From the dawn of civilization, humans have sought opportunities to become better and faster while maximizing use of limited resources. This is a business reality, leading every leader to adopt the mantra: Do more with less. Some people refer to this as efficiency, but it’s much more than that. It’s applying long-term strategic judgement for the decisions relating to organizational processes. Yes, doing more with less is about efficiency but being “lean” is about appropriately allocating future resources for strategic growth. Lean is nothing new to business, but it is something very new for L&D.

Naturally, leaders expect to maximize value within every business process while minimizing waste. But lean thinking strives to continuously improve value-focused processes that drive sustainable results. Successfully implementing lean for any process is far from a one-time occurrence. It’s an iterative process most effective when driven by the organization’s culture. Toyota is an infamous example of a company successfully implementing lean into its manufacturing processes, cultivating a reputation for reliability and quality far exceeding competitors. This is the power of lean.

But there is more to every “Toyota-type” success story than simply cutting process costs in the right areas and getting people to buy-in. The focus should be on integrative and continuous learning. Regretfully, even lean methodology rarely acknowledges learning’s relevance and significance to increasing value of primary business performance.

You may be saying, “This is a nice story for large multinationals but how does this apply to us small guys?” Actually, lean processes and lean learning is exceptionally more pronounced within small organizations because of effective resource utilization and an edge on speed. This implies that small organizations are organically lean and that learning is organic and unstructured. There are also greater risks for knowledge flight, misapplication or misappropriation that should drive value and ultimately, profits. Missing key learning opportunities can result in stunted business growth. This is how essential L&D is for growing organizations.

A Shift to Lean Learning

Without realizing it, L&D is rapidly moving toward lean learning. For learning professionals, however, lean and creativity appear at opposite ends of the business spectrum. Learning professionals often believe that it’s ineffective to restrict resources when attempting to effect actual learning while leaders demand L&D become more efficient and effective. With lean, it’s both, not one or the other.

Business leaders expect learning efforts to deliver impactful results while minimizing disruptions to key processes. This is not an unusual or an unreasonable expectation as L&D is a business activity and faithfully respects the lean concept, or in this specific case, lean learning.

If you’re unconvinced that you’re moving toward lean learning, then consider what learning methodologies and delivery tools you are currently applying. Chances are you are increasing learning accessibility through the organization’s technology infrastructure. Learning approaches such as e-learning, web-based, mobile, gamification and microlearning are all examples of learning tools that are lean. It’s not, however, just technology-based learning approaches. Even traditional instructor-led learning is evolving toward what many refer to as blended learning.

It’s not about the learning method or type of tool that determines whether learning is lean. It’s about how you apply and utilize available resources to deliver and derive the most learning value. Lean learning is conceptual and not mutually exclusive from the overall lean process. Also, don’t look for a lean learning framework or template because it doesn’t exist. Lean learning environments are unique to each organization’s intent and expectation. How learning is lean within one organization is never identical to another.

Fundamentally, developing a lean learning environment requires you to build a proper business case. Building an effective business case encompasses the following criteria:

1) Be Integrative and Seamless

Effective lean learning professionals never view their learning efforts as events, but rather, as a process that occurs naturally and organically. From this perspective, learning becomes an integrative component within a business process.

Further, because lean learning professionals seek out learning opportunities within processes, they strive for non-intrusive and seamless learning interactions. In this way, they are able to leverage employee expectations and have them become active learning participants, directly contributing to their roles.

This has two immediate benefits: 1) L&D has direct on the job and business impact (Kirkpatrick Levels 3 & 4) and, 2) Rather than pushing learning to employees, they can actively pull required learning when, where and how they need it.

This integrative approach stimulates a lateral “learn sharing” culture throughout the process stream as well as vertically within the hierarchy, providing business leaders with real-time insight on the areas to continually improve. Essentially, it returns to fostering an organically supportive environment for each job role and promotes sharing among various job interactions.

2) Minimize Process Disruption

Lean learning professionals assess two elements prior to implementing any type of learning initiative: minimizing business disruption and employee learning cycle time. Both correlate closely.

First, business leaders do not like process disruptions, especially if the activity directly affects revenue and profit generation. Leaders refer to disruptions as “downtime” and it costs the business money, more precisely, lost revenue and profits.

Even though lean learning professionals attempt to fully integrate, they recognize that this isn’t realistic. But rather than convincing leaders to accept downtime by promising possible unverifiable benefits for business activities, they develop strategies that minimize possible work or process flow disruptions. They seek out downtime moments within the process flow to conduct the learning interventions to reduce business disruption. They capitalize on business or economic cycle timing and leverage tools that integrate within the role of the employees’ responsibility.

Second, lean learning professionals focus on reducing learning cycle time. Their objective is ensuring that relevant learning occurs, when and where it’s needed and, more importantly, that employees consistently apply new knowledge to ensure improving performance. Lean learning is about the application of knowledge, not acquisition (the focus is on Kirkpatrick Level 3, not Level 2). Again, leaders want to limit disruptive activities so this is where learning professionals would apply integrative learning tools and methodologies.

Today’s learning practitioners have access to a wide variety of learning tools that facilitate skills application and integrate well to minimize process disruptions. Many practitioners implicitly jump to finding “tools” but lean learning professionals never put the cart before the horse. It’s always about methodology first, then the tools.

Lean learning professionals work closely with employees and leaders to directly map every employee’s knowledge development to current roles, future role needs, and internal career direction. They recognize that learning efforts must align with specific performance expectations.

3) Become a Valued Business Partner

Lean learning professionals are not passive. They refuse to wait for a need, but rather, become proactive seeking out opportunities that contribute to the continuous improvement process. They discover potential learning opportunities by first understanding the business-performance relationship.

Lean learning professionals investigate their organization’s strategic goals beginning with the mission and vision. They follow the flow of performance objectives cascading from the mission through to each primary operational activity. Lean learning professionals identify key performance indicators (KPIs), accessing, studying and leveraging their organization’s performance framework. Then by speaking with business unit managers, they focus on the performance pain points among those KPIs.

These steps identify cause and effect performance relationships, ensuring that the learning approach they apply correlates to improving performance and managing internal change. Effectively, lean learning professionals become an operationally proactive business partner rather than remaining functionally passive.

4) Identify and Leverage Existing Processes

Lean learning professionals never purposefully reinvent the wheel. They recognize that their best efforts occur through identifying what works and leverages these activities and experiences toward other possible business applications. Lean learning is truly about resourceful innovativeness and adaptation.

Traditional learning professionals often claim that they already do this. But what many don’t realize is that it’s more than simply taking a learning intervention for one process and applying it to another. This traditional learning approach may capitalize on economies of scale but it remains highly ineffective. It is also the approach that business leaders view disparagingly because it lacks business impact and relevance.

Learning professionals may champion that their efforts are efficient doing this but driving down cost per participant for a learning activity is not lean. Lean learning professionals deliberately do things to ensure learning efforts provide relevant process results while maximizing existing resources. They actively monitor current offerings to determine what is effective and identify areas of improvement. They then map how to adapt existing offerings to new process applications, improving upon the previous iteration.

Next Lean Learning Steps

The manifestation of lean learning methodologies is recent and something that business leaders consider essential to organizational sustainability. Lean learning is not well documented, primarily because leaders don’t see learning in isolation but rather as an integral component to the lean process.

Your journey toward lean learning is to stop being learning myopic and open up to business. Before your learning efforts can contribute to business objectives, you must know what the business is about. Become business and operationally literate.

The next step is learning about the lean process. Discover that lean is not simply about eliminating waste, but rather, creating processes that require less human effort and time to make products and services, reducing costs and with fewer defects, compared to traditional business systems. From this simple description it is abundantly clear that lean offers L&D a leading role and many opportunities to drive change and improve operational performance. L&D’s time is now. Don’t miss your business calling.