Lean for education

Date06 February 2017
Published date06 February 2017
AuthorPaul G. LeMahieu,Lee E. Nordstrum,Patricia Greco
Subject MatterEducation,Curriculum, instruction & assessment,Educational evaluation/assessment
Lean for education
Paul G. LeMahieu
Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, Stanford, California, USA
Lee E. Nordstrum
RTI International, Edina, Minnesota, USA, and
Patricia Greco
Menomonee Falls School District, Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin, USA
Purpose This paper is one of seven in this volume that aims to elaborate different approaches to quality
improvement in education. It delineates a methodology called Lean for Education.
Design/methodology/approach The paper presents the origins, theoretical foundations, core
concepts and a case study demonstrating an application in US education, specically dealing with the problem
of improving technology supports and services for instructional purposes in a school district system.
Findings An approach borrowed from manufacturing, Lean is aimed at creating and delivering the
greatest value to the clients or “customers” in education systems while consuming the fewest resources and
eliminating waste. Simultaneously, the method engages the organization in continuous problem solving,
learning and making quality improvements with Plan-Do-Check-Act cycles. The core concepts that organize
the Lean for Education approach are: continuous improvement and respect for people (Emiliani, 2005).
Originality/value Few theoretical treatments and demonstration cases are currently available on
commonly used models of quality improvement in other elds that might have potential value in improving
education systems internationally, such as large grade kindergarten-to-12 education systems in the USA. This
paper lls this gap by elucidating one promising approach. The paper also derives value as it permits a
comparison of the Lean for Education method with other quality improvement approaches treated in this
Keywords Quality improvement, Lean for education
Paper type Research paper
While the quality improvement method known as “Lean” might call to mind images of
trimming down an organization, by ring “unnecessary” workers and reducing
expenditures, it is important to note at the onset of this paper that these are misconceptions.
A “Lean” organization does not necessarily reect these characteristics. Certainly, as we will
see below, in education, the approach has been pushed well beyond this limited perspective
alone. Rather, a Lean organization can be dened as one that supports its people (workers) as
they identify, solve problems and address barriers to achieving high quality outcomes that
are consistent with its mission.
A Lean organization also constantly learns about and improves its work to deliver
maximum value to those receiving the service or product. In education systems, these
“clients” are students and stakeholders in society writ large. As such, Lean offers a set of
concepts, principles and tools used to create and deliver the greatest value from the
customer’s perspective while consuming the fewest resources by engaging people in
continuous problem solving.
For those in education who are new to the method, it is easy to be distracted by the tools
for problem identication and problem solving and to reduce the method to a toolkit.
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available on Emerald Insight at:
QualityAssurance in Education
Vol.25 No. 1, 2017
©Emerald Publishing Limited
DOI 10.1108/QAE-12-2016-0081
However, Lean is almost as much about relationships (between providers of services and
those receiving them, and between managers and front-line workers) and mindsets, as it is
about tools and techniques (Emiliani, 2005). In particular, Lean posits that a tightly coupled
relationship between providers of and those who receive those services is essential to
understanding what value means and for determining how best to deliver it. In education, the
providers could be school district systems or individual schools that deliver services and
students, whereas the service consumers are parents and members of the larger society who
receive them.
While this seems intuitive, determining who precisely constitutes the “customer” (the
recipient of the service) in education can be problematic. Many different stakeholders benet
from the provision of education, creating, in effect, a “chain of users”. Individual students,
families and communities, for example, all benet from the provision of education, and
“value” will take on a slightly different meaning for each stakeholder group.
Despite these complications, Lean thinking can inform how educational organizations
function and interact with pupils, families and communities, as exemplied by the School
District of Menomonee Falls (SDMF) (further discussed in the case example). This paper
describes the history of Lean, both generally and specically in education. It then addresses
how problems are identied within organizations, how solutions are developed, how quality
improvements are enacted and tested and how the method spreads knowledge about those
History of Lean
The Lean quality improvement method is a direct descendant of the methods and performance
standards that evolved in the automobile manufacturing sectors in Japan and the USA after the
Second World War. Two historical cases in the auto industry (Toyota and Ford) illuminate its
origins and are discussed next, with their implications for education.
The methods used by Toyota Motor Corporation to drive the Toyota production system
(TPS) evolved over the three decades of Taiichi Ohno’s tenure at the company (Monden,
1983). It was also a response to other prominent ways of organizing labor, particularly in
manufacturing rms. As such, it is worth exploring the historical narrative of the method to
understand fully the problems that Lean tries to solve and to appreciate how the quality
improvement work is organized within it.
Before Toyota developed its production system, another car manufacturer, Ford, had
deployed a model of scientic management based on the ideas of Fred Winslow Taylor
(Dennis, 2007). This method sought to identify the “best way” of doing a job based on
scientic principles. Taylor’s innovations included standardization of work (the best and
most efcient way to accomplish a task), reduced time cycles (the time that a given task
takes), time and motion study (understanding how to make movement efcient) and
measurement and analysis to improve the process continually (Dennis, 2007). In Henry
Ford’s (1927) book, Today and Tomorrow, he propounded the production philosophy and
basic principles underlying the Ford production system (FPS). According to Ford, the key to
mass production was not the assembly line but rather the interchangeability of parts and
ease of assembly (Dennis, 2007). The moving assembly line was simply a means of reducing
time to take a car from one area of the plant to another and to link a sequence of processes.
Standardized parts and design innovations also simplied Ford’s production process.
While the FPS produced many innovations, problems surfaced as well, not all of which
could be easily solved (Womack and Jones, 1996). Mass production required a new form of
professional and line management involving foremen, operational divisions and managers,
as well as specialized repairmen. Workers were seen as interchangeable and as a variable
Lean for

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