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The disputed link between rote learning, repeatable success and creativity

rote learning

I’m going to make a case for rote learning. I don’t want to be purposely controversial (this time), so hear me out. I’m going to make the link to Lean practices that drive unrivalled productivity, which should excite you as much as it excites me. Post-covid, the firms that drive productivity, own the future.

I will start with a disclaimer: I am not an expert in education. I have seen our three kids successfully complete primary and secondary education, but I can neither claim credit nor expertise from their success. I also cannot claim to know the benefits or downsides of rote learning other than what most people know and hear.

We’ve been told that rote learning is still common in some countries and a significant contributor to the academic success of those nations in international rankings. In the other corner, we’ve also been told by education specialists that you are better set-up for life if you learn how to identify, acquire and synthesize knowledge, rather than mindlessly remember lines.

Many decades ago in high school, I learned an easy to remember rhyme for the rule for French adjectives that come before, not after the noun: “Bon, Beau, Joli – Haut Long Petit – Jeune, Vaste, Grand – Vieux, Mauvais, Méchant!” There are many exceptions to these rules, (because it is French 😊), but that’s beside the point. The point is that 35 years after passing my high school exam, I can still recite this mnemonic! I’m unconsciously competent.

Learning a task so you can mindlessly perform it – or more positively put – that you are unconsciously competent, is essential for productivity and performance. ‘Standard Work’ is the Lean practice where teams agree on the standard, best practice method that is validated to create the best outcome time and time again. Safest, highest quality, fastest, lowest cost. You can describe it, show it, learn it, teach it, problem solve against it, and improve upon it as it is part of the organisation’s institutional knowledge. We want to design the work so that teams and individuals are unconsciously competent.

I have heard countless times that someone can’t possibly implement Standard Work. From “the work is different every day”, to “we don’t want to be robots”, and “I want to be creative in my work”. They all miss the point. Being or becoming unconsciously competent through standard work creates the VERY OPPORTUNITY to study and improve the work, to be creative, and to be unique in your contribution, as it frees up the time and mental bandwidth for improvement.

“Without standards, there can be no improvement” said Taiichi Ohno, father of the Toyota Production System. Standard Work: C’est une bonne pratique!

About the author: Geerten Lengkeek is the Managing Director of Productivity People and Co-founder of the Global Lean Alliance