School System Using Toyota Methods?


The Lean Blog is turning into a family affair… my dad, Bob, comments once in a while and now my mom, an elementary school teacher, is feeding me blog material.

From an education newsletter she received (I can't find a reference online), it says:

Inkster Public Schools is raising the bar in public education. Superintendent Thomas G. Maridada, II an educator and administrator for over twenty years who previously worked in corporate America at IBM, is using a business model to revamp the Inkster Public School System.

His idea of modifying the Six-Sigma business model used by Toyota and other major corporations to raise the bar in urban education, is grabbing the attention of school and business leaders everywhere.

So I'm intrigued about what the school district in Michigan is doing… if they are indeed using Toyota/Lean methods. I'm confused, though, since “Six Sigma” isn't a Toyota method.

As often happens, is the author confusing the matter as:

  1. Inkster is using Six Sigma (which is being incorrectly attributed to Toyota)
  2. Inkster is using Lean methods (that are being incorrectly called Six Sigma), or
  3. Inkster is using Lean *and* Six Sigma, but it all got lumped into Six Sigma??

Lean and Six Sigma are different. They're complementary to each other (both are continuous improvement methods), but they're different. I've never had a Toyota person say the company uses Six Sigma methods…

I'm all for schools using proven methods for quality improvement and continuous improvement… unfortunately, the material my mom forwarded didn't have any specifics about “what” or “how” the school district is doing… just a bunch of results (improving test results, GPAs, and other measures). I will email the superintendent to ask… so stay tuned.

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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. Bravo to them. They can call it whatever they want as far as I am concerned. We often get too caught up in names and titles (I’m as guilty as anyone).

    What’s important is they are trying to make things better and sounds like they may be succeeding.

    Goldratt and the TOC gang also do lots of good work in the schools. Hopefully this trend continues.

    Good stuff Mark. Hopefully your Mom keeps the material coming!

  2. My wife is a middle school teacher, and had used many simple lean principles in her class. Visual systems are a big piece. A simple whiteboard-based tracking system for kids on activity period, 5S principles to organize her bench (she’s a science teacher in a lab) so kids don’t need to ask for things as much, etc.

    I’ve been advocating for a “gemba board” approach that would show the schools improvement objectives and results in the middle of the lobby, perhaps in a strategy deployment format.

    Communication is also a big problem in schools. Seems like the principles of the TWI J-Programs would also have wide application. Job Relations would be of particular interest. Teachers can have deep disagreements and dislike that develops from a lack of standards and the resulting differences of opinion. JR could help people realize “its the system not the people”, and focus more of their energy on systems that help them work together better.

  3. While its fairly easy to see how certain “lean” principles could be applied within schoolsystems for great benefit, I find something… off, for lack of a better word, in this.

    Some of the most applicable “lean” techniques for the classroom – visual organization of space, for example – aren’t exclusive, nor actually developed originally, within lean.

    Lean is the application of these tools to a business environment. So, by choosing to call these tools “lean” (or six sigma, it doesn’t really matter) we’re essentially taking tools like a “whiteboard based tracking system” and presenting them in a business contest.

    I’ve taught classes on three continents and at levels ranging from kindergarten to college – education isn’t business and it should never be presented as such.
    (Not to say that the administration fo education can’t be a business).

    The reason to present these educational tools in a business language is worth investigating – why is it necessary to say that the visual organization of space, something existing within classrooms for at least a hundred years, is suddenly “lean?”

  4. I disagree with the two comments that say “it doesn’t matter what you call it.”

    I’d argue it DOES matter, greatly, if we are to communicate effectively and share what we’re working on.

    Lean and Six Sigma are VERY different. The tools have some overlap, but the GE management system and the Toyota management system are very different in fundamental ways. The fact that GE is dabbling with Lean methods doesn’t make them Toyota, nor does it blur the boundaries of Lean and Six Sigma.

    To hear “a school is using Six Sigma” would suggest they have a black belt person using statistical methods to solve some problem (such as “why do teachers quit?”).

    To hear “a school is using Lean” would indicate a different mindset (waste reduction, employee involvement, continuous improvement, customer focus, etc.).

    I’d agree with a statement that said “you can USE whatever methods you want, as long as it works.” But Lean is Lean, Six Sigma is Six Sigma, we shouldn’t blur the definition if we can help it.

  5. I’m also curious how the school is using Lean and what problem is being solved. Tying Lean methods to improving student test scores…. I just don’t see the connection.

    I could see using Lean for:

    – managing inventory and supplies properly (my mom’s school is always running out of stuff… not sure if it’s incompetence or budget constraints or both)

    – getting teacher input into how policies should be set, how to standardized curriculum and methods, etc.

    – PDCA root-cause problem solving whenever a problem occurs (in the cafeteria??)

    Do you “error proof” how math is taught? Do you have students “pull” learning instead of “pushing” it at them? Probably not….

    But I am curious about what and how they’re using these continuous improvement method(s)… and the “why”. I’m hoping to hear back from the superintendent.

  6. Exactly Mark – I see lean as greatly applicable to school administration (the business side), but not so applicable to how we teach children the quadratic equation.

    Do update us if the superintendent ever gets back to you.

  7. Mark, I am sort of jumping off topic from this post but I think one needs to be careful to always associate Six Sigma with GE and their management principles.

    There are many other companies out there using Six Sigma who are doing just fine (e.g. Textron, CAT, Dupont, etc.).

    And as I am sure you would agree, Toyota is far from perfect. Just Google “Toyota+Karoshi” to see they too may have opportunities for improvement around, dare I say, respect for people.

    While I have not done this I wonder what would happen if we tried to Google “GE+Karoshi”?

    It might be an interesting comparison.

  8. Ron, please… you’re reading too much into what I said.

    I didn’t say Six Sigma is bad… just that it is very different than Lean. People associate GE with Six Sigma the way people associate Toyota with Lean.

    I didn’t say “I wonder if the school would lay off the bottom 10% if they’re doing Six Sigma” and I think it’s just as wrong to bring up the case of a Japanese worker who worked himself to death (which is a Japanese culture problem, not a Toyota problem).

  9. Fair enough, Mark.

    But your comment, “The tools have some overlap, but the GE management system and the Toyota management system are very different in fundamental ways.” lead me to believe that you were associating Six Sigma with the GE management system. I guess I read you wrong.

    The point I was trying to make is that Six Sigma does not promote laying off the bottom line any more than lean does even if GE does (which not sure if they do this anymore?).

    I love our debates Mark. You make me think!

  10. There’s a 1/23 post on the Lean Insider section of the Productivity Press website that talks about the Atlanta school system’s use of what the article calls “business process improvement”. There were 7 elements of improvement listed – number 4 is “We gave teachers and school leaders the tools to analyze student performance so they can continually adjust instruction”. The article doesn’t articulate the details, but this may address Mark’s question about how using Lean can improve test scores. Just a thought…

  11. I believe that if the administrative or business side is lean then the teachers will be have what they need (both guidance and materials/supplies) to raise the student grades. I think
    they go hand in hand. Just an idea from a teacher not a lean specialist.

  12. Ron, googling “GM” and “karoshi” wouldn’t make sense.
    A better comparison might be health problem rates between workers in Toyota and the G.M.
    I have no idea how these results would come back, but expecting a company whose principle business coverage is in english to pop up with a lot of “karoshi” problems is sort of absurd.

    I am interested in the comparable statistics. Does anyone have, or know how to get, just general worker health problem rates for the two companies?
    Again though, the differences in cultural environments would likely skew the results…

    Regarding that article –
    “2. We gave school teams planning time and put coaches in the classroom to help our teachers improve their delivery of instruction.”

    Seems like one of the most potentially disastrous ideas I’ve heard in a long time.
    Inserting a new authority figure into a classroom, particularly one who has perceived authority over the instructor, usually has catastrophic results. Especially once the new authority figure leaves, the teacher has been completley undermined and has little ability to reestablish control.
    This is particularly the case if the instructor has discipline issues to begin with.

    Furthermore, who are these “coaches?” The choice in terms seems to suggest they aren’t educational professionals. This seems a bad idea.

    Finally, point 4 is so vague as to be bereft of meaning.
    “tools to analyze student performance” – This is a new idea?

    I’m sorry if I sound particularly harsh on this issue, I’m not.

    I think that, in actuality, it could be one of the best things to happen to an overworked, understaffed school district. It could drastically improve results and strengthen the feedback circuit through which issues are dealt.

    I just worry strongly about the individual teachers “on the floor” as it were. Many of them have devoted their lives to this profession; education in a business setting is vastly different from educating children.

    And it should be, applying tools haphazardly appears condescending and heavy-handed – and that worries me.

  13. J, actually I just spoke to a colleague who is a former GE employee and he tells me GE has plants in Japan.

    Of course they wouldn’t have as much presence as Toyota does but they do operate in the country so technically could have karoshi issues.

    But you and Mark are probably right… comparing these two companies on this issue may be stretching it a bit.

    But we all must be carful, myself included, of acting as if Toyota is infallible. They are not.

    Just read Jon Millers blog and focus in on the “The Secret Lives of Toyota Term Employees” series. The “Tahara prison” does not sound like a place I want to send my kids to work in.

    Of course, who knows if those Japanese bloggers are legit.

  14. This discussion brings a question to my mind. What if teachers did a 5-why for determining the root cause of children failing on a quiz or test score? How often do we just make the assumption that “Joey” doesn’t try hard enough or “Jane” doesn’t pay attention during class.

    Are those ‘reasons’ better than “operator error” when determining the cause of a defect?

    Also, I believe there have been alternative schools which utilize a form of Pull in education, letting students learn at their own pace to some degree. I know I was terribly bored in most of my elementary and secondary education. The best class I had was one where the teacher provided what you needed to get an “A” by semester’s end. If memory serves, I had my A just after the mid-point of the semester. Gave me lots of free time!

  15. I never did hear back from the superintendent after I emailed him, so I guess we won’t hear more from his perspective, unfortunately.


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