Linking Lean Thinking to Education – Conference Notes: Womack’s vision of a ‘Gemba University’


By Luke Van Dongen

I am a huge fan of Jim Womack's ability to identify and describe problems within complex systems simply and absolutely. Womack was a keynote speaker at the conference and used his time to convey his understanding of the current problem, the lean approach to education and his vision for a ‘Gemba University'.

Womack began his talk with his definition of a lean process as, “a series of steps/actions taken correctly in the right sequence at the right time along a product value stream” in which, value is correctly identified by the customer. A few more slides followed that reinforced that any process can be shown visually using a value stream map before he asked the question; “What is education?”

Of course, the answer was that education is nothing more than another process in which teaching is the input and learning is the output. Because it's impossible to create a better process for delivering value without understanding what value is, Womack continued by offering suggestions as to who the customer of education is and the purpose of the education process.

So who is the customer of education? Is it the Student (also the supplier of raw material), the Parent (who may or may not pay), the Government, Employer, the University and faculty or Society? Womack contended that it didn't really matter who exactly the customer is because the value or purpose for education is mostly similar for each of these individuals or groups. That value, from Womack's presentation may or may not include:

  • Transfer of hard, bounded knowledge
  • Maturation of the student as a person
  • Creation of a support network
  • Creation of certificates of knowledge that are portable in a highly mobile society
  • Inculcation of a thought process

Next in his presentation was a description of the current process; how we educate today. Womack pointed out that current teaching methods designed to transfer large batches of knowledge are quite different from the process of gaining new knowledge through research and experiments. He questioned the effectiveness of presenting abstract principles, applied to abstract problems well ahead of actual need, through courses and classrooms. If we gain new knowledge through experimentation, why doesn't all learning work this way?

Toyota educated new hires by first assuming they only know math, reading and writing. New employees are immersed in the processes and asked to make improvements. They are assigned to a problem and provided with a teacher or mentor who guides them through the PDCA cycle, beginning a self-educating mechanism that continues throughout their careers. Learning is viewed as an integral secondary consequence of solving problems, without the use of classroom training or off-site university style training. A3 documentation containing the problem, process, recommendations and implementation / results becomes the record of improvement and evidence of learning.

Herein lies the heart of Womack's vision for lean education. He contends that a better process for educating would have students learn about process thinking and process improvement through “Gemba Learning”. This would provide students with not only the abstract theory, but the opportunity to apply the methods without the theoretical tone and foster confidence in applying the knowledge and skills gained. Gembas for applied learning can be created by partnering with industry, or by using the university itself if no other Gembas are available. The key is that the work involves a real value creating process and problem solving. Students should be graded on the degree to which problems are solved and their A3's become their certificates of learning.

There are significant challenges to achieving this vision, but I agree with the direction that Womack suggests. Establishing the necessary relationships with industry, providing new problems that consistently fit both the available time and learning objectives and changing standards for accreditation are just a small sample of obstacles that would need to be addressed. Personally, I always prefer working on real problems rather than studying from case studies, journal articles or other academic materials and I feel that the change would be worth the effort.

Are there any blog readers who are opposed to this vision? It would be particularly interesting to hear from some full time academics, or people involved with corporate training activities.

Womack's presentation, Lean Thinking for Education is available by following the link.

Previous posts on the Lean Education Conference held at WPI in October can be found here.

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Luke Van Dongen
Luke, an auto industry engineering veteran, blogged here from 2005 to 2006.


  1. I’m intrigued by this blog post. I have PhD in Instructional Technology and work in the Learning and Development organization of a large multi-national semiconductor manufacturing company. I would like to differentiate between Education, Training, and Learning for this discussion.

    Education is a system designed to maximize the teaching resource by putting 50-500 students in a room listening to the “expert” talk about a topic. Transfer in this case is very low because knowledge is not applied for a long time afterward.

    Training is a system designed to maximize student time so they can get back to their job by cramming the same information into their head in a fraction of the time using an less experience instructor. Transfer is better because the proximity of application is closer to the instruction.

    Learning is when the student actually knows something they did not previously know or is able to do something they could not previously do.

    These are super simplistic definitions that all professionals in my field disagree on. With that disclaimer it has been my experience that we could eliminate most of the “Education” and “Training” in corporations and get better results by using master/apprentice models, job aids, and performance support embedded into the system.

    Now that I agreed with Womack on part of what was said, I’ll disagree with this assertion:

    “If we gain new knowledge through experimentation, why doesn’t all learning work this way?”

    Why? Because there are lots of ways that we learn. It’s not just through experimentation. If that were true we should all list our copy of “Lean Thinking” on eBay and stop reading this blog. I don’t think we want to do that. The truth is that we probably learn at a much higher rate through experimentation than we do in many other ways so we could use that method as the pinnacle of our learning journey because education is not an end state it is a process that has no end.


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