Life-long learning, sustainability and work


  • Picture of Owen Berkeley-Hill FRSA
    Owen Berkeley-Hill FRSA
  • Skills
  • Vocational education
  • Sustainability

Having joined the RSA recently, Owen Berkeley-Hill FRSA outlines his journey to understanding the potential for people who are at the bottom of societies to provide some of the radical and sustainable responses we need to climate change and other challenges.

I spent most of my career at Ford bouncing around like a pinball rather than progressing up the ladder of one division. This allowed me to become very interested in processes: how work actually worked. Towards the end of my career, my Damascene moment happened when I was asked to join the Ford Production System, Ford’s Lean journey. In summary, Lean, or the Toyota Production System (TPS) is Toyota’s radically different leadership philosophy, which focuses on its people rather than the more common obsession of the majority of leaders: profit. My immediate reaction was, “Why the $%^&* was I not taught this when I was in my 20s?”. Learning more about Lean became a mild obsession and I managed to get Ford to sponsor my MSc in Lean Operations at Cardiff, which made me want to learn more about this radically different form of leadership, not talked about in polite academic circles, but openly practiced in the Derbyshire countryside at Toyota.

Serendipity and the old school tie got me teaching Lean at the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay, which I did for a decade. The experience of being back in India opened my eyes to what I had taken for granted as a boy. I learnt that over 90% of the Indian economy is in the ‘informal’ or ‘unorganised’ sector. The people working there, having little or no support from the government, rely on their wits to stay alive. Their ingenuity is known as Jugaad a textbook example of necessity being the mother of invention. How did people learn when they had had very little or no education? I was also fortunate to meet some amazing people who were focused on improving the lives of the people at the bottom of Indian society.

At the start of the lockdown, I began reading Compression, a book published in 2010, by Emeritus Professor Robert W Hall, known to his friends as Doc. I remember Doc being the keynote speaker at a Lean conference in 2011, where I had bought his book and then left it gathering dust on my shelves for nearly a decade.  Rather than preaching to the choir, Doc challenged us ‘Leanies’ as to whether we were really eliminating waste in all its forms. Compression was all about sustainability from a highly regarded Lean thinker. The heart of the book is not about finger pointing at the baddies, but the need for us to develop vigorous learning enterprises.  Doc cites Toyota as a seminal example of a learning organisation, but even Toyota is not vigorous enough. According to Doc, we need to reuse-repurpose-recycle in that descending order before we reach out for more raw materials.

I contacted Doc and apologised for my laziness. That led to conversations with him about my experiences of Jugaad and he agreed that, perhaps, just perhaps, the poor in India and in other developing countries might teach us a thing or three about sustainability. But how did they learn when the formal education system in India (as I remember it) is based almost exclusively on rote learning, which discourages creativity? 

This led me to Sir Ken Robinson and the need to find the element in all our young people, not just applaud those who excel at academic intelligence. It also resonated with the 70/20/10 model, which suggests that around 10% of what we need to know comes from formal, academic learning, usually in the classroom; the next 20% grows from working with others and having a good network (colleagues, teachers) who share their knowledge willingly. The remaining 70% comes from experience, experiment and reflection, the ‘scars’ and ‘burns’ that embed the knowledge as ‘muscle memory’.

But how realistic is it to expect parents to move away from their myopic obsession with five A-Stars and admission into Oxbridge?  Can the education system blend academic and experiential learning and regard vocational learning as an equal to a university degree?

Suppose we do radically change the education system so that it creates highly intelligent young people (in touch with their elements) who can hit the ground running. In this fast-changing, technological world how much of that knowledge will be past its ‘sell-by’ date next Tuesday? Will people be encouraged to learn by their organisations or will they be thrown onto the scrap heap, as is happening all around us now? How many of our leaders, both business and political, value life-long learning as Toyota does?  If they did, would we have outsourced and offshored the vast majority of manufacturing jobs to China? Was this done because we could not compete on labour costs, or because the vast majority were brainwashed by Milton Friedman’s edict of maximising shareholder value, regardless of the long-term damage to the lives of their workforces and the health of their companies? How compatible is Friedman’s edict with the need for sustainability?

The conversations with Doc expanded to include his circle of people in the US who are looking to improve the lives of those left behind, in both North and South America.  That circle was then expanded further to include the people I had met in India. 

One of our projects is to see if the inventors in Doc’s circle can develop an oxygen concentrator which can be made in India, using the materials and knowledge available there, not by Indian corporations (the10% of the formal Indian economy) but by the people in the ‘informal’ economy. This is a long shot but the kind of ambitious new approaches we need.

Another example is to see if we can get a Finnish technology, which one of Doc’s circle discovered in England, to be produces in India, again in the informal sector. This technology has been successfully used in the USA and other countries where large, centralised, water-treatment and recover plants make no financial sense. ‘From toilet to tap’ might make you squeamish, but, in the name of sustainability, does it make sense to water parks and golf courses with potable water? Would it make sense for poor, rural economies in rain-shadow areas of India to recover more of their waste water and return it to the aquifer?

As a newbie to the RSA, I see separate workgroups looking at work, education and sustainability, areas in which I am interested (though no expert). I hope they are interconnected so that they can make a real impact. I would be delighted to introduce any interested RSA Fellows to Doc’s circle or to the people in India in the hope of creating some much-needed synergy.

Owen began his career in Overseas Service, travelling America and the Far East. He then became an auditor and has since worked as an IT consultant in the US and Europe. This led him to discover the early attempts at process improvement, which eventually led to Lean and an MSc in his early 50s.


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