How a Japanese car manufacturer can help you learn better

When I studied Chinese in high school, it didn’t go so well. For one, I was learning Mandarin while living in Hong Kong, where people speak Cantonese—a completely different dialect.

But there were other problems. The syllabus for my course must have been created by politically conscious people because—and this was ten years ago—I was supposed to learn to speak about climate change in Chinese.

I couldn’t even walk into a grocery store and order some vegetables, so it felt ridiculous to learn the Chinese way to say “the Earth is projected to heat up by an average of more than two degrees celsius by the end of the century”.

It was pretty obviously not the right time for me to learn the Chinese climate change vocabulary.

But sometimes, what you should and should not learn right now is less obvious.

Let’s say you’re learning to build model railroads. When you’re just starting, you’ll need to know how to power your railroad, which locomotive will fit which rail cars, etc. But should you also learn about the various types of track intersections? About installing sensors to automatically operate switches?

When you’re in a situation where there is so much you could learn, what should you actually learn? To answer this question, we can borrow a useful concept from Toyota, the Japanese car manufacturer.

Traditionally, car manufacturing plants kept large stocks of parts—more parts than they would probably need anytime soon. The idea was to have extra parts around “just in case”. But keeping extra parts around is expensive. You have money tied up in them, plus you need to pay for space to store them.

So Toyota came up with the concept of just-in-time manufacturing. They would order the parts for a car only when an order for that car came in. That way, Toyota had to keep way fewer parts around, which lowered their costs.

In the same way, when you’re learning something new, you could try to learn everything there is about that topic before you get your hands dirty. But learning takes time and occupies valuable mental space.

What if you instead used just-in-time learning?

Learn only what you need to know right now. Then use your newly acquired knowledge or skills. When you run into a problem because there’s something you don’t know, only then learn that extra thing.

In other words: learn to order vegetables before you learn to discuss how to mitigate climate change.


— Peter

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