions that learning is supposed to be hard? Learning is supposed to take time, too. Imagine medical education in half the time! Lean learning seems to be at odds with the Protestant Ethic…which may make proof of concept more important than concept.

  3. Quinnovate says:

    You should look at Carroll’s Minimalist Instruction as a reference point, e.g. through his book “The Nurnberg Funnel”. I’m really interested in ‘slow learning’ also, which lean might complement. It might help to work through an example, to support comprehension of your concept.

    • Nice suggestion on Carroll (overview here). In the spirit of “lean” I am writing and rolling out as I go. Trying to incorporate feedback, ideas, references (like yours) in at every turn. Several folks have suggested a quick prototype would put things in better perspective. Stay tuned and thank you for taking the time to contribute.

  4. Joe Hare says:

    Lean Learning, as you describe it, definitely has appeal. At the Human Capital Lab ( and Bellevue University, we’ve observed several organizational learning functions that have experimented with, if not mastered, iterative approaches to training interventions. For example, a skeletal outline and minimal training aids might be fielded with a SME facilitator. Instructional designers observe the class and build out more robust curriculum based on facilitator and participant input. This product would not require subject matter expertise to facilitate and could be transformed into WBT if necessary.

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