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Applying some Lean principles to Language Learning

Applying some Lean principles to Language Learning

The following article by Level 3 practitioner Lee Boardman talks about how to apply lean principles to different areas of learning. Lee explains how lean philosophy’s techniques can easily work as a foundation for any learning challenge we set. This includes learning something which is completely new and unfamiliar, even Persian.

With a keen interest in history, language and understanding the application of historical ideas, I embarked on a journey that would take me to some of the most exciting and unexpected locations, meet some unexpected people and forever change my view of the world.

The Catalyst

In my early adolescent years, aside from my passion for the outdoors and many misadventures due to intense curiosity of all things, I spent a lot of time reading books and playing video games. One video game, in particular, introduced me to a historical order, named ‘the knights’ templar’. How is this snapshot relevant to Lean you ask? Well, perhaps it was the catalyst that led me down the Lean path.

Jumping forward to 2015, my interest had culminated in me finally making the very long and drawn out decision to select the language that I would invest my time in studying and learning. Previously failing at continuing with Japanese and French and considering hundreds of other languages I had settled on Farsi or Persian as it often better known. We often see a myriad of information and misinformation on TV news and the internet about Iran – the predominant area in which Farsi is spoken, but the reality is vastly different.

The Struggle

After sifting through the internet and collecting piles of language materials, I found myself making little progress. I had enormous amounts of data, papers, videos, books, audio classes, Podcasts etc, but I was still struggling to form any sort of coherent sentence. Why was my method not effective?

New Role

I had just started a new role at a Not-for-profit medical College and was busy implementing a Lean program. I found myself drawing correlations between how I was forming solutions for the College and how I was approaching my new endeavour of learning Persian. One night, during my long 1.5-hour train ride home, I began to formulate a hypothesis. Perhaps I could lend my Lean skills to improve my language studies.

How it started

I started by developing a value stream and defining value, I already had the Voice of the Customer, so it wasn’t difficult to quickly sketch my value stream and start identifying waste. Inventory waste saw the first cull. I had mountains of documents and data, but how much of it added value or was in active use? Transport was next to go, if I really wanted to tackle this, I needed to increase the efficiency and effectiveness in which I could access the data and from where. Now that my inventory was neat and rationalised, I uploaded it to the cloud accessible from anywhere in the world (with an internet connection) which also took care of a lot of Motion. I quickly identified defects in my personal learning style as I was a hands-on learner but up until now, I only had access to theory, so I needed to develop some tests and solutions.

A multi-cultural community

Living in a multi-cultural community, I was blessed with the opportunity to utilise the ‘What’s In It For Me’ model, where I placed an ad online for a language swap. I would teach and test conversational English for the joint benefit of being taught and tested on conversational Persian. It was a great success, I had emails coming in from all angles. My first few meetings were fairly unstructured and I could quickly see that I had not correctly broken down the goals and critical path, so after some sketching, I came up with a much better model.

A new model

I would meet at the community library, we would dedicate equal time to helping each other and developed an agreed structure of defining what we wanted to learn/achieve in between sessions. Keeping track of what was discussed and with whom using a Kanban method, allowed us to easily and efficiently navigate our new process. Waiting time was the next waste to go, I could access my data anywhere and I had multiple opportunities collaborating with other team members, so I used this opportunity to enhance the schedule. Testing the methods and measuring the data over time allowed me to improve the cycle, produce further tests scenarios and develop improvement opportunities, which was proving highly successful. With throughput significantly reduced and knowledge significantly increasing, I was ready for the real test.

The Adventure

After securing a tourist visa, I booked a trip to Iran and after a few more weeks of eagerly waiting I was finally on my way, alone to a Country that had been polarised over the years through media, which I later discovered to be very incorrect. I had never travelled alone and had never travelled this far from home, let alone to a Country that I could really only understand the very surface of from reading blogs or watching phone videos online, but I was determined.


I landed in Tehran Airport mid-2016, to bustling conversations, ubiquitous cultural passion on display and was awed to be greeted with such courtesy, politeness and respect (airports of any country have always been a bit of a pain point for me and one of my least favourite parts of travelling). I was very relieved to find that I could understand quite a lot of the voices around me and although many people spoke too fast and with thicker accents than I was used to hearing, my current level of knowledge was allowing me to understand.


After successfully purchasing a phone sim card and buying a bottle of water, my confidence began to grow and while I experienced a number of minor language challenges throughout my trip, applying Lean principles to my learning allowed me to quickly correct and adapt, with the added benefit of having my previous cloud solution available to access all my previous data and knowledge.


During my time in Iran, I was able to test and demonstrate the benefits of my Lean efforts and while the more detailed results are part of another story, I can conclude by stating that at the time of writing this, I have travelled to Iran 7 times in 3 years, I regularly correspond with many good friends in Iran using video chat and catch up with my Australian language friends regularly, and best of all I am sitting beside my Iranian wife who now shares my home in Australia. As for the Medical College, I am now in my third year leading the Lean program and by using the PDCA cycle, we are moving towards a bright future.

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