LEAN in Education. Seriously?

With all things changing at lightning speed, the education sector is no exception. The pressure to improve student achievements keeps growing. New teaching techniques, trends, and technical means, sectoral reforms as well as diverging expectations from parents, government, and society at large, are adding to the complexity too. At the end of the day (or we should say “at the start of the day”) it all lands in the classroom with a teacher, some 20-25 kids and a timeslot roughly between 8:00 to 16:00 to make it all happen. Sounds frightening?

We bet that Lean is not something that pops into your mind when you think about pre-schools. You most likely wouldn’t associate education and teachers with morning huddles, daily, and weekly KPIs, performance deviations, structured problem solving, standardization, Poke Yoke, Heijunka, Kaizen, or any other fancy Lean slang terms. And most likely you haven’t seen too many visual artefacts of Lean on the walls among all the colourful paintings in your kid’s kindergarten either. But things are changing.

The five pre-schools in Kretinga district decided to improve by adopting Lean thinking and ways of working into their daily routines. At the time of writing (April 2022), it’s already the second year of their Lean journey, so we could expect to hear “Lean” and “education” in the same sentence more often. As you would expect, it was not all sunshine and rainbows. At least not at the beginning. We kicked off the project in March 2021 and it was a slow and cautious start. On one end, we had teachers and administration having doubts about Lean fitness for education, with limited or no success stories from peer organisations to learn from and be inspired by. On the other end, due to pandemic restrictions, we had the challenge of training and building new habits while mainly communicating remotely. Not to forget demanding teachers’ routines: daily classroom “rhythm”, monthly themes and events, kids in the classrooms during project interactions, other projects, and initiatives.

We believe that the success came down to the five core factors:

Hands-on leaders. The principals of the institutions were present in all training sessions, group consultations, and other practical activities. That alone sent a strong message to their teams – that Lean is worthwhile – and therefore helped to increase the engagement and commitment of teachers and administration staff throughout the schedule.

Problem-solving attitude. Gathering a comprehensive toolbox can be tempting, but no tools are worth the price unless they are used. Instead of exclusively focusing on mastering individual methods, we prioritised solving the actual problems. Working with real-life situations proved to be more practical. It was a perfect way to showcase how the holistic approach can deliver the highest value.

Tailor-made approach. There is no one recipe for every problem. The five pre-schools that participated in the project were all unique in their own way. Blindly deploying the same practices in all of them wouldn’t have been effective. Experimentation and iterative co-creation of metrics, routines, and templates, on the contrary, worked wonders in addressing their specific aspirations and forming lasting habits.

Tasting success. Building trainees’ confidence in their abilities to successfully apply what they’ve learned early on is fundamental to motivation. Therefore, we emphasized practical activities over theoretical training and encouraged active participation whenever possible. 3 months after the start the change was already visible. The teams began running daily management routines using visual management tools (daily board meetings, a.k.a. “Asaichi”). They started to raise improvement ideas and plan their implementation (Kaizen Teian). They dived into the root cause analysis and problem-solving (PDCA). And with every practice session, their confidence was building up in setting and measuring targets, spotting deviations, and identifying obstacles and root causes of the reoccurring issues.

Community involvement. The pre-schools did an amazing job communicating to the staff and parents about the project and the benefits expected. It was even more inspiring to get more than 30 ideas from teachers on how to improve teaching mathematics and counting skills to pre-schoolers, gymnasium students trying out Kaizen, and parents providing Kaizen ideas for the lunch “process” improvement – all in only 2 weeks.

No doubt it’s just a beginning and a lot more learning awaits in the future. But from the moment your mindset shifts from avoiding problems to celebrating them as an opportunity for improvement and problem solving, we know that Lean thinking is here to stay and grow.