Lean Instructional Design

Francis Laleman
Time has come to clean up corporate training.

Author: Francis Laleman

Time has come to clean up corporate training. Because, honestly, a mere name change and calling it Learning and Development won’t do. It simply won’t. No matter how nice the wording sounds.

Frankly, there are too many “trainers” around. And too many (corporate) clients providing market for them.

We need a clean break. It is not by perfecting candles that electricity got invented. We need to come up with a new approach. Organisational learning for the 21st century. Provisionally, I call it LID – Lean Instructional Design.

Mind you: LID is not easier than training. It requires professionalism. It is as tough a change as the one from typist to IT professional. - Where the trainer is the typist, but I gather you got that just in time.

Below is a provisional, unfinished Manifesto for the Leanification of the organisational processes of instructional design and continuous learning.

Typists: beware!

Optimize the Whole

Optimizing a select choice of competences will always work on a limited scale. In order to create real growth, we need to zoom out and trigger the Whole into action – designing learning tracks that involve every layer and nook of the organisation. ID experts should stop asking Who else is impacted? The real question is How are the others impacted?

Focus on the entire value stream. ID experts should design learning tracks all the way, from learning needs to where the accomplished learning has been shown to impact the overall output (in quality, quantity and value) of the organisation.

Deliver a complete product. Nobody wants training. Nobody wants trainers. What we want is learning – in order to grow (as individuals, teams, business units, organisation, community of organisational stakeholders).

Think long term. Learning and development has nothing in common with incentive systems that drive short term thinking and optimize local performance.

Eliminate Waste.

Waste is anything that does not add learning value. In ID, waste is frequently visible in the following domains:

Building the wrong thing. Training sessions are commonly being designed to last exactly one work day, not because this benefits the learner (It doesn’t!), but because this is comfy for the trainer. For trainers, it is way easier to bill a day fee than to invoice an amount of money for an amount of learning done. We should get rid of trainers. Welcome the learning facilitators. Where focus is not on training but on learning.

Failure to learn. Quite a few of the more common organisational policies interfere with the kind of learning that is the essence of development. Common sense could easily point out these crashingly contra-productive policies. For inspiration, think of governance by variance from plan, frequent handoversseparating decision making from workorganizing classroom training where trainers teach and learners listen, creating a deck of slides to be used for training and as a handout, etcetera etcetera.

Trashing. Practices that interfere with the smooth flow of the learning process deliver half the learning for twice the effort. To get you starting, think of ill-designed role plays, slide lectures, long lists of unanswered questions, trainers with inadequate knowledge of the learning process, and (a whole lot) more.

Build Quality In.

If you routinely find that participants in a learning track are “bad learners”, conclude that your learning process is defective.

Final verification should not find defects. If you find that any of the famous four Kirkpatrick questions (Did they like it? Did they learn it? Do they use it? Does it impact overall growth?) trigger answers in the range of negative to unconvincingly so – then know that your learning effort has been a complete waste. Finding and fixing defects should come as early in the process as possible.

Mistake-proof your process with test-first development. Design your learning tracks step by step. Learn incrementally. Test throughout whether or not learning has taken place.

Break dependencies. A learning track should support the addition of any learning feature at any time.

Learn Constantly.
 (Obvious, innit?)

Planning is useful. Learning is essential.

Predictable performance is driven by feedback. One should develop the capacity to rapidly respond to the future as it unfolds. Learning is always somewhat unpredictable. Agility is key.

Maintain options. Learning together is an experiment. The more change-tolerant a learning track is, the better it will perform.

Last responsible moment. Learn as much as you can before making irreversible decisions.

Deliver Fast.

Even for children, learning is facilitated by rapid results. For grown-ups, rapid results are essential.

Rapid results and low cost high quality learning are fully compatible. ID experts should experiment with the fact that learning itself is the best learning incentive.

Queuing theories apply in learning. Aggressively limit the size of learning queues. Work in short batches. A full day is usually way too long as a learning unit.

Managing workflows is easier than managing schedules. Use Kanban or another visualisation tool to show predictable learning deliveries in reliable, repeatable learning flows.

Engage everyone.

Autonomy. The most effective work groups, in learning just as well as in production, are semi-autonomous teams with a learning facilitator deploying end-to-end responsibility for complete and meaningful learning.

Mastery. Respect for people means providing the challenge, feedback and environment that enables everybody to become excellent in those competencies in which they are already good.

Purpose. Tie learning to value. Only by believing in the purpose of learning will people become engaged in achieving that purpose.

Keep Getting better.

Results are not the point. The point of ID is to develop people and systems capable of delivering results.

Failure is a learning opportunity. The most reliable learning incorporates failure as a tool.

Standards exist to be challenged. Do not expect people to learn and then refrain from challenging standards and best practices.

Work scientifically. Make teams learn how to work with hypotheses, conduct experiments, create concise documentation, and implement the alternative which is currently seen as “best”.

[This Manifesto currently covers cornerstones of Lean in all its aspects. It is a document of growth. You might help in its growth with your comment(s)]


In this article, I have parafrased the Lean programme as represented by Henrik Kniberg in his most valuable work book Lean from the Trenches (The Pragmatic Programmers, 2011). Miraculously, I have found that Kniberg's Lean points can be copy/pasted into ID with nearly no changes or additions. I invite comments from readers to further add to and finetune my LID manifesto.