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.