Lean in the Livonia Public Schools


I grew up in Livonia, Michigan, where I was fortunate to have an outstanding public school education (without the district, to my knowledge, needing teacher “pay for performance” or such silliness during the 1980s).

In the past year, I've heard of some initial training that a friend of mine in the Lean community was doing for the Livonia Public Schools. This consultant also, coincidentally, grew up in Livonia and I'm not sure he wants to be public about his volunteer role with the district or I would give him credit here.

My mother sent me the latest Livonia Public Schools newsletter, which includes a front-page mention of Lean as applied to their substitute teacher call-in process.

The entire newsletter can be read online (in PDF form).

The Lean excerpt:

I think defining Lean as “a systematic approach to continuously improving processes” is a good start. I'd be curious to see how a school district would apply (or could apply?) Lean as a broader management system, as many manufacturing companies or health systems would do (or aspire to).

The district has it correct that Lean is about “ideas from the people who do the work.” That's a big part of the Toyota “respect for people” approach. Lean wouldn't be effective if it was all about an expert coming in to tell people what to do.

The quote from the secretary is great – that Lean isn't a bandaid or a quick fix. I'd be curious to see how they gauge or measure the improvement in the substitute teacher process…

I'd suspect that Lean would be most applicable to support processes in a district – things like this substitute teacher process, in purchasing, in cafeteria operations, etc. I don't think Lean has a direct parallel to the classroom, other than some relatively superficial uses of methods like 5S.

Do you know of other efforts to apply Lean thinking and Lean methods into school districts?

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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. My wife is the curriculum director for a private K-12 school that is using the purpose, process, people paradigm to rethink its curriculum across all these grades, breaking into groups into ‘value streams’ from K to 12 by discipline ( science, math, english, etc) to better coordinate and align curriculum based on what the school wants its students to become by graduation, and then collaborating to involve all the disciplines together in a particular grade to achieve these goals in the school year. They don’t use ‘Lean’ per se, but they are doing the same.

    Also the athletic director in the school has used a similar approach in better identifying how sports integrate with the mission of the school,and also involving groups of coaches to work through their process in better communicating with parents and judging individual player development using an A3 approach.


  2. Mark,

    Okay, time for me to unmask and reveal myself as the colleague and fellow graduate in your post. Thanks for the shout out!

    I just finished up with my last support visit to Livonia Public Schools for a while, and I can’t tell you how thrilled and proud I am of them. They are really off to a great start! In all, we had two training sessions and rounds of improvement so far focused on the substitute teacher process and another on the process of student registration. We also had two training and planning sessions with the whole district leadership team, and we even had people from City Hall and the police and fire departments! The Superintendent is very committed to lean, and they have a retired director of global supply chain from Ford who is taking on the role of their in-house lean advocate and lead facilitator. I’ll be back over the coming months to continue to coach and follow-up.

    I have to say that I have had contact with other school systems looking to get started with lean and most of their prospects are not as bright. It is clear that public school systems and government suffer the very same types of failure modes as private sector organizations: low personal commitment to lean, failing to resource lean efforts, failing to change systems and structures of the organization to support a lean culture, etc.

    My consulting calendar is fully packed, and while I’m personally not looking for more work supporting lean education, I am saying here publically that I am very willing to exchange ideas, tips, and advice with anyone and everyone on applying lean to education and government.

    By the way, quick mention to a few folks: 1. Betty and Joe Ziskovsky run leaneducation.com, and have process improvement and problem-solving curricula for the classroom. It looks like it might be a very good example of lean in the classroom beyond some superficial 5S, which, I agree, most tend to be. 2. The school system near my current home, in Montgomery County, Maryland, won the Baldrige National Quality Award in 2010. They have videos on their website showing how students used test data and targeted improvement actions to improve their academic performance. It’s more of a Six Sigma application, but does demonstrate systematic problem-solving in the classroom in a pretty substantive way.

    Mark, LPS is a great school system with enlightened leadership, strong teamwork, and a culture that is ripe for lean. You and I are very fortunate to have alma maters there. I did quite a bit of name dropping, and they are thrilled that the Community of Lean Practitioners has two LPS grads. Try to stop by on your next visit to the area – I know you will be most welcome!

    Thanks for turning the spotlight onto lean education!

    • Thanks Jeff. I should have reached out to see if I could mention you, but I figured you would see the post.

      Glad to hear that LPS is still a great district and I’m glad to hear the interest and practice is more than superficial (not surprising, since I knew you would be a great advisor to them, but, as you say, the leaders have to have the interest).


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