Sunday, September 20, 2009

How do we learn?

In a recent conversation with a deep-thinking friend, we grappled with the question of how we learn new things. He shared a viewpoint helpful in his industry and it struck a responsive chord with me.

Most of us have a mental image of learning derived from our experience in school. We view learning as a linear process.

We start out needing to know something. We learn it. We progress through several intermediate points and then finish, knowing the subject. In this view, we are relentlessly "moving on," wanting to satisfy the current learning objective and then anxiously getting after the next topic.

An alternate view, however, is more accurate, he surmised, and I think is right as we learn and teach about Lean. In this perspective, learning is circular.

Rather than going from point to point, the learner comes round to the same things, but at progressively deeper, more complex levels. When viewed from the top, the learner appears to be only going round and round. A side view, however, reveals a corkscrew, not a circle. The learner comes back to topic again and again, digging progressively deeper and deeper into the topic.

In the 10+ years I've been pursuing Lean, I see this as a better mental model for learning. For example, I know about single-piece flow and have seen it work. But I still miss batches, all around me. I have much more to learn. I would be foolish to put a "check mark" next to "Flow" on my "Lean Curriculum" and seek to move onto the next subject.

For the one learning Lean, this means a conscious openness to learning more about things I already know. It means a posture of humility, recognizing I always have more to learn.

For the one leading Lean, this means an awareness that repetition is something to practice and not apologize for doing. It means being very aware of the next level of depth to which the individual learner must go. It means the leader must also be learning.

Depth comes from repetition. Don't be afraid of it.

And keep on learning.

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Unknown said...

I think both models are appropriate. The first model is a 10,000 foot view of learning and should be extended from beginning to end of life (with celebrated milestones such as graduations along the way). Your corkscrew model works for an individual subject and/or topic. Unfortunately, few people have the ability to focus on one topic until they've mastered the entire corkscrew. Learning is a path that takes one loop around the corkscrew for one topic, then moves on to another topic, then another, etc. Periodically, you come back around to some of the corkscrews you've alrady visited and take another loop around. Eventually, you may get to the bottom of several corkscrews. Teacher and student alike should understand this. But few (perhaps no one) could stand to focus on one corkscrew from top to bottom before moving on to the next. The human mind needs depth and breath, focus and perspective, to truly learn. The linear model (10,000 foot view) evolved the way it did for a reason -- people need goals and rewards (i.e. graduation) for motivation. If you zoom in on the linear model, you would see a series of small circles of varying depth, representing a myriad of topics, organized into subjects. When you zoom out, it only looks like a straight line.

Curtis Lane said...

Great post. I went to a siminar recently with Benjamin Zander as quest speaker. He touch this topic exactly.

He wrote a great book regarding this topic "the Art of Possibility"

Check it out sometime great book.

Great post.

For lean products check out this link

Guy Palm said...

I'm not part of the Lean Community, I just bumped into this page while surfing randomly and thought I'd mention an idea I had that involved "Knowing" by way of spiraling up or down: said...

Quite effective material, lots of thanks for the article.