Opening his four-day seminars, Dr. Deming used to ask this question: “Why are we here?” No one dared answer, until he finally came with the answer. “To learn, to have fun and to make a difference,” he would say.

Interpretations are nothing but interpretations and maybe Deming meant something different, but to argue against the idea of learning as being based on curiosity and an open mind for actual change for the better seems a bit difficult.

The question is, how best to learn? Search for “Lean learning” on Google and over 48 million results come up in 0.35 seconds, covering conferences, consulting, short courses, on-line training, schools, universities, network groups, and so on.

The opportunities for learning have never been broader, and more adaptable to a company’s specific requirements. The only pitfall is that when starting out we are often unaware of what we don’t know and, therefore, questions might not be understood and answers might be wrong.

Sharing experience through networking (formal and informal) seems to be increasingly popular; and as a result, we seem to be increasingly looking at lean from a systems perspective rather than as a toolbox.

Many organisations welcome visits from other companies wanting to learn. And even in the virtual world, more and more groups or communities hold discussions.

Because everyone has access to templates and detailed descriptions, it seems that sharing information on tools and techniques has become less prominent and the focus has moved towards long-term sustainability and leadership.

By sharing experience and putting forward articles and case studies, the lean community is going back to basics, walking the value streams, asking questions and being inspired rather than focusing on how to apply the tools. It is a more humble approach leaving management’s ill-famed carrot and stick behind.

Copying what Toyota did may not do the trick in healthcare and doing what TetraPak did may not help in the financial sector, but studying and learning what problems these companies managed to solve will help to understand why they designed and implemented certain solutions. Learning represents the backbone that will eventually make the difference as it becomes an embedded part of the business – a learning system.

The most successful companies (those with true leadership) create learning systems that are different from the traditional project approach with separate and misguided initiatives (e.g. kaizen breakthrough events, six sigma, TQM, etc.) and instead build routines around learning that focus on ownership, engagement and sustainment. This is the difference between simply applying the tools and having a business strategy defined by the customer’s needs.

There is a common understanding that the aim is to learn, because learning will help to understand what problems to solve. Once this is established, we can decide how to solve them and whether lean is the right solution.