Lean Training: Lessons From Vimy Ridge

You know who does lean training really well? The Military. Think of it – they have to. You get young, inexperienced nineteen year old+ kids and you have to get them ready to go to war, and win. Or, at least, survive. How does the military do that and in such a short amount of time? They teach those raw recruits the best practices to survive – and part of those best practices is to respond, not react.

What does that mean – respond, not react? Think about it. You’re in the field, all hell is breaking loose, you don’t have time to consult the manual. In fact, the manual is probably being used as a triage bandage. What do you train your men to do? You train them to deal with what is happening right there. The one thing they can’t do is jump without looking – so you give them the best tools and processes to determine what to do next.

It’s hard to remember the plan when…

That means troops on the ground have to display both discipline and ingenuity. Not only do they have to be trained to fight and defend themselves, but they also have to be trained to problem solve, to survive and succeed, no matter what. There is always a plan, an objective whenever the military is involved. And any grunt on the ground will tell you it’s hard to remember the plan when bombs are going off every 15 seconds and bullets are flying.

For most people, everyday work may not be so dramatic – but the problem solving sounds a lot like lean training.

Lean training may be a recent idea but it isn’t new – at least not for the Canadian military. Canada remembers Vimy Ridge as the first time Canadians fought together as the Canadian Army. History notes the Canadian Army succeeded where both the French and British armies failed. The Canadian Army accomplished that task by committing to a new way to fight the war. A crucial part of that plan was to train, and to train in a manner no one had ever done before.

To start, the Canadian officers sat down with their French and British counterparts, who had served during their army’s attacks on Vimy Ridge. Both militaries shared their experiences, and the analysis of those experiences guided the Canadian battle plan. That would be lean analysis.

Training a lean mean fighting machine

The Canadians also took advantage of personal war experience. Many of the officers had served in the Boer War and had seen terrible losses when the commanding officer – the only one who knew the plan – was killed within minutes of action. The remaining soldiers had no idea what to do and were often lost due to lack of leadership. The Canadians decided everyone had to know the plan – right down to the cooks. If an officer fell, it was up to the next man to step into the void. Everyone was included in the plan.

Today, we would say that is putting a lean methodology in place, blending the team and plan. But then it was transformative – no one had ever thought to tell enlisted men they had to step into an officer’s role if their officer fell.

The big difference in the Canadian approach was they trained. The troops were trained behind the front line on a full-scale model with white tape indicating trench positions. Platoons learned to leap frog one another – to take a position, defend it and cover the next platoon as they moved to the next objective. Forty thousand trench maps were printed and distributed. The idea was everyone knew the layout of the entire battlefield. The objective was to move fast on the ground, supported by precision artillery strikes, using the latest in weaponry – the machine gun and rifle launched grenade.

Today, it’s apparent a number of lean methodologies were involved. Analysis, setting benchmarks, planning and evaluating – there are a significant number of parallels. But what is most interesting is the emphasis the army placed on training everyone to be part of the plan, and that the plan would only succeed when everyone made it theirs.

A plan + training = success

The Canadian Army gave their men the tools they needed, a plan that involved everyone, that gave everyone ownership of the objective, and they trained. They trained to get it right – and that training emphasized over and over again – you are part of this plan, this plan belongs to you as well as everyone else, we only succeed when we all work together. And as a result – they won the Ridge.

What a lot of organizations forget in the rush to be lean is – lean training is part of it. Lean training builds culture and it involves everyone. And that is transformative. If you doubt it – look what it did for the Canadian Army on their first outing.