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A Lean Approach to Education

Our nation’s education system is complex, and today’s educators are up against unprecedented challenges, including the reality of diminishing student achievement.  


21st century educators are tasked with providing an education that prepares students for the global, societal, and business demands of modern times. Yet, as educators are being asked to do more, they are met with waning financial support and political influence.

Ultimately, educators are being asked to do more with less.

Less money, fewer resources, and little influence.

Educators and school administrators are on the front-lines. They experience the everyday challenges of modern education, yet teachers, schools, and even districts have little say in driving systemic change. However, that doesn’t mean these players can’t play a critical role in shifting the education paradigm toward a more efficient, effective system that promotes growth mindsets, dynamic relationships, and ultimately, increased student achievement.

But where do you begin?

The answer: the factory floor.


While this may seem unconventional, the factory floor is the birthplace of lean management– a methodology that focuses on continuously improving processes and empowering individuals through defining and maximizing customer value while minimizing waste.

And education needs just that: improvement, empowerment, and value.

The ideology dates back to post WWII, when W. Edwards Deming first introduced the idea of lean manufacturing in an effort to rebuild Japan’s shattered post-war economy. Deming’s theories were grounded in quality. While most manufacturers inspected their products post production, Deming believed the solution was in the process. Rather than waiting until products were complete, the quality guru maintained that the more efficient method was to inspect and fix problems along the way.

However, it was the Toyota Corporation that adopted and transformed Deming’s theory into a method, a system, and a philosophy that altered the way we conduct business today. The Toyota Production System is about defining and achieving success through a complete elimination of waste while imbuing all aspects of production in pursuit of the most efficient methods.

While this sounds robotic, it isn’t. Going lean is not rigid steps to success, but rather, it’s a shift in thinking.

The process is built upon continuous improvement and respect for people. Toyota gave their employees the right to halt production at any time in order to problem solve. This established a sense of autonomy and empowered employees to be innovative and fully engaged in determining the processes that minimized waste and maximized output. Ultimately, it’s about producing a product that customers value, and to this day, Toyota employees are motivated by pleasing their customers with a quality product.


Leaning into Education

Over the years, hundreds of companies have adapted the Toyota way of thinking as it has become synonymous with the pursuit of success. While the lean ideology is centered around learning, ironically, educators didn’t begin adopting the concept until recently.

Perhaps applying assembly line-thinking to education seems counterintuitive. After all, steel-infused factory floors don’t exactly resemble the rainbow carpets and reading nooks of American classrooms. However, when you take a closer look, this manufacturing practice may very well transform the way we teach, lead, and learn.   

Unlike manufacturers, educators don’t produce a tangible product. A quality education isn’t  tangible- you can’t hold it. But, you can measure it.

Thus, educators can engage in the lean processes by using data to measure, analyze and improve student achievement over time, and when it comes to lean thinking, it’s all about data.  

Think of students as the consumers and educators as service providers. Together, service providers collaborate to understand their customers’ (students and parents) needs and values, while striving to deliver the highest quality product (a quality education).  

Just like the factory floor, educators are empowered to identify problems, halt “production” and work together to eliminate wasteful steps within a process, and ultimately produce a product or service customers value.

At first glance, educators may view this methodology as a burden or just another item on their never-ending to do list, but if implemented correctly, this idea will create a culture of bottom-up management that provides front-line employees with the liberty and tools to identify and efficiently solve problems.


How Lean Education Works

When looking at lean ideology in education, it is natural to go directly to the classroom processes, and while lean thinking has the power to transform a classroom, lean processes have the potential to alter the way an entire school operates.

And the practice is relatively simple.

This is a team-based problem solving model that uses the PDSA Improvement Cycle (plan, do, study, adjust) to guide change management and create holistic organizational improvements and involve everyone from students to superintendents in driving lasting change.

So what does this really look like? Dive into the following scenarios to see the impact of lean thinking.

Scenario 1

The Problem
A principal is reflecting on the school’s low teacher retention rates. She believed her staff was happy but the amount of teachers who chose to leave suggested otherwise.

Plan
She worked with her admin team to create an action plan, known as the minimal viable product or MVP, which is the least wasteful solution that still maintains the value students and parents require and deserve. The team created surveys to give to teachers on a monthly basis to measure and improve adult culture.

Do
The principal implemented the survey and teachers had an opportunity to share their honest opinions.

Study
The data showed that only 20% of teachers felt like their voice was valued. 8% of teachers are leaving the classroom every year and one of the largest reasons is because teachers feel they have a lack of voice.

Adjust
The administrative team created a plan to increase the opportunities for teacher voice to be heard by creating problem solving committees and new ways to provide feedback. Teachers were also asked for their opinions and in the following month, the data showed that 80% of teachers felt their voices were heard.

Scenario 2

The Problem
Students in a 6th grade math class are continuously earning low scores on their unit tests. Based on students’ class participation, the teacher believes they understand the content.

Plan
A team of teachers collaborate to determine an action plan. They decide they are waiting too long to measure mastery and they want to shorten the feedback loop and measure what students know at the end of each lesson instead of at the end of a unit.

To solve this, the team suggests the teacher implements daily exit tickets at the end of each class to assess student mastery. By implementing exit tickets, the teach can identify the students who struggled with the daily objective and circle back the following day to intervene.

Do
The teacher creates exit tickets for the following week.

Study
During each lesson the teacher circulates and collects data on student mastery. She notices the students who are struggling are the same students who struggled on the unit test.

Adjust
Using the data, the teacher pulls a small group to work closely with the students who are struggling until they master the topic. The teacher also plans a reteach lesson when a majority of the class is confused.

The scores on the end of unit assessments were significantly higher because the teacher was able to halt “production” and intervene quickly.


Leaning into Change

The lean approach will require educators to adapt and change. While the word change can be jarring, it is critical that educators face the facts. Our education system is in trouble and what we are doing isn’t working. A mere 25% of American students can perform at government-mandated competency levels and it’s estimated one high school students drops out of school every 26 seconds. Numbers like these urge us to try something new, now.

Taking a lean approach to education isn’t going to create instantaneous success, but it will pave a path toward change. Our current system is archaic. It is bureaucratic, in that gives little power to those on the front lines. It leaves little room for innovation, and thus little opportunity for improvement.

It is time for change.

Like any change, there will be questions, but the question is not what will happen if we try, but rather, what will happen if we don’t?

What’s your take on lean education? Share your thoughts below!


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