Lean thinking, better education

Published on
March 9, 2019
René Aernoudts
René Aernoudts
René Aernoudts is director/owner of LMI
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Like medicine, teaching is a calling. Shaping students' minds is a huge responsibility that teachers take on with passion and dedication, but it can also be a huge burden - both emotionally and physically. A school board here in the Netherlands, Zaan Primair, recently began addressing staff overload in 10 of its 25 schools, and I find the work they are doing inspiring.

Lean Thinking to improve education

Zaan Primair is not new to Lean thinking. They have been applying it in their classrooms for some time in an attempt to improve teaching by encouraging students to set, visualize and track goals themselves. It worked pretty well, but until recently they didn't think Lean could be applied in any other way.

That all changed when they attended a learning event at Nyenrode Business University, where one of our clients explained how they were working with us on their Lean transformation. They thought it was an interesting approach and asked me to stop by their CEO to explain what kinds of problems Lean could be used for (the answer is any problem, if you're wondering).

On the day of our meeting, when he learned that Lean could be used in the context of Zaan Primair schools, the CEO looked almost as if he had been struck by lightning. He immediately saw an opportunity to use Lean to relieve pressure on the school board's teachers.

A Task Force had been created the previous year to address this problem. The participants had set aside one day a week (a sign of how great the concerns were for the school board) to work together to resolve the overload, but they had struggled to focus their efforts and find a way forward.

A3 thinking looking for causes of overload

We as Lean Management Institute were asked to step in to help the team break the impasse they were in. Our Lean coaches brought A3 thinking to Zaan Primary, a problem-solving method that would help them get clear on where the overload was coming from.

Initial analysis showed that there were three peaks of work during the year, represented by activities such as parents' evenings. Incidents (from a fight between students to a discussion between a teacher and a parent) were also found to take up a large portion of teachers' time each day (it is worth noting that these activities are often work that teachers take home and can potentially cause a lot of emotional turmoil).

Lean education

We first addressed the peaks in work by showing the Zaan Primair team that they could plan their work largely differently and avoid concentrating it on three specific moments in the school year. So we helped them flatten the work: the parent meetings no longer took place three times a year, but every week (usually one or two per week). They were scheduled during the day rather than in the evening, with parents saying goodbye before the students entered the school - which added 50 more teaching minutes per week per class and more breaks during the day for the teachers.

Then we started looking at incidents, which are a major problem (especially those between parents and teachers) and thus a major opportunity for the next A3. We first dove deep into 10 schools and spent three weeks tracking the number and type of incidents (we categorized them into verbal, nonverbal, physical, and digital). A few patterns quickly emerged. First, we learned that one or two children in each class are responsible for most incidents: this tells teachers where to focus their efforts. More importantly, in the schools where we tracked incidents, it became easier for teachers to talk openly about problems. This is a very positive step forward for this organization because being able to discuss problems is the first step toward solving them.

Developing an understanding of the current state by relying on concrete data about the work takes emotion out of the equation and allows teachers to focus on applying their skills and passion to solve real problems and thereby provide better education for their students.

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