Lean thinking for schools

Learning to identify value and eliminate waste

Shannon Flumerfelt, Ph.D
Shannon Flumerfelt, Ph.D

In these fiscally demanding times, declining resources compounded with increasing demands for higher levels of performance often hinder schools from achieving a proactive position in the knowledge economy. School administrators show great commitment to student achievement, but are often beset by obstacles in the quest for academic and organizational distinction.

I recently asked a successful school administrator from a top-performing school district in Michigan to describe what specific problem was preventing his building and district from engaging in continuous improvement. He told me, “The problem as I see it is not that the work is too hard or that there is too much; it will always seem that way. The problem is that all the tricks in our bags that at one time worked, may not work as effectively now.”

Implied in his concern is a shared sense most school districts in the state of Michigan hold. That is, commonly used solutions are at capacity because cost cutting is at its limit. There is a clear awareness among superintendents that schools cannot cost cut their way to improvement. Yet many districts find they are making choices between the dichotomous forces of budget reductions and reform.

There is a 60-year-old established system for institutional development well known in other sectors, called the lean enterprise. “Lean” packages both philosophical views and operational tools in original and customized ways through a simple notion: continuous improvement and innovation leads to value creation and the elimination of waste.

The lean system provides a good model for education, as it integrates well with the work of professional learning communities that bring together educators and school leaders on an ongoing basis for collective problem identification and problem solving.

Similarly, “lean approaches” impact the way people think about and carry out work throughout an organization. This means that familiar processes, such as budget planning or instructional technology support, come under continuous corporate examination with the intention of improvement. Lean is not a theory, but a system that targets one or more organizational processes for improvement, specifically selected based on key principles and using key tools.

Schools are in a good position to consider lean thinking and applications. In fact, it is relatively easy to produce a lean process improvement system benchmarked for schools. For instance, if instructional delivery, the core business of schools, were placed into a lean system, then lean thinking would be promoted by leadership and several improvement tools would be used. One such tool is value stream mapping. This analysis solicits the views of key stakeholders — students, teachers, parents, policy makers, administrators and board members — in regard to what is of value. A student’s instructional day is then mapped out, looking at allocations of time and resources for various activities. Based on the views of the stakeholders, decisions would be made as to what is of value during that instructional day and what is not. What is of value is kept and what is not is either improved so that it becomes valuable, or it is eliminated.

In addition to value stream mapping, other lean tools would be used to facilitate continuous improvement of instructional delivery. The idea is not to improve a process once and then leave it alone, but rather to set up the dynamics and protocols for continuous improvement.

Many schools are wholeheartedly and sincerely engaged in school reform. Just as the building principal observed, schools unequivocally understand what needs to be done on this front. It is in the area of how to reform that uncertainties arise. The educational leader struggling with how to stop wasting resources and how to engage in spot-on organizational development will find lean process thinking helpful.

Using lean tools to carry out initiatives will equip the educational leader to lead a lean culture. Through lean thinking and applications, the process of continuous improvement will no longer seem overwhelming and out of context from the daily work of school officials, but actionable and scalable.

The Pawley Learning Institute at Oakland University is now forming collaborations with schools, districts, intermediate districts and professional associations through an initiative called “Lean Thinking for Schools.” Many free online resources (white papers, resource lists, and organizational assessment tools) are available through the Web site at: www.oakland.edu/leanschools.

To join the monthly weblog, send an email to: flumerfe@oakland.edu. Seminars, learning experiences, graduate courses and certificate programs are available for school personnel as well.


Dr. Shannon Flumerfelt is an Assistant Professor at Oakland University in the School of Education and Human Services. As an Internal Team Member of the Pawley Learning Institute, she directs organizational development and research initiatives related to lean processes in service-based organizations. Previously she worked for26 years in public school administration and teaching.