Recently I’ve been reading Eric Ries’s new book (The Startup Way) – a masterful work outlining the benefits of adapting prior thinking in Lean Startup to old world, 20th century business models. Coupled with discussions with my wife who has spearheaded adoption of lean methodology in a Forensic Biology unit to increase case turnaround time and effectively reduce their DNA case backlog, I’ve been wondering what Lean Education might look like. Of course I couldn’t have been the first person to make the connection and think this a great idea to explore further (I’m traditionally late to the party), however, I can be a loud voice in education reform that pounds the table, summarizes the idea, and asks that we consider adopting a few key tenants of lean thinking.
As Sarah McKay summarizes in her piece, ‘Lean for education is an improvement approach that encourages all school and district employees to identify and solve problems that prevent students and others who benefit from education from achieving the highest quality outcomes possible.’ She goes on to provide a short history lesson on Toyota’s original implementation of the model in manufacturing. Then describes some of the principles behind the initiative (efficiency, quality, importance of relationships, and the critical need to know what customers value and need). She goes on to imply that the collective (managers, workers, and clients) must have close relationships in order to effectively problem solve and produce the best possible product.
In watching my wife’s team effectively onboard the process and apply it to forensic analysis, I can say another critical element is buy-in from both management and employee. Without complete commitment to work through challenges during implementation, there’s little chance that the process will work as designed.
Ms. McKay highlights a case study from the School District of Menomonee Falls – where the district implemented these lean improvement practices and empowered its team to identify problems and work through solutions without unnecessary red tape. The ultimate goal was to create an environment where ‘expert problem solvers’ focused on creating the best educational environment for the student. They were encouraged to:
- Truly understand what students (their clients) saw as valuable
- Internalize how this student-defined value can be translated into standards and processes
- Implement if right or halt progress and fix if any defect is noticed
Again, the ultimate product is a team of operators willing to continually improve through process adjustment and implementation as long as the adjustment(s) are to the benefit of the client.
Lean educators are taught to think like scientists – essentially adopting a derivation of the scientific method as their development model. In the article, McKay describes the process as Plan-Do-Check-Action (PDCA) cycle. The key principle here is this process is circular and not linear. There is an expectation that once implemented, the cycle can/should be begun again and any learnings from the first round addressed by improvements in the second round (and so on).
In the Menomonee Falls case study, PDCA cycles were constructed for changes across a number of areas (literacy, comprehension, math skills, etc.) with an expected cycle time of 10-15 days. Once completed, educators analyzed the results against expected, proposed changes, and started the cycle over again. Through this process, other teachers were educated on the learnings and were able to grow along with the leads that implemented the initial PDCA cycle in a given topic. This promises to be an effective method to design, implement, and correct new teaching practices to adapt with both students and technology as needs and tools evolve (quickly).
While just one of a small few examples, the Menomonee Falls District case study suggests that implementing Lean Education can happen and you ‘can’ be solution driven/innovative in the current education environment. I do wonder what metrics the team(s) that implemented here were held to and whether they saw any meaningful gains. In the case of my wife’s lab, their backlog is basically non-existent (after being more than 6 months at one point) and average case turn-around time is under 30 days (from multi-month).
In education, I’m imagining a world where we begin to measure success by time to implement innovative curriculum, ability to adapt to changing macro environmental and student conditions, and advancement of individual students through concepts/lessons. As I’ve written before, it’s an exciting time to be in education – one where the winds of change are blowing and possibly ushering in an era of efficiency, accountability, and constant innovation.