The notion of continuous improvement is nothing new for America’s K-12 schools. Unfortunately, it seems a limited number of schools have pushed past the “notion” to realize noteworthy, sustained improvements in meeting the broad array of student and community needs. As the US economy struggles, families and communities dig deep to sustain the American Dream, a hope that our children’s future will be as bright or brighter than ours. President Kennedy once noted that the Chinese word for crisis is composed of two characters, one representing danger and the other representing opportunity. The crisis our country faces can be turned to opportunity if we choose a different course. In terms of continuous improvement and K-12 education, I believe that a focus on Lean thinking and doing can empower all stakeholders and shift our course from one of danger to one of opportunity.
What is Lean and how can it be applied in the K-12 setting?
Lean is a way of seeing processes and work so that waste is eliminated and resources are used more efficiently and effectively. When I talk to educators about Lean, many of them think it means reducing the number of positions and dividing the work between remaining employees. This is not Lean. Lean is a way of seeing processes in steps, figuring out which parts of the process actually add value, and eliminating the unnecessary aspects of our work. The most powerful part of Lean is the empowerment of all employees and employee groups to consider solutions to challenges and opportunities for improvement.
When schools use time, money, and other resources more effectively, students are the beneficiaries. Lean puts the focus on what matters and helps schools understand and prioritize service to students. Value-added activities are strengthened, and unnecessary, non-value-added aspects of work are minimized or eliminated altogether. In this continuous improvement model, employees and students identify and solve problems. When waste is reduced and learning is prioritized, the full range of learning activities are more thoughtfully addressed with the same or even reduced levels of funding.
How can leaders learn more about Lean and K-12 education?
School leaders should look for models of excellence in this area as well as sources for support and further learning. Manufacturing and healthcare have embraced Lean in many communities, so it is possible that leaders across these organizations can talk about the synergies that exist across their organizations.
In terms of K-12 settings that are doing this well, I recommend the Evansville Vanderburgh School Corporation (EVSC) in Evansville, Indiana. The EVSC has embraced Lean and Six Sigma and realized millions of dollars in savings as a result. These savings are helping the district avoid teacher layoffs while focusing a larger percentage of taxpayer dollars on support for schools and classroom instruction directly. Another K-12 example exists in Denver Public Schools. Since 2009, DPS has saved millions of dollars through a variety of Lean Six Sigma projects.
For Lean learning resources, I recommend Lean Education Enterprises and Lean Enterprise Institute. For those interested in making a deeper commitment to operational excellence, I recommend the Operational Excellence program through The Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business.
America was once a scrappy, utilitarian, and more self-sufficient country. Times have certainly changed, and I do not advocate isolation, status quo, or returning to past practices in education. However, I do believe that success and excess have diminished our capacity for sustained growth and development. The resources we have in K-12 education are significant. In a recent blog post, Rick Hess noted, “It’s painfully obvious by now that transforming an urban school system is not easy work. It requires strong instructional chops, being a smart steward of limited funds, revamping troubled systems, and exploring how to use new tools and technologies to start pushing the boundaries of what’s possible.”
Lean thinking and the associated continuous improvement model provide real solutions to our educational and economic crisis. With tough, thoughtful leadership from all aspects of the K-12 organization, we can turn our focus from danger to opportunity and, as a result, give more students access to the American Dream.
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