Post 3: Introducing Kaizen

In the previous post, I explained that in any working system, there are two types of measures – lag, and lead. Lag measures are results, outcomes: they are achieved, or they aren’t. Lead measures are indicators, predictors: they are variable, and on-going.

It’s lead measures that The Lean Department approach is concerned with. Although, in educational terms, data is probabilistic rather than deterministic, the more measures that indicate a high potential for a successful outcome you have, the more confident you can be that you are on the right track. This much is obvious.

But measures are simply that. Measures. Behind the quantitative judgements needs to be qualitative reasoning about why the measure is what it is, and what needs to happen next. Enter kaizen. Kaizen means ‘change for better’, in other words, action that improves a situation. In business circles, kaizen has become synonymous with ‘continuous improvement’; that there is no such thing as good enough, that processes will never be perfect.

Fundamentally, there are two forms of kaizen: flow kaizen, and process kaizen.

Flow kaizen concentrates on how materials and information move in an organisation. This is kaizen that focuses on leadership and management. In flow kaizen, a group identifies how said materials and information flows are contributing to outcomes, and then compares this with how the group would like the flows to happen to improve the situation. Think project management. In certain respects this can be seen as ‘top down’ approach, where decisions are made by those further up the hierarchy that influence the organisation as a whole. For example, it may be identified in a school that students are struggling to retain knowledge over the long term, even though short term assessment showed a good level of understanding. The flow kaizen here would be for SLT to work with HODs to implement methods of retrieval practice in lessons.

Process kaizen concentrates on how work is carried out. This is kaizen that focuses on planning and execution of operations. In process kaizen, staff and leadership identify incremental improvements on a constant basis – in some cases that can be carried out that day. This can be seen as a ‘bottom up’ approach, where improvements identified ‘on the ground’ can be formalised as part of standard ways of working. Think ‘the aggregate of marginal gains’. A classic case of this would be where a department has chosen an agreed method of teaching a particular concept, but a teacher (or teachers) has identified problems in the method, perhaps in terms of clarity, or level of detail. By reporting this back straightaway, with a suggested adaptation to the method, the kaizen can be carried out.

Kaizen is a daily process; it is literally continual, with every member of a team at every level contributing improvements to the work an organisation carries out. Instead of ‘command and control’, leadership philosophy is more fluid and concerned with innovation, responsiveness and experimentation. When considering kaizen, both in terms of flow and process, a team member should ask themselves four questions:

  • Does this improve quality?
  • Does this eliminate waste?
  • Does this reduce time?
  • Does this reduce cost?

Whenever the answer is ‘no’, then the person should reflect on what might need to take place to make the answer ‘yes’.


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