Lean is about learning and improving. While we can read and study what has been written, many learn quicker by collaborating with others.

Here are some ways to accomplish that.

One-on-one learning: We all have had a mentor at some point in our life who helped us learn skills or gain needed knowledge. Benefiting from a mentor doesn’t have to be past tense. Seek out a willing mentor. Ask him or her to coach you or at least be a sounding board as you seek greater learning about a process, work function, lean tool or job requirements.

As an alternative to a mentor relationship, you can look for a peer or work associate who also wants to improve. You can engage that person in reading and discussing articles or books.

Another one-on-one learning opportunity can happen as you work to address a problem. Put the problem, the analysis and countermeasures on a form and seek input from various stakeholders by meeting individually with each one.

Team learning: The next level is learning and collaborating in groups or a team of three or more. This can be done by lean study teams reading and discussing a lean book. Learning will also take place when participating in a “kaizen” or rapid-improvement event. It can also happen in a department or project team meeting where part of the agenda is dedicated to sharing a lean principle, tool or real example. The topic and responsibility to share can be rotated within the team. An essential rule is the topic presenter can only use five minutes so there will be ample time left for discussion.

Learn within and across the organization: This can be a valuable learning experience as we hear views from other departments within the company. This learning will require company leaders to champion the opportunities. This can include formal exchanges of learning such as an all-foremen or project-manager meeting. Learning opportunities may be less formal by doing a lunch and learn where anyone interested in a specific topic is invited to participate. This event works better when lunch is provided. If you feed them, they will come. The expectation is made that if you eat the lunch you discuss the topic.

Industry-wide learning: This type of learning opportunity often takes place at meetings sponsored by associations such as the Sheet Metal and Air-Conditioning Contractors’ National Association, the Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors, the Mechanical Contractors Association of America, among others.

It may be a local chapter event or a national meeting. Someone will need to design the discussions and assist in organizing the event.

An even richer learning experience can be when chapters of different associations or professions hold combined learning events. Consider what a lean discussion involving the estimators, architects, financial managers and Lean Construction Institute “communities of practice” could yield in new opportunities to improve and collaborate.

Some contractors engage in peer groups. While these tend to focus on how each peer member operates, lean presentations paired with discussions on how lean applies to each contractor are useful.

Cross-industry learning: Every contractor feels they are different from other contractors and most different than manufacturing, health care and government organizations. This is true in terms of specific personnel, policies and markets. But they are not so different in how to manage and apply lean principles. Managing people, reducing waste and learning how to hear the voice of the customer is not that different across industries. We fool ourselves into thinking it is different and block real learning opportunities.

Several years ago in the Phoenix area, a group of lean champions from different companies and organizations were invited to meet and discuss common lean ideas. Out of this meeting came the Valley of the Sun Lean Benchmarking Group. It has no national affiliation, no membership requirements or fees. A few dedicated individuals run it. Every quarter these leaders organize a tour of a local company. The host organization usually does a PowerPoint presentation introducing their company and highlighting their lean efforts. Then, true to the lean principle of going to “Gemba” (Japanese “for where the work is done”), the attendees tour the facility and see how the company applies lean. Propriety work is not observed. The payout for the host company comes after the tour when there is a download of what the participants observed and what lean opportunities may exist.

It’s like having a set of consultants do a “muda walk” through the company. It is not free since the company had to invest the time — and some refreshments — to host the event, but it is relative inexpensive compared to current consultant fees. The participants see how others are applying lean. Any community can copy this lean sharing with some passionate volunteers and effort.

Contractors can learn from government too. For example, there is the Iowa Lean Consortium. This group shows how government and businesses can collaborate to make improvements. A group of private sector businesses worked with the state’s environmental regulatory agency to improve key business development processes. In their first lean project, lead-time for processing the air quality new source construction permits was reduced from 62 days to 12 days. A backlog of 600 permit applications was eliminated in six months. They are continuing to collaborate to improve processes. Not all local or state government agencies will be accepting of this streamlining approach, but how will they know if they don’t try?

Cyber learning: With today’s technology and social links there are new ways to learn and collaborate in a much broader sphere. Groups on LinkedIn, Facebook and many other social media websites contain more discussions on topics than anyone has time to read and comment. There are more blogs on any subject than one can imagine. One must pick and choose what groups, sites, and blogs to monitor and how much time to invest. Like prospecting for gold, much of the time there is little of real learning value as one sifts through the content. A few gold nuggets will be found, making the effort worth it.

Sharing ideas, collaborating and helping others improve their processes always have a payback. Participants gain additional learning and find ways to improve their own processes. We can learn from and through others.

Dennis Sowards is an industry consultant and guest writer for Snips. He is the author of the Lean Construction Pocket Guide: Ideas and Tools for Applying Lean in Construction. His company is Quality Support Services Inc. He can be reached at dennis@YourQSS.com or at (480) 835-1185.

For reprints of this article, contact Renee Schuett at (248) 786-1661 or email schuettr@bnpmedia.com.