Post 1: Analogy #1

If someone were to ask you to name a country whose manufacturing is known for quality and efficiency, you’d struggle to look past Germany or Japan. Both countries’ manufacturing and engineering bases are the traditional benchmarks for technological innovation, high standards of production methods, quality build and their use of design to continuously evolve their methodologies and standards. The acceleration of innovation and efficiency in these two countries was catalysed around the same time, for similar reasons, but based on differing initial conditions.

During World War 2, the ‘totality’ of war saw it’s nadir (or apogee, however you see it); Stalingrad, Dresden, the Ruhr, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Okinawa – these were not small battles on a greater stage, but military arenas of such historical, economic and social impact that we still live with the consequences today. Both ‘sides’ of the war committed acts of destruction beyond all reason and understanding that 60 years on, we struggle to comprehend. The ultimate consequence of WW2 was, in most cases, simply a wasteland – people, materials, environment, societal unity.

Britain, at the start of WW2, remained the leading nation of an empire on which the sun never set. Into the 21st century, it was still paying off debts accrued through borrowing at the end of the war (from the USA, mostly), needed to kick start the economy. We’d pretty much run out of metal to chuck at the Nazis, never mind for building ships, engines and the other machinery that was the core of British industry. The US would always have been OK: such a resource-rich, populous and well-developed (and relatively isolated) nation would practically relish a war and the consequent willing customers (think of the ammunition and ordnance sales) to lend to. Britain on the other hand was on her knees, rationing everything and knuckling down.

For Germany, the obliteration of the Ruhr, Dresden, the occupation and cessation of the Saar and the Russian control of East Germany heralded 1945 not as the end of the war but Year Zero for the aftermath. Japan was equally hammered: Hiroshima and Nagasaki were targeted for as much their industrial capacities as for the need to stun the Emperor into surrender. As with Germany, the surrender of Japan heralded a step into the unknown: never a country blessed with voluminous resources compared with the other major players of WW2, as an occupier of Korea, China and other areas of East Asia, it could draw on their mineral deposits to fuel the war effort. After VJ day, there these sources could not have been called on to get the Japanese economy to stand on its own two feet.

Britain, Germany, Japan – these three nations were suffering from similar maladies: depletion of (or the means to access) mineral resources, heavy damage to infrastructure, poor societal morale. But, as we know, British industry is a shadow of its former self – smaller in scale and influence, with significant proportions of industry and infrastructure foreign-owned, with that which can said to be truly British certainly more ‘niche’ and often targeted at the higher value, luxury market.

In the vacuum of post-war reconstruction, low inflation, a large workforce to call on and a demand for German goods – machinery, chemicals and automobiles – fuelled an economic boom that was unparalleled, and saw German companies become multi-national conglomerates in a short space of time. German industry has a long reputation of quality craftsmanship and efficient action. Even the likes of Aldi and Lidl are changing the landscape of grocery on shores beyond Germany. Meanwhile, a significant number of small and medium size enterprises (SMEs) bridged the divide between the large-scale ‘populist’ producers of goods and the demand for high-end items.

Japan, meanwhile, used its limited material wealth as a force for action, rather than a limiting factor. A bullish national bank promoted lending to businesses beyond a bank’s means in order to drive heavy industrialisation; basically betting on the ability of the nation’s companies to build superior and in demand products. The bet paid off. Through import controls and a focus on technology and quality control methods from the West, Japan focused on making products that kept up with (some might say accelerated) the technological pace of change taking place in the post-war economy. Not only that, companies such as Mitsubishi, Honda, Toshiba and Yamaha had diverse production bases, allowing diversification to adapt to changing demand for goods.

Britain, on the other hand, trod neither path. Since British infrastructure was somewhat repairable, and that businesses that took up the war effort switched back to their former sectors (car manufacturers, for example), there was no true ‘blank slate’, and thus leaders in industry and government lacked the motivation to innovate, or worse, were disinterested, thus British products lacked quality (and thus demand), yet were still resource intensive. Where the people of Stuttgart could look forward to seeing the Mercedes W116 rolling off the production line, their counterparts in the West Midlands had the Rover SD1, a car known for its construction problems before it was even sent into mass production. The decline of British-owned manufacture in fuelling the economy left a gap for the booming financial and services sector to drive the GDP of the nation, a situation fraught with volatility to this day.

Knowledge work is not industry, yet the story I tell has amazing parallels with school education in the UK today. We are in the midst of funding cuts, falling take up of teaching posts, high turnover of staff and increasing flight of staff from the sector, and a lack of mid-level infrastructure between governance and schooling on the ground. Yet, expectations placed on education is on the rise. Demands on technical and creative skill are ever more increasing as the global pace of change becomes ever more rapid and the need to look after a growing, aging population with a greater energy demand requires our urgent attention. The UK as a nation has always been able to import human skill where there are gaps, but we are in the midst of cutting off that source. Education in the UK is the parallel of British, German and Japanese industry in 1945: in need of rapid growth to meet the challenges of the country it serves, but without a resource base at a scale traditionally expected to meet them. Education is knowledge work, and as I say, knowledge work is not industry, but a similar premise remains. 2017 calls for a choice to be made by schools in the this country; is this a period of knuckling down and waiting, or is it a time to grasp an opportunity and look past traditional responses?

It is time to truly innovate. It is time to get LEAN.



Post 0: Ground Zero

I have made a false start.

I work like a Stirling Engine – there’s a great deal of potential to offer the world in my brain, but it needs a spark, a source, to get the whole thing moving. I false started with this whole concept; but I’m starting again. This is post zero because I wanted the slate to be cleaned, the ignition switch to be flicked again and the motor to fire into action.

The ‘ignition switch’ in this case was a brief chat with Colin Hegarty, he of HegartyMaths fame and all round hero and thoroughly nice bloke. HegartyMaths is an incredible product with a great story behind it, built from the ground up, on many of the principles I want to espouse and elucidate on through this very blog, very much an exemplar of lean thinking. Colin and I agree that there is a niche for a Lean Department approach, and it’s time to make it happen. A proper start.

You’ll notice a reformat of the site, and I’ve got rid of some of the old posts because, well, they were well-intentioned but, let’s be honest, a bit crap. The book is being written, slowly, but its development will come alongside the writing taking place here. The blogs are the ‘beta versions’ of my writings, as well as some wider thought development, whereas the book will be the culmination of core ideas. I’ve kept the control theory post because I quite like it, and it’s a central tenet of what I’m going to promote here.

So, as time progresses, I’ll start with setting out some basic principles, to systems and models of thinking, and then practice on the ground – particularly how I’m embedding practice and what I’m learning. I’ll aim for an average of a post a week, but we’ll see how it goes.

I’m looking for contributors, and there’s a newsletter in the pipeline, which I want to be a collaboration between me, the thinker and writer, and you, the delightful readership. This is in order to drive ideas here that will aim to help the many, and not just be a soapbox for my beliefs (which would be very easy to write!).

So, here goes. The false start is done. Let’s get lean.


Post -1: Theory #1 – Control


Image from the Engineers Garage

The diagram above is a block diagram for a control system. My first theory is that a department is a dynamical system, and each element of the system can controlled using a feedback loop, represented above.

  • The input is the information you get from your environment.
  • The controller is your means of monitoring and acting on that information.
  • The process is the response to the actions set by the controller that the dynamical system takes. This might be good or bad!
  • The feedback is the information you get from the process. This then informs the action required through the controller stage.

Here’s an example; think about a student asking you a question;

  • The input is the question – “how do you calculate the area of a triangle, sir?”
  • The controller is my response – “you calculate the area of a triangle by multiplying the base by the height and halving the answer”
  • The process is the student response to the answer.
    • A positive outcome would be “thank you sir” and students getting on with task;
    • A negative outcome would be “what’s the base?”
  • Either of these outcomes is then used as feedback, to determine a future action.

Although this is a simple case you can apply this to any system that makes up the operations that your department carries out, at the macro and micro level.

Now, this has implications. It’s the basis for my belief that incremental change over the long term is better than significant ‘big impact’ changes in the short term, and here’s why: small actions via the controller stage place low stress on the process and create feedback that is easier to determine and measure; case in point, something as simple as changing the position of one or two students in your seating plan can give you easy identifiable and measurable feedback on how the classroom ‘dynamic’ plays out in your lesson. Whereas, if you completely change a seating plan in one go, you’re losing the opportunity to identify if the moves you’ve made are right, because you’ve created unnecessary complexity. Any student of control engineering will tell you that a large variation at the controller stage can completely throw a system because the process can struggle to cope, providing feedback that cannot be properly measured as the system goes through future cycles.

How does this make a department lean? All too often if problems are identified in departments, there’s many a time where the ‘reset’ button is pressed, and new schemes of work are brought in, new textbooks, time spent on putting things in place and fingers are crossed that it’ll all go as planned – often without staff buy-in. This equates to massive time and resource investment, and with a high risk of volatility that needs further time and resource investment if it doesn’t work out as planned. Instead, if you know each incremental step that makes each process of your system, then you can make a series of minimal changes over time, with minimal time and resource costs to restore actions if they didn’t engender a positive outcome.

Post -2: 500 words on why I’m a hypocrite.

I walk into my office this afternoon, only to be confronted with a pile of photocopying I’d asked the school repro manager to do for me last week. Oh dear.

This is the Lean Department isn’t it? Killing trees is about as ‘lean’ as chucking deep fried pizza down your throat, right? Well yeah, this is a problem. I’m sat here with a website espousing the need to make the most of your time, energy and money, and I’m tearing through timber quicker than a John Deere mulching machine.

Well, this is kind of the point of the project. The Lean Department is as much of a journey for me as it is for you; I have made, and will make, the same mistakes and trip-ups that most if not all of you will make. The whole Lean Department philosophy I’m sharing is one that I’m living though too. By looking at the world of engineering, behavioural economics, entrepreneurship and project management, I want to inspire a generation of school leaders to make their teams as resilient and productive as possible, whilst cutting resource and time cost.

I’m of the belief that whilst the world around us is leveraging technology and systems thinking to automate, bypass or simplify working practices, the education system hasn’t; cloud computing, project management, entrepreneurship – these are all modes of thinking that are freely available to school leaders to streamline how they operate, but are they being used?

The Lean Department philosophy is modelled on Lean Manufacturing, the organisational strategy for eliminating waste in manufacturing, popularised in Japanese industry. It has many flavours these days, but primarily all of the interpretations are focused on:

  • Improving quality – meeting and exceeding expectations and requirements;
  • Eliminating waste – removing anything that consumes but doesn’t add value;
  • Reducing time – increasing the pace of execution through a working process;
  • Reducing cost – reducing inventory by only producing what is necessary.

Now that school budgets are in for being cut by 8-10% in real terms over the next two years, this is a task that leaders have to get on with now. There is no planning for the future. The future is here and it’s taking away your printing credits!

There’s an opportunity for leaders here to build resilience. There’s an opportunity here to focus on what makes your departments properly effective and all the while raise standards in terms of teaching and learning, CPD, planning, assessment, curriculum development and staff well-being.

On this journey, I’ll probably kill a few more trees on the way, but the rate at which this will happen will a) slow down and b) only happen where absolutely necessary.

This is not a site about cutting budgets. This is a site about needing less. It’ll look into how businesses and organisations are super optimal without losing their purpose; how staff are freed up to concentrate on the work that makes the biggest difference to their students: teaching. Now who can argue with that goal?

Strap in, and keep watching.

I’m interested in hearing from you regards what you think a lean department should be about, and ideas you want to explore. Drop me a line via the contact form, and I’ll be in touch.