Why should primary schools care about Lean?

Why should primary schools care about Lean?It is always exciting to find results being achieved by applying Lean thinking in new environments. So, when I recently came across an article describing how the Bærland Skole primary school in Norway had adopted Lean practices to improve learning results and reduce the administrative burden faced by the teachers, I could not help but reflect on their experiences and think about everything Lean has to offer to education, and primary schools in particular.

In this post, I will summarize the experiences at the Bærland Skole, and consider what Lean can do for primary schools even beyond their achievements.

Lean at the Bærland Skole primary school

The story of Lean at the Bærland Skole primary school comes from Torbjørn Netland’s blog post “Lean in the primary school?” so head there for the full story. I will provide a brief summary of the main points here.

The original goals of the program were quite typical for a Lean implementation in the West: increasing the quality of operations and eliminating waste – the non-value-added time spent on administration, preparation, and searching, that is, things that are not strictly connected to learning.

After some initial training and creating buy-in among the staff, there are currently three main practices that are being focused on: 5S (clean, well-organized, standardized, and effective environment), continuous improvement (via visual improvement boards and student participation – with more than 1200 improvements implemented to date), and standardization of best teaching practices (getting teachers to share best practices more).

The achievements of the school are also typical of a fairly successful, toolkit-based Lean implementation: more efficient administration, better-organized working environment, and more satisfied staff.

Lean can be so much more

OK, so all of that sounds pretty cool. Not mind-blowing, but definitely something a teacher or a rector of a school would be interested in.

However, I don’t think this is all Lean can be when it comes to education. The foundation of Lean is the Confucian ideal of perfection, and belief in striving for individual improvement and perfection, especially through self-cultivation. A Lean company supports the aspirations of its employees to perfect themselves.

This type of approach can fundamentally change learning results. There are two ways to think about intelligence and learning: you can view intelligence as a fixed trait, or you can view intelligence as something that is changeable and malleable. Furthermore, it is well-established that those who view intelligence as malleable have better learning results than those who view it as fixed (and as little as three hours of education can change one’s stance on this). The foundation of Lean, eternal self-perfection, requires an individual to adopt this view of intelligence, otherwise Lean makes no sense. Cultivating this belief in children can do more than 5S ever can.

Who is the customer?

One of the basic pillars of Lean is to maximize customer value. In the case of education, it is interesting to spend a moment to consider who the customer is. This is something that was considered at the Bærland Skole as well, and they figured that the students are neither products, because the teachers do not fill them with information, nor customers, because they are part of the value-creating network as they co-create learning with the teacher.

This reasoning for the students not being the customers is actually a bit misguided: value is always created by the customer. In fact, as the student is the one who receives value in education, that should make the student the customer, and the fact that he is co-creating this value bears no relevance to his status as a customer.

However, in the case of education there is a temporal dimension to consider, one that is aptly put in this tweet by Professor Ng:

It is the future self of the student who is the real customer in education. This is especially true for primary school, where children do not necessarily realize the importance of the skills they are learning yet.

And hey, here is a Lean lesson as well! You need to understand your customer. Therefore, the student needs to learn to understand the needs of his future self, the customer, in order to help himself create the value he will one day need. In practice, the content of the education needs to be linked to the needs the students will have in the future, and they need to agree that these needs are real. That understanding also creates intrinsic motivation to pursue the goals of the education.

What is the role of the teacher?

In genuinely Lean thinking, students are the ones who are creating the learning for their future selves. In a Lean school, the teacher is a support function, a coach. It is through this coaching that students are guided to find the answers, just like managers in Lean companies coach their direct reports on a path of improved problem-solving and self-realization. Teachers are not there to give answers, but to help the students on the path to answers.

After all, learning can happen without a teacher, but it can never happen without a student.

Lean tools, now in proper context

This understanding of Lean helps put the various Lean tools, such as the ones applied at the Bærland Skole, to proper context. The practice of 5S is an enabler of better learning by reducing hassle and enabling proper focus and flow. Continuous improvement is needed to prevent deterioration of the system back to an earlier, less desirable state – you are either moving forwards or backwards, it is nigh impossible to stay still. Continuous improvement, and the PDSA cycle that is crucial to applying it, is also one of the most important 21st century skills, also for adults.

The tools only become vitally important when their link to the whole context is clear. If this view of the whole is not understood, the individual tools seem much more insignificant, and their use is at the risk of being discontinued, not to mention that it is only through understanding how individual tools contribute to the whole that the tools can be applied correctly, or even discontinued, if they no longer serve their purpose. Lean is not 5S – 5S can be part of a Lean program, but even its position is not sacred, it only deserves a place in the program if it is effective in furthering the goals of the program.

Thus, while the use of Lean tools is nice, it is through understanding, and implementing, the core of Lean thinking as core of education that the true road to self-perfection of each student begins.


Photo: School by Jdog90 @ Flickr (CC)


Author: Ville Kilkku

I run my own consultancy business, so if you find the ideas on this blog intriguing, contact me at consulting@kilkku.com or call me at +358 50 588 5043 and we can discuss how I can help you solve your business problems. I am currently based in Finland, but work globally.