Creating a Learning Organization Is a Long-Term Journey

Anyone who has participated in creating a learning organization knows that it is a major undertaking. It has taken Toyota well over a decade to build an organization in North America that bears even a resemblance to the learning enterprise it built over several decades in Japan. Moving people from firefighting and short-term fixes to long-term improvements by adapting Toyota Way Principle 14: Become a learning organization through relentless reflection (hansei) and continuous improvement (kaizen) is an ongoing process at Toyota.

Even the Toyota Production System itself embodies the learning cycle of Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA).  You can see how the cycle relates to creating one-piece flow, surfacing problems, creating countermeasures, and evaluating results. An effective learning organization will then check to be sure the countermeasure is doing its job and then reduce inventory to create even more flow, which will surface new problems.

PDCA usually applies to fairly detailed work processes, but Suggests that a learning enterprise is continually using PDCA at all levels of the company, from the project, to the group, to the company, and ultimately across companies.

Transforming a company into a learning enterprise is a daunting task. It has taken Toyota most of a century to get to where it is today. After reading in this chapter how Toyota doesn’t have a golden set of metrics, uses hansei—a culturally foreign method for self-reflection, and depends on the straightforward tools of five-why, PDCA, and policy deployment, you must be scratching your head as to how you could emulate their success at all. The final part of this article addresses this complex issue of learning from the Toyota Way. Read on if you are thick-skinned.