K-12 Lean


Lean is very prevalent in manufacturing because manufacturing needs so much help. Jobs are being lost and profits and struggling, and so lean is one lever people try to pull to salvage the situation. Now that the healthcare industry is in so much trouble, they are running to lean in droves to try to improve both the quality of care and the financial situation. But our K-12 education system is equally broken. Students are not getting what they need, teachers are perhaps the most underpaid profession around and the costs continue to rise. But lean hasn't begun to touch this space.

There are many reasons for this. One is that the work is very distributed. Teachers can come in, do their curriculum and go home and can get by without coordinated action. Adminstrations are focused on fighting for funds and looking to new areas and ultimating, making tough decisions about what programs to cut. Politicians are busy playing God thinking that with different federal funding scenarios they will magically solve the problems. But here we have what is ultimately our most vital industry – education – and lean can make a difference.

I don't know how it's going to get traction but I write this with an item to share and a recommendation. The Pawley Institute at Oakland University, where I chair the board of advisors, has started exactly this effort with lean for schools. They just had their first workshop. Check it out here. Dr. Shannon Flumerfelt is leading the effort. If you think this is worth supporting, we're always trying to raise more funds to support the Pawley Institute.

My request is this: get involved. Share what you know with a teacher or administrator. If you're in a company, open up your education programs to schools. Or go a step further and run for school board. Lean was brought into healthcare primarly by lean manufacturing folks, like LeanBlog.org founder Mark Graban, bringing it to healthcare. Perhaps lean can follow the same path into our schools.


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Jamie Flinchbaugh
Jamie Flinchbaugh is an accomplished Entrepreneur, Senior Executive, and Board Member with more than 20 years of success spanning finance, manufacturing, automotive, and management consulting. Leveraging extensive operational experience, Jamie is an invaluable asset for a company seeking expert guidance with process improvements, lean strategies, and leadership coaching in order to transform operations, reduce costs, and drive profitability. His areas of expertise include continuous improvement, entrepreneurship, coaching and training, process transformation, business strategy, and organizational design.


  1. Great call to action, Jamie.

    I had someone send me this article the other day, hadn’t had the chance to blog about it here.

    Article Link

    There’s some creative ideas there about how to engage students in continuous improvement in how they learn. I’d question, a bit, the emphasis on targets and metrics (the Deming-head in me cringes). Is the goal “getting a 10 out of 10” or is the goal “learning”?

    I think the Lean model can be applied, the lean thinking in particular. Let’s not “go do 5S” in schools.

    I agree with Deming that we also can’t be “customer focused” in education, with the customer being the student. Deming railed against MBA programs asking students what should be taught. Deming said, “ask them in 20 years, but not now” or something like that. Let’s not ask the little kidd-os what they want to learn either.

    But can schools do better? Of course. Rather than blaming individuals (teachers), let’s look at the system and let’s see what works or what interferes with learning.

  2. Absolutely. The metrics they are often stuck with because they come from outside the system, often Washington. Students are the customers, but it’s what the students need, not what they want. Otherwise, we’d probably have one long recess. As Bob Lutz said quite right, the customer is not always right.

  3. I’m always wary of “pushing” lean into education. Not because I don’t think it will work, I think many of its tenets would translate quite nicely, but because childhood development is such a difficult task. I’m not convinced trying to port of a business based management system into how five year olds learn to function in our society is the best idea – I could be though. :)

    Jamie raises an interesting point – how do you get a student to “pull” learning at a rate that sustains their growth?

    Some kids would likely “pull” knowledge down the line as fast as they could, while others might never – saying the customer isn’t always right is one thing, but if we’re not empowering the individual who do we empower (and is it lean?) ?

    A lot of questions, so I’ll end with something else. Regarding going and “doing 5s” in the schools, I think many schools already do. My memory of kindergarten may be foggy and vague, but I’m fairly certain we had big signs telling us how to do things, visual cues to mark where things go, and had a system for cleaning up, etc.
    The way I understand 5S is as a means of visually organizing space, something that many schools already do (if my muddled memory servers). So at least that’s there.

  4. Yes, child development is a difficult task. And yet great resources are wasted on essentially non-value added activities, in other words, not developing the child. If we look at it as taking production practices and throwing them at child development, it will fail just as it would in any process. However, we focus on lean as principles, which means you have a lens and language for the work and it’s design, management and improvement. Lean does not replace the knowledge and skill of the people in the process. If done properly, it unleashes that capability, whether the person is an assembly worker, nurse, doctor or teacher.

  5. An interesting memory came to me while reading this chain. When I was in grade and middle school, I learned at an accelerated pace (i.e. I was bored to death in most of my classes). In 4th grade, through a series of tests requested by my teacher, the school determined I was reading at a 12th grade level.

    I’ve always used a method of cognitive thinking that focused on problem solving. The school didn’t move me up to the next grade (thanks to my parents arguing against that), but put several of us into a small group that moved at our own pace. We were also placed on a Future Problem Solving team. I think this activity has become Odyssey of the Mind now (or something similar).

    There were five of us in that group. We all graduated together, with the rest of our original class. We took college pre-requisite classes in High School and finished in the top five positions of our class. More importantly, we were challenged to learn more, but not secluded or forced into other groups. In its own way, this was an extremely successful use of “pull” and Lean theory, over 25 years ago in a small-town education system.

    While educators may need to focus on the lagging students, the important lesson is to recognize each “customer’s” need and how best to fill that need. I’m certain having a group that required less attention allowed our educators to work more closely with those who truly needed the assistance. We certainly didn’t feel held down, waiting for others to catch up.

  6. Mike, your experience is exactly what I was referring to when I said gifted students, or even simply motivated ones, will pull learning down through the system – and should be allowed to do so.

    But I certainly wouldn’t say that everyone would “pull” learning at an acceptable rate.

    Jamie, early childhood is actually the one age group I have almost no experience teaching – a brief stint running ESL courses for 3 year olds and their parents some years back when I was in between other teaching positions.

    Certainly by the graduate level, “learning” is all pull. At least, outside of the “trade” schools – medicine, business, law – though even there, you find more required “pull” learning than at any other previous step.

    Define “value adding” to childhood development?
    If we spend two days explaining that sharing lego town is important have we added “value” or lost it? (http://www.rethinkingschools.org/archive/21_02/lego212.shtml – mark, what’s the url tag for this blog?)
    Certainly from a more austere perspective it has been lost, where was the direct benefit of this action, peceivable and measurable in our system?
    That’s what I fear, a loss of the collaborative and esoteric approach to knowledge acquisition.

  7. I hardly know where to start, but let me try here. I have no idea what Legotown has to do with lean. If you think lean is robots doing mundane tasks, then you’re just unfortunately wrong. If you think lean = pull and therefore people must pull their work, you’d also be wrong. Lean would be people applying their esoteric knowledge in the most effective way, with a constant focus on experimentation and continuous improvement, using underlying processes as a foundation where bad systems beat good people.

    On to the Legotown story, which are topics I generally avoid here, I worry greatly when we’re teaching students that anything that remotely resembles capitalism is inherently bad and socialism is inherently good. Are we next going to teach students that the U.S. Constitution should be shredded? As a citizen and a parent, that made me a little scared.

  8. Mark – thanks, I was using a punBB syntax and it was (obviously) not working.

    Onwards to rampant misinterpretation we go!

    I’m lost here.

    Apparently the concept that “sharing is a good thing” is socialism and if we teach it to our children it will lead to the overthrow of the U.S. Constitution?

    I’m glad that “as a citizen and a parent” you think that stressing sharing toys and getting along with others to children is a bad thing.

    In my own personal blog, I trash the article for shoddy methodology and sanctimonious phrasing, both of which it has in spades (It was not able to get published in a peer reviewed journal, for example).

    It was never suggested that lean was about “robots,” but rather, using your own definition, that of optimizing value.

    My issue was – what is the “value” that you are optimizing in early childhood?

    The article was an illustration of how different groups can see different value.

    Apparently, value is not sharing toys or getting along with others, in your mind.

    But see, to me, those skills are of great value. And no, this has nothing to do with socialism, I think we can all agree that “sharing” and “having friends” doesn’t equate directly with the complete downfall of american society.

    The point here, as I thought was made explicit, was that there are many differing views of what “adding value” in a child’s education might constitute, which ones do you think “lean” would foster?

    Let me ask it explicitly since the illustration that conflicting views exist seems to have scared you –

    What is “value added” in a child’s education?

    Before we jump wholeheartedly into the Lean arena for education, perhaps we should consider that…

  9. I didn’t know this was going to get personal. That’s not quite the behavior I would expect to see here. Of course I value sharing and having friends, but that article went way beyond that. It directly was stating capitalism was bad, along with ownership, which are things that the Constitution focuses on providing for in our country. That’s my point. I didn’t take it beyond that. I’m going to leave it at that and be finished with this thread.

  10. I did not, in any way, mean that as a personal attack, it was a rhetorical device. I have an extensive background in debate and sometimes to me what feels as oratory technique, to another feels overly aggressive.

    If you took it as such, I apologize profusely, and I mean that.

    I was confused and continue to be so, and again, if you feel it was personal, my apologies.

    I would still like an explanation of what you see as “value added” in early childhood development, but unfortunately it now appears I’ll be unlikely to receive that, and I’m sad for that.

    I liked your point from the beginning.

    I was just cautious about the tenuous nature of what is value adding from one perspective and threatening to another.
    That’s all.

    Again, I hope to see more such writings, they are fascinating.

  11. I’ll chime in and take a stab at the “value add” question.

    I don’t know the answer, but it seems like “value” could be:

    * knowledge that helps a student gain more knowledge in later learning
    * knowledge that helps in a job skill (helps them earn money)
    * knowledge for the sake of betterment of one’s life
    * learning how to learn

    I think there’s a lot of “teaching” that borders on indoctrination (political and social stuff). I don’t have children, so I’m not too in touch with all of this, but this seems to be a big change from when I was in school. We weren’t indoctrinated on things like global warming (the way some schools teach the doom-and-gloom version that is not open to scientific debate). I’d question if some of that is “value.”

    As for the article JThatcher linked to — yes, I think your comment directly quoting Jamie was over the line personal. Not the worst thing ever said on a blog, but please take it easy with the comments and be mindful of being overagressive.

    I think there’s a huge leap (as evidenced in the article) from “sharing is good” (we can all agree) to some of the crap that was in there about “we should all have the same size house.”

    That’s what bothered me greatly, as a reader of that linked piece. That school was going beyond social niceness (share your toys) and was reaching into liberal/socialist propaganda. But hey, it’s Seattle, there’s a market for that.

    I’m glad there is active debate, but let’s try to keep things civil. Disagreeing is fine, but don’t imply someone doesn’t want their kids to share. That’s not helpful in driving the discussion in a productive way.


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