If the Learner Has Not Learned, Point at the Moon:

point at the moon

In today’s post I will be looking at the role of teaching in lean and I will try to look at the role of the student in learning. “If the learner has not learned, then the teacher has not taught.” This has come to be a common expression in Lean. This saying was introduced as part of Training Within Industry’s Job Instruction (JI) program. The original expression in the JI Program manual was “If the worker hasn’t learned, the instructor hasn’t taught.” The JI card carried the statement “If the learner hasn’t learned, the teacher hasn’t taught.”

My favorite record of this statement is from the 1942 November issue of “The Rotarian” magazine. The Albert E Wiggam’s article was titled “Foremen in 10 hours” and it talked about the Job Instruction Training program (JIT). According to the article, The purpose of the JI program was to enable the foremen to have the “show’em how” – the ability to pass the “know-how” to the new-comers in ten hours.


The implication in the statement “If the learner hasn’t learned…” is that the responsibility of the student’s learning rests solely with the instructor. It is my view that the student has the responsibility to be willing as well. My favorite quote regarding this comes from the most famous Japanese Samurai Miyamoto Musashi (1584 – 1645).

“Let the teacher be as a needle, the student as a thread.”

The student has to follow the teacher like a thread that follows the needle. This is a beautiful expression. The focus of the JI program is to show how to prepare the student and how to explain “the why” and “the how” of each step. It also focused on having the student repeat the operation, and to ensure that the instructor follows-up and provides the required feedback creating a closed learning loop.

 “The Ackoff Model”:

My favorite model of Knowledge Management is the DIKUW model made popular by the famous Management Science professor Russell Ackoff. This is shown below:


The five components in the order of importance are;

  1. Data – discrete packets or values. An example for this is just a set of numbers and nouns.
  2. Information – data with context. Answers to questions such as Who, What, When, How many etc.
  3. Knowledge – answer to the question How?
  4. Understanding – answer to the question Why in a global level?
  5. Wisdom – ability to understand the situation to know what to do and execution with results

I will be using this model to further explain my thoughts. Data, information and knowledge can be imparted, and are external to the student. However, understanding and wisdom cannot be imparted and are internal to the student. The teacher can only guide the student and it is the student’s responsibility to practice and learn on his own to achieve understanding and wisdom. Perhaps, the intent of the JI is to impart knowledge to the worker on how to properly perform the operation. But the understanding and wisdom to improve one’s work (kaizen thinking) should come from the operator.

The teacher has to ensure that the student has achieved knowledge, and the student has to ensure that he achieves understanding and wisdom.

My favorite expression describing the difference between knowledge and wisdom (inspired by Peter Drucker) is;

Knowledge is doing things right and wisdom is doing the right things.

The above expression indicates that knowledge has to do with being efficient, and wisdom has to do with being effective.

The Role of the Sensei:

“Sensei” is a Japanese word that has roots in Chinese and the literal meaning in Japanese is “lives (born) before”. Sensei has come to mean “Teacher”. The term is connected with martial arts training. There are four criteria that a sensei should possess;

  1. Technical ability – understanding of the technical aspects of the subject and ability to keep on polishing/learning
  2. Taking Responsibility – ensuring that the sensei passes along his knowledge so that the “chain” does not get broken
  3. Ability to communicate – the sensei must be able to communicate his mastery to his students of all levels of aptitude
  4. Understanding – the sensei should be understanding of his students

The Role of the Student:

There is a notion in Zen that “when the student is ready, the teacher will appear”. The implication here is that the student has to be ready first and pursuing learning, only then will the teacher appear. The student can learn from everything around him only if he is receptive to learning. The student has the responsibility to present himself with humility and determination to understand and practice the skill. The student must be eager to learn and willing to “forget” what he has learned before.  My favorite account for this is an anecdote I have heard before:

A student went to a teacher and asked him “can you teach me how to meditate” and the teacher said “No. I might let you learn under me.”

 My Final Words:

It is the responsibility of the teacher to help the student attain knowledge, and it is the responsibility of the student to reach wisdom from there. Both the teacher and student have to be willing to give and receive learning. The student has to surpass the teacher. The student cannot do this simply by copying the teacher. The student has to build upon the teacher’s teachings and find wisdom on his own, leapfrogging the teacher.

teacher - student

I will finish this off with a Zen story about pointing at the moon – don’t mistake the finger for the moon.

The Buddha says “my teaching is not a dogma or a doctrine, but no doubt some people will take it as such.” The Buddha goes on to say “I must state clearly that my teaching is a method to experience reality and not reality itself, just as a finger pointing at the moon is not the moon itself. A thinking person makes use of the finger to see the moon. A person who only looks at the finger and mistakes it for the moon will never see the real moon.”

To see the moon you have to look beyond the finger.

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was The Many Flavors of Kaizen.


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