America’s education system faces an enormously complex set of challenges. Educators find themselves faced with community and government pressure to improve student performance, but often without corresponding funding or influence over policies and expectations. In short, our school administrations and teachers are being asked to do more with less.
That’s why it isn’t surprising to find that education professionals are turning to a business management approach that has proven very effective in other sectors such as manufacturing and healthcare.
The methodology, called Lean, is based on the ideas of W. Edwards Deming, sometimes called the “Father of Quality Management.” He postulated and later proved that cost-effective, yet excellent results could be produced through process improvement. The core principle of Lean is that every process should add value, as value is defined by the customer. Every step that does not add value, known in Lean as waste, should be eliminated to the extent possible.
Applying Lean to Education
Leaders who first brought up the idea of applying Lean to education were hit with some unexpected pushback. Many people associate Lean with manufacturing, where it was first developed, and assumed that the goal was to create something of an assembly line in schools. No one likes the idea of assembly line education, so resistance was strong. Fortunately, Lean thinking is not assembly line thinking. It is focused on the perfection of processes, and while schools don’t produce tangible products, they certainly produce measurable results in terms of student achievement that can be monitored and improved over time.
Lean concepts can certainly be applied to teaching practices within schools, but it is important also to think about all of the processes that surround what happens in the classroom. Schools rely on a complex web of processes including:
With a list of process like this, the opportunities for improvement certainly abound in every district, K-12 school, and institute of higher education.
How Lean Works in Education
Lean practitioners in schools include staff members in every department and at every level to document current practices, define opportunities for improvement, and implement positive change to each process that contributes to the delivery of education service. Usually, an incremental approach to change is employed to streamline tasks, reduce resource needs, and control costs.
Lean is not a new burden or extra work for employees. It is a methodology that ultimately empowers workers to contribute ideas on how to make their work more effective and efficient. One of the central tenants of the approach is respect for people. The idea is to practice bottom-up management, giving the front-line employees, who are closest to every-day challenges, the support they need to solve problems quickly.
The process of improvement in a Lean education environment is simple, yet powerful. Employees identify and report opportunities for improvement, preferably using Lean software. Then an improvement cycle commonly referred to as PDSA (Plan, Do, Study, Adjust). The team agrees on a theory of what to do to achieve a specific improvement (Plan), the new idea is implemented (Do), the results are analyzed (Study), adjustments are made if necessary and a new standard is deployed for the process (Adjust). Once complete, a new cycle of improvement can begin, creating a continuous flow of small gains.
What it Takes to Be Successful
There is no magic wand that can be used to make a school or district suddenly a Lean machine. There are a few things that need to be in place in order to get the most impactful results.
Leadership – Although Lean is a bottom-up concept, strong leadership is essential for success. Leaders set the tone and provide support and resources. The best results with Lean come from deep commitment, which starts at the top.
Culture – Lean is a team sport that should impact the way every employee, from teachers to maintenance engineers, approaches problems. Employees should be rewarded and recognized for engagement and everyone should see improvement as part of their job responsibilities.
Training – The Lean approach has been around for a long time and has been broadly used. There are tons of valuable lessons that have already been learned. With the right training, Lean leaders in education can build on what’s happened in manufacturing, healthcare, and technology companies rather than reinvent the wheel.
Technology – These days, if something is important, there’s a software application to support it. That’s true in Lean as well. The right solution helps increase the momentum of change, improve the impact, and prove the value of the work.
The benefits of Lean in education can be profound. It isn’t the only solution to the challenges faced by educators today, but we predict it will significantly contribute to improving educational outcomes and job satisfaction.