Post 6: Deep Work: Introduction

The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.

Cal Newport, Deep Work

This post is a part of a series on how Deep Work can be employed as philosophy of effective leadership in schools. Cal Newport’s book of the same name is the source of the ideas elaborated here.

Deep Work, as Newport defines it, is:

The ability to quickly master hard things and the ability to produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed, are two core abilities for thriving in today’s economy.

In contrast, Shallow Work, in Newport’s definition, is:

Non-cognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend not to create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.

Does the latter sound familiar?

School is a sea of distraction. In lesson, out of lesson, in meetings, e-mails, interrupted conversations, social media updates, etc, etc, etc… So much of what negatively impacts on effective school leadership, teaching and learning and pastoral care is due to addressing what you might call admin, red tape, whatever. This is shallow work. I don’t think I need to go through specific examples, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. Shallow Work isn’t Lean – it’s non-renewable action, and thus a sunk cost and wasteful.

Deep Work, however, is something very different. As we’ve seen from the definition above, Deep Work is literally thinking hard to find a solution to a challenging problem and delivering it with quality. There are amazingly challenging problems in education right now. The disadvantaged gap. SEND. Motivation. Low-level disruption. Parent support. Social mobility. You get the picture. Now, there is a great deal of research on how to tackle these problems, but the connection between the research and action on the ground is only now starting to gain real traction after much talk of evidence-based practice in recent discourse: Hendrick and McPherson‘s book What Does This Look Like In The Classroom? is a case in point. But is this enough? I’m not sure, I believe that so many problems that schools face in actuality are contextual, and I have seen first hand how evidence can be misinterpreted to address a contextualised need. This is not to dismiss the cause of evidence-based practice, far from it (and What Does This Look Like In The Classroom? is a fantastic book). No, the challenge here is to frame in, and then apply, the evidence in the context of the school one is in, without losing efficacy. Generalities are not enough. I lose count of the number of general, non-contextual initiatives that are externally imposed on schools in the name of ‘school improvement’ only to founder, wasting time and resources and thus being far from Lean.

As this series progresses I will focus first on the problem of Shallow Work in schools, and suggest how we can limit time wasted in this area, and thus make Lean both departmental and senior leadership systems. From there, I’ll focus on Deep Work, and how it can be employed in a fashion that takes advantage of Lean processes.


Post 5: Status update

It’s not enough to be up to date, you have to be up to tomorrow.

David Ben-Gurion

Yes, I wrote a post last week! But I’ve made some changes. One is that I’ve dumped the Twitter account for The Lean Department. It was superfluous and you can just follow things on @workedgechaos – a process of consolidation that was necessary.

Second is that the focus of the next few posts on The Lean Department will be interpreting Cal Newport’s book Deep Work and how this can be employed as an overall philosophy for working effectively as a leader in school. From there I’ll then elaborate on the systems, methods and tools that help one operate in a lean fashion as part of a Deep Work strategy.

Keepin’ keepin’ on…


Post 4: Working Deeply

“Less mental clutter means more mental resources available for deep thinking.” 

Cal Newport, Deep Work

In my sister blog, I shared my thoughts on the power of collaborative planning. You can click here to read more but in summary, collaborative planning is effective because:

  • Staff have 80-90% of their planning – the structure, the starter activities, the modelling, the resources, the formative assessment – done for them;
  • It allows staff dedicated time to interact and share subject knowledge, a situation rare in the high-speed modern school environment;
  • The combination of the two points above means that staff have more time to focus on the things that really matter in lessons – questioning and feedback.

As a result of (indirectly) forcing the Maths department to concentrate wholly on one tasks for 1-2 hours a week, without distraction, the amount and quality of planning that took place in that time outstripped what one individual, or the team working as eight individuals – was capable of in that time outside of that dedicated effort.

What interests me in this blog is what this collaborative planning time is an example of: Deep Work. According to Cal Newport, the author of the definitive text on the subject (a book that I’ve read multiple times, and am reading again):

Deep work is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. It’s a skill that allows you to quickly master complicated information and produce better results in less time.

Planning is cognitively demanding. It is a task that requires consideration of multiple variables and required outcomes in order to create an effective set of actions that help students learn. I believe that effective planning is an increasingly valuable skill, because as the labour market in education continues to shrink, and the turnover of teaching staff continues to increase, then consequently the knowledge base of pedagogical and curricular understanding is concentrated and for many teachers, inaccessible.

As a result, textbooks are back in vogue. The reason for this is that they provide a ready-made set of premises, examples and practice exercises that teachers know will provide something of a ‘learning journey’ that students can follow. My problem with this that teachers – because they are human – will choose the easiest possible route, and whilst textbooks are useful, they are not a proxy for planning. Textbooks function independently of the aforementioned multiple variables that a teacher needs to consider to effectively plan.

The collaborative planning process is a lean process because it requires significantly less time to produce useful results for a larger group of people. It is lean because done correctly it considers the potential issues that might happen in advance of the planning being put into action, and thus avoiding waste as a result. It is lean because the whole planning process need not be done again – in the next year, it is simply a case of refining the planning material and resources to be even more effective. Ultimately after a few curriculum cycles, the planning takes care of itself. What can be more lean than that?

Merry Christmas, everyone.




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’.

Post 2: Lag vs Lead

It was 4:20am.

Standing in a cold, fog laden vale in the middle of Staffordshire, mentally numbed by the circadian kicking that a night shift carries out, and physically numbed by the unseasonal damp, I consoled myself that this was the last ‘big push’.

I, along with a small number of hardy souls, were tasked with earthing freshly installed overhead power lines along a 20 mile stretch of railway, between Stafford and Crewe. This was a part of being a Project Engineer in the rail industry; sometimes – most times – you mucked in with everyone. It was the culmination of a job I’d been involved with for the past 12 months.

We’d worked out the rate of gantry completion per hour. We calculated how many drill bits we’d get through for each gantry (railway sleepers need to be resilient – they have an incredible amount of tonnage to handle on a daily basis). We even took into account the mild gradients we’d need to deal with when pushing our trolley (yes, one of these) along the line.

In the world of functional performance, the project had one lag measure – that the number of completed gantries was enough to safely switch on the power lines to serve the upgraded West Coast Main Line. However, there were numerous lead measures – all of the intricacies named above – gantries per hour, drill bits per gantry, gradient of line, etc.

The lag measure was the outcome – it was the result of our effort. The lead measures were everything that contributed to the outcome – elements that we had control over. Once you have a lag measure, there’s nothing you can do about it – the goal is achieved, or it isn’t.

Lead measures, however, are things you can do something about. If, in our earthing, we weren’t getting through the gantries at the right rate, then we could up the rate. If we were getting through too many drill bits, then we’d have to take things easier, or somehow get hold of some more. Either way, to improve performance in terms of lead measures, we’d have to increase three things:

  • The number of people on the task;
  • The amount of physical or mental resources available;
  • The amount of time available.

For far too long in UK education, we have focused too much on the lag measures – grades, marks, etc, as an arbiter of whether our efforts are good enough. But the problem is that lag measures tell you nothing other than if a goal has been achieved. What they don’t tell you is the story behind the outcome and if, in the myriad of variables and noise that we have to manage on a hourly, daily, weekly and yearly basis, that the elements that contribute to the outcome were successful.

It’s the lead measures that give an indication (more on this choice of wording later) of if a successful outcome is going to be achieved. If you can identify the elements that have the greatest leverage over understanding of your subject, then you have lead measures for your teaching. If your lead measures indicate that you might not achieve your goal – then you can invest the aforementioned people, resources and time that are required.

There are challenges with lead measures:

  • You need evidence to show if your measures are truly lead measures! Unless you do a piece of work like William Emeny did with the GCSE Mathematics specification, then it takes a few years’ experience to piece this together.
  • If you’re responsible for creative arts subjects, then you’re often making objective statements about subjective qualities: how much does a students’ skill with their pencil actually indicate their artistic temprament?
  • How many lead measures, and to what level of detail, should one track? If you dissect your subject’s domain too far, are you not losing the essential qualities of your subject?

Equally challenging in teaching is the pure fact that there is still a ‘black box’ element to how our students will perform; for all the time, analysis and preparation that we carry out in service to our students, their physical and mental state is a significant contributor to how they translate many year’s effort into a single performance. GCSE results are our students’ Olympic Games; an athlete can still choke after 4 year’s conditioning for the event, and thus analogously even the most confident and well-prepared student can quake in the exam hall.

Hence why I use the word indicator in relation to lead measures in teaching – you cannot truly quantify a student’s mastery (and thus retention) of a concept, until the lag measure is obtained – and even then, much is down to performance on the day.

This shouldn’t dissuade from working on lead measures. Micro-scale investments of time and energy on multiple process elements earlier a project will have a greater net gain than the risk of big investments as a deadline looms – as I allude to here.

Postscript: As it happened, we got the earthing job done. We had to up the rate of effort a little and this required lifting the trolley onto the back of a pick-up truck and drive to the next access point to up the pace somewhat. We rushed the lifting, and the trolley slipped, crushing my right index finger. Ironically, by focusing on a lead measure, we completely re-set a significant lag measure for the whole project – one million man hours of accident-free work ruined, in the space of one night shift.


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.