Lean in a Danish School


A blog reader from Denmark, Peter, emailed me about a school that is applying lean and “Japanese production philosophies” (no kidding). The original article is linked, but it's in Danish. The photo is from a second article on the same topic. Thanks to Peter for the translation! I really like the application of reducing wasted time so that teachers can spend more time on the “value added” activity of teaching students… the same idea applies in healthcare or other service settings: reduce the waste so the provider can spend more time with the student/patient/customer/client.

The article:

“There was something about Lean that got me thinking. I bet we can also use that here,” so says Kirsti Tornøe. If she was the boss of a smaller production company, no one would have raised an eyebrow. In fact they would probably just shrug and think about how late she was [in thinking about applying lean].

But Kirsti Tornøe is the manager of the kindergarten Kastaniebakken in Birkerød. Here parents deliver their little angels each day and the thought of improvement through Japanese production philosophies seems far fetched. And then again maybe not:

“The typical statement in child-care is that we do not have enough time for the children. When we get a new job assigned to us, the time is taken away from the children. But the idea in lean is precisely to reduce the wasted time, and make better use of the time you have.” so explains Kirsti Tornøe.

That was the reason why, that before the summer holiday began, she contacted Tom Sander Kierstein, who is the CEO in the consultant community “Network Providers”. He was ready for the idea from the start, and together with another consultant the two of them sat down and formulated a pilot project in lean in Kastaniebakken. The headline became “Better and more time in the kindergarten Kastaniebakken – We can with lean-thinking”.

“We feel a bit like pioneers, and professionally it has been very exciting to use the tools we know from other businesses in a children's institution.” Says he[the consultant]. At the center of the project stood the employees and their positive acceptance of lean.

“We need to have a more humble attitude toward the employees. That is why we quickly defined a goal for the employees that went to the tune of adding more of the “great” time to the children. It was slow administration and tiresome routines that needed to be eliminated.” Says Tom Sander Kierstein.

It quickly turned out that the employees were turned on to the idea, and then the consultants began to pull the lean tools out of the hat. There was discussion about the principle of pull, continuous improvement, 5S, flow and value-stream-mapping. Often the elements were given new names, but Tom Sander Kierstein reveals that the employees were the machines and the children the products who moved through the institution throughout the day. An example of value addition could be when the children were out for a trip to the forest, or when an employee read to them.

The employees have done a very precise study of the time spent, and the first measures have already begun to manifest in Kastaniebakken. They have gathered the various notice books, and put them in one place, and the parents have been given the task of “writing in” their children when they are present in the kindergarten. It is also here that the kindergarten places all their information, on a single big board. Information to the specific “groups” but also common information for everyone there. The employees have become better at prioritizing being with the children and that means fewer breaks in the “great time”.

The first part of the lean-project ends in the spring of 2006 but before long, Kastaniebakken is to move to newly built “facilities”. Here it would be good opportunity to think lean into the design before the new kindergarten is built. In Birkerød, already at this stage other kindergartens have also expressed interest in lean on kindergarten-level.

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. Hi Mark, just to clarify. It is not a school as such. I suspect the system works differently in the US. But “kindergarten” is optional here, although almost every parents make us of it. They are generally small-ish, with (to my knowledge, dont have any children) around 50 children in each. (Possibly higher or lower) But not nearly as many as a typical school.

  2. Here are some links to k-12 resources applying lean/Deming/quality ideas to education.

    David Langford has been doing amazing stuff for a couple decades (Deming based and has really grown into a very education focused system of education with an understanding of Deming’s ideas).

    Alfie Kohn has great stuff – not much tied to the tools but to the overall ideas (respect for people, knowledge of psychology, data based decision making…).

    Ivan Webb’s School Improvement website has a great deal of useful info… Here are some higher education management improvement links

  3. Yea Mark,

    It’s pre-school. But absoultly not private. Although there are some private ones, they are still tax payer funded.

    All funding is County level, and they have very tight parameters to work under (market dictates the price, government dictates the product, so like any good lean organization knows, they only have cost left to go after).

    The only people who don’t send kids are stay-at-homes, and in Denmark, that is a small minority.

  4. Hi there,
    a few additional comments:
    What once started as “a spare time experiment on the kitchen table” has later drawn a lot of attention not the least from people in high places. May 10th 2007 for example the Danish prime minister (Anders Fogh Rasmussen) paid Kastaniebakken a visit in person. One of the reasons he did that, is that the Danish government late last year announced a quality improvement campaign within the public sector.

    Until we began working with Kastaniebakken nobody in Denmark even considered it an option using Lean principles and tools within children day care centers or other institutions for that matter, where the “product” is people, not a broken leg or a CT-scanning but a human being during its development, education and upbringing.

    But now it has been proved, that it in fact is possible to gain time by eliminating waste in such environments. Thus the trick is not only to make Lean principles and tools work in an organisation providing such an extremely complex “product” but also to make them work in a way that does not affect the children and the educational/developing relations between the children and the pedagogues. It has turned out of extreme importance to separate the Lean activities from these two areas. Scepticism has been expressed towards the thought of implementing an industrial concept in institutions working with children. Some almost consider it blasphemous to do so. For that reason it is important, that the concept never ever interferes with the occupational ideals and convictions of the specific organisation. So even though we basically go after the costs we always bear in mind, that the reasons for doing so in the world of children day care basically are very very different compared to industrial organisations. Quite a paradox when one comes to think about it: We Lean the organisation, but we leave the product in peace.

    But all in all the leaning of Kastaniebakken has created an awful lot of positive hype and interest within the pedagogic society as well as in political circles here in Denmark.

    PS: The people behind Lean in Kastaniebakken now have established a consultant company named Plustid ApS. For more information link http://www.plustid.dk (web site in Danish).

    Henrik Ryge Nielsen
    (“the other consultant” in the article)


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