The rush to apply lean thinking in almost every business sector during the past two decades has led to a significant growth in the number of training programmes. Each of them aims to teach managers and employees the skills needed to apply the tools and techniques within their organisations in order to realise the promised benefits of lean.

Courses began to spring up in the late 1990s in academia and consultancies. Shortly after, in-house programmes in larger organisations, where new “academies” were emerging to galvanise organisational learning, became commonplace. With all this knowledge and a plethora of coinciding courses, a need emerged for some form of framework around which lean training and education could be organised while also recognising attendees’ newly acquired knowledge.

A precedent for workplace-based certification had already been set in the improvement and quality arena with the belts of six sigma. This seemed to offer a standard for individuals and organisations, so it was a logical step when lean-oriented certification systems emerged, mainly from vocational qualification bodies, professional associations and some universities, both in the UK and the US.

For companies that fund and deliver training, such systems provided a coherent framework around which they could build lean training programmes. This framework also allowed them to deliver to a consistent standard and definition of lean while providing a recruitment benchmark. This helped them in their key task of raising the overall lean capability of the workforce. To a certain extent, systems also helped legitimise the new lean academies and meant they could offer employees a clear and tangible benefit in the shape of a lean qualification with high perceived value.

For employees, certification has been attractive on a number of levels. First, a lean qualification is seen as a career boosting prospect. Employees are only too aware that there is a shortage of people with good lean credentials in the job market, so formal recognition of lean knowledge is seen as particularly useful. Furthermore, in today’s world of portfolio careers and job mobility, careful nurturing of your CV is considered critical and the more skills and experience that enhance your marketability, the better. Second, staff being trained – as well as other stakeholders, such as funders and employers – increasingly demands that a programme of learning should result in the award of a formal qualification.

Indeed, it is now often a condition of funding by many public bodies. Attending a five-day session in a four-star hotel and coming away with nothing more than a certificate of attendance is no longer acceptable.

Third, qualifications provide important recognition for individuals who can now pursue a career focused on lean or continuous improvement. Having evidence that you have a specific level of lean expertise boosts your credibility and authority among managers, peers, subordinates, suppliers or customers. This appears to be particularly important as lean managers are, invariably, facilitators of change, where there is a particular requirement to be seen as authoritative and credible.

“One of lean’s inherent problems is the lack of an accepted standard definition of what it exactly is, and at least a certification system can offer an integrated framework showing how the various themes, subjects and schools of lean thinking relate and interconnect.”

Fourth, certification systems give employees a clear framework on which they can develop their lean knowledge and plan future learning. One of lean’s inherent problems is the lack of an accepted standard definition of what it exactly is, and at least a certification system can offer an integrated framework showing how the various themes, subjects and schools of lean thinking relate and interconnect.

However, certification systems are not without their critics. The lean philosophy famously emphasises learning by doing, with constant visits to the gemba, as this, it is claimed, is where the real learning takes place – not through PowerPoint-laden lectures. Indeed, several lean commentators appear actively against classroom-based learning and formal lean courses. There is, no doubt, some validity in this viewpoint, which probably applies to almost every practical endeavour, whether in medicine, engineering or simply driving a car. This has not been ignored by the creators of certification systems, many of which place a high emphasis on the inclusion of evidence of the practical application of lean principles and tools as part of the assessment criteria. This complements the knowledge aspect, which alone is no indicator of the real level of expertise.

A further criticism of certification systems is that they lead to training “for its own sake”, where legions of staff are put through programmes without being able to actually apply the knowledge in their jobs. This is generally the case when the training is not integrated into work activities or staff is not empowered sufficiently. This is training
overproduction at its worst. Ideally, continuous improvement activity needs to be integrated into all roles to make
such training truly productive.

Lean certifications are still relatively new, though several organisations (along with their staff) look to be embracing the concept with enthusiasm and a range of benefits are accruing for all parties.

The acid test of the success and ultimate longevity of certification systems will partly be based on their ability to deliver high perceived value for individuals, and partly on whether they can demonstrate they play a positive and cost-effective role in helping organisations reach what many consider to be the ultimate lean goal: a sustainable continuous improvement culture. The limited evidence so far suggests that the signs are positive and, as lean is increasingly accepted as a mainstream business discipline, it is likely that the demand for relevant and adaptable lean certification schemes and qualification systems will continue to grow.