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Do Your Learning Efforts Deliver Business Value?

More and more business leaders are embracing the need for employee development. You might not believe it, especially if you’ve experienced budget cuts recently. But have you stopped to think whether those cuts were deserved? 

Leaders cut budgets when what you provide doesn’t deliver relevant value for their needs. How do your training solutions address business needs, add value, and remain relevant? 

Every organization, including yours, has something that leaders refer to as a value chain. A value chain illustrates the value a company creates, from sourcing initial resources (raw materials) to completing the end product or service, minus what that product or service cost to create. This reflects the organization’s profit margin. The more value an organization creates, the more profitable it is likely to be. Michael Porter, a leading Harvard strategist, first introduced this concept in his 1985 book, Competitive Advantage

What does this have to do with you learning efforts? Everything, if you want your efforts to be relevant and don’t want to see another budget cut. First off, you must discover your organization’s value chain and which of the primary value chain activities add the most value. (This could be through efficiencies, profitability, or growth.) Effective learning practitioners discover and monitor specifically what, how, when, and where their organization creates value. Then they target those areas to identify skills needs in relation to business activity purpose to ensure that any proposed learning effort delivers value. 

In addition, learning departments need to become lean. The term "lean" has grown in popularity with trends like lean productivity, lean analytics, and lean start-up. But typically, most people shudder when a business leader says the word, especially to those supporting activities like learning and development. Why? Because many translate this to mean cost reductions, which makes sense. The word originates from when we ask our neighborhood butcher for a lean piece of meat or to trim of the fat (also a common business phrase). So, it is not a stretch to associate lean with cost-cutting measures. 

But experienced lean practitioners never see lean as a cost-cutting approach but rather as a cost reallocation practice. For example, for organizations like Toyota (the company that initiated lean manufacturing principles), lean is about reallocating limited resources to activities that create value and eliminating waste in the process. They also consciously leverage lean to capture learning opportunities. For Toyota, learning is not an afterthought as it is for some competitors. The company’s integrative thinking encourages continuous learning within and throughout the production and delivery process allowing opportunities to develop more innovative, quality-driven offerings. Competitors that don’t encapsulate learning within their lean process wonder how Toyota maintains a high standard and market leadership position.


Lean is not only for manufacturing. It applies to any business process and is a growing trend as progressive organizations around the world are implementing lean with the same learning thinking approach and vigor as Toyota. This is a testament to their respective learning departments’ proactive approach and adaptability. 

It’s unlikely that Toyota’s learning team would ask, “Why are they cutting my budget?” Rather, because they exist in a lean, value-driven environment, the company’s learning is also lean. So its learning practitioners probably ask themselves, “How do we create more learning value with the resources we have?” and “What doesn’t add value to the learning and development process?” 

Business leaders who insist on lean learning flip the learning paradigm. Their learning efforts get employees to actively pull learning into their activities rather the traditional approach where learning is pushed upon them. 

You might think that would never work for your company. To certain extent you are right. It is a cultural shift that begins with your leaders seeing how knowledge contributes to business value. But you need to prove that learning can add value if you want your leaders to think differently. You can sit back and hope for the best, wishing that your business leaders have a change of heart or, you can be proactive like your Toyota colleagues. 

Hopefully, you will choose the latter. Begin by identifying your organization’s primary value creation activities. Then, target areas requiring precise learning solutions (working with the business unit stakeholders, of course). And finally, develop lean learning interactions that limit work disruptions and maximize the resources available to you and your internal client. Doing these few steps will get the attention of business leaders and lead you on a path to becoming a lean learning practitioner.


© 2016 ATD, Alexandria, VA. All rights reserved.

About the Author
Ajay Pangarkar is is a co-founder of and, and co-author of The Trainer’s Balanced Scorecard: A Complete Resource for Linking Learning to Organizational Strategy. He is a Chartered Professional Accountant (CPA), Certified Management Accountant (CMA), and a Certified Training and Development Professional (CTDP).
About the Author
Performance management expert Teresa Kirkwood is co-founder of and With Ajay M. Pangarkar, she is co-author of The Trainer’s Balanced Scorecard: A Complete Resource for Linking Learning to Organizational Strategy.
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