Maximising the Value: What Can the Education System Learn From the World of Continuous Improvement?

This is a guest blog written by Louisa Grimley.

Louisa is currently Secondary English Lead at a 4-19 SEND provision in Leicester.  A latecomer to teaching, she uses her previous experience in change management to help shape staff development and curriculum engagement/design. She is passionate about well-being and sits on her school’s well-being committee. She also engages regularly with research to support in various aspects of her role, especially around the development of reading for young people.In her spare time she enjoys reading, walking, spending time with friends, travelling, baking and all things Disney!

You can find Louisa on Twitter: @grimley_leics

This blog was edited by Gemma Molyneux. Find out more about Gemma on this page.

Check, sign. Check, sign. Check, sign. The monotonous yet satisfying role I had found myself in during my mid-20s was a result of working my way up through a business. I had decided not to enter the realms of Law that I’d studied at university and was, subconsciously, trying to find ‘my thing’.

When an exciting role in the fraud department came up, I knew the opportunity of migrating a new team across to our existing site was something I wanted to be part of.

 With that role, would come opportunities for leadership responsibilities, empowerment of a team and a good shove outside of my previous ‘monotonous’ boundaries. 

Fraud checking on the (what now seems archaic) invention of the cheque meant you constantly needed to evolve along with the characters you were paid to outsmart. That was my first taste of CI (Continuous Improvement).

 Soon, the business was readying itself for a huge transformation whereby the cheque-clearing window would need to be reduced by a significant time. How could that be achieved? It became clear that the only way was through colossal changes to the business and how it was run, which would only succeed if pillars were in place and sustained in relation to improvement & problem solving, staff development and an open, empowering leadership strategy, each of those with their own systems.

 Cue an internal job advert to help lead and deliver that change which instantly lit the proverbial fire. 

 Successful in my application, I was quickly catapulted into a previously unexplored world of strategy, project planning & accountability and customer relations.

If I’m honest, my main driver was a new challenge away from the shackles of a post-break-up slump and I would never have predicted the passion and satisfaction that came with the role. It was difficult, being younger than most I was trying to empower and work with. There were more than a few battles of will, the age-old ‘I’ve been doing this job since before you were born’ and endless barricades of folded arms, representing their distaste and ultimately, fear of change. 

Covering all elements of what I learnt during my 2 and a half years with the team, the shadows of which are still present in many of my interactions, decisions and projects as a subject lead today, is next to impossible in this one post. 

Ultimately, before getting into the history and specific tools relating to CI, it’s important to start with the fact it’s about mindset, leadership and always identifying and maximising value to the customer. CI is never ‘finished’, you don’t dip your toe in or say you’ve ‘done it’. It’s a constant, undeniable and most importantly proactive thread throughout all layers of an organisation. It’s a commitment to always be changing, accepting that that’s not just OK but positive and avoiding the temptation for knee-jerk reactions to issues and the latest ‘fads’. It’s about having procedures in place to minimise variability and waste (no, not in the bins), continually developing processes and problem solving. All of that sounds ideal doesn’t it? Well, it’s virtually impossible without supportive & inspirational leadership leadership and the intentional engagement of and investment in staff; they’re non-negotiable.

The term ‘Lean Thinking’ came from Womack and Jones in their 1990 book ‘The Machine that Changed the World’, which aimed to identify the principles which would go on to help Toyota dominate the car industry. They went on to write further titles such as ‘Lean Thinking: Banish Waste and Create Wealth in Your Corporation’ (2006). Prior to this, Henry Ford, sometimes referred to as the father of lean thinking, worked tirelessly to eradicate waste and identify & deliver true value for his customers.

But schools don’t deal with machines, our students and staff are not robots. We don’t have ‘waste’, we don’t have ‘customers’ and we’re not here to make money as schools, so surely it doesn’t apply? Well, if you consider wealth as something such as the outcomes for our students, engagement with parents and the wellbeing of our staff and when you think of waste beyond the literal, and consider a waste of skills or a waste of time in an already time-deficient sector, it starts to take a different shape. When you consider customers as anyone who receives the output of any process whether that be students, parents, governors, the community or even the person receiving something such as a report or some data from you, the parallels are undeniable. 

I present a (non-exhaustive) toolbox:

Waste spotting seems a tangible place to start, the realms of ‘We’ve just always done it this way’. CI loves an acronym and waste spotting is no exception, introducing our very inefficient member, TIM WOODS. It’s worth noting that an element of waste is inevitable but it’s about being open enough to recognise it.

Below is a handy visual to explain each of the ‘wastes’ from OPEX Learning. I’m sure a quick 5 minute scrawl will see you come up with an example for each in relation to your roles, maybe more for the obvious ones. 

I’ll start:

  • Overproduction (which causes Inventory) – reports of multiple descriptions being collated or information provided 2 weeks before a deadline. These rules can be implemented due to previous issues but they could be a trigger for a problem solving session and engaging with those stakeholders rather than imposing a checkpoint.
  • Defects- Errors of input e.g. Reports or planning incorrectly completed or procedures not being followed. Again, these can sometimes prompt a ‘whole-staff’ message but could be more fruitful with some targeted improvement activity.
  • Transportation- emails!

In my opinion, one of the largest wastes in education is that of skills, which I’ll link into the endless enigma that is CPD. We’ve all sat in sessions at the end of a school day, wondering about the relevance of the information being delivered whilst planning tomorrow’s lesson in our heads, as that seems a more valuable use of time. Similarly, we’ve had frustrations when there is clearly a need for a certain element of training or a meeting but there simply ‘isn’t the time’. I’ve recently been part of the NPQ for Leading Teacher Development which took a refreshingly well-thought-out and pragmatic approach to the topic yet I couldn’t help returning to one of the ‘tools’ we applied in industry. 

A skills matrix seems a simple enough idea but I have never seen it used in education. 

Surely a one-stop-shop which documents the current level of competence for all staff in relation to what we have identified as important, which automatically flags when refreshers are needed and recognises who ‘experts’ are would be invaluable? This could then govern CPD groups and also identify those eclectic skills gained outside of education that never get captured. It could cover qualities for the role as well as specific skills such as BSL or H&S and form the basis of an appraisal, a meaningful appraisal rather than any box ticking- remember, investing in staff is a core principle.

There should be set processes by which people are allocated the competency numbers, which ideally would involve a conversation with them. It would be wise to avoid a ‘gut feel’ score as this starts to introduce ambiguity.

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It may not be considered a ‘tool’ as much as a way of thinking, but I move on to problem solving. Our natural reaction as humans as well as educators is to come up with a solution. This is sometimes due to time pressures and a need to have a plan to deliver to stakeholders but we risk both misunderstanding the actual problem and therefore not coming to the most efficient and error proof conclusion, whilst also affecting wellbeing. In a sector where change is so prolific, the environments which we can control as leaders should contain measured and well researched solutions. If not, we risk staff becoming disheartened and processes becoming overly onerous to account for all the extra processing and checks that get put in place instead of other more fruitful investigations. 

Problem solving activities are far too plentiful to speak about here but a great starting point would be to ask, when faced with an issue or indeed an opportunity (it doesn’t all have to come from a problem):

  • Who needs to be involved here? Who are the stakeholders?
  • Where is the value in this process? How can we maximise that?
  • 5 whys- Keep asking why until you get closer to the root cause of the issue rather than a symptom. Then work on fixing that.
  • Never use the term ‘solutions focussed’. It indicates you’re going to spend too little time understanding the problem, its frequency, stakeholders and trends.

I’ll finish my whistle stop tour on the idea of Gemba which comes from a Japanese word meaning the ‘actual place’, encouraging leaders from any organisation to be out ‘on the floor’, though it’s acknowledged that the responsibilities that come with a leadership role may limit the opportunities for this. Chances proactively taken to check on wellbeing, converse and identify opportunities for interventions can enable leaders to see and experience barriers that staff face on a daily basis and support them to develop a solution. 

Ideally, being in the Gemba should be an initial response to most problem solving activities to help understand the issues and should be repeated when new processes have been implemented. It should be done with a purpose and ideally built into calendars. 

Whilst lesson observations are one, very artificial and fear-inducing example of Gemba activity, going beyond that will see that it becomes the norm, that leaders are ‘out and about’ in low-threat, collaborative interactions. Having been a teacher at some point in our careers will give us some insight but further value can be added by being there in the moment and listening, watching, and taking note. Done right and implemented over time, Gemba helps create the culture that is conducive to a CI environment.

Whilst these principles are obviously applicable in leadership positions, the mentality can be easily applied in the classroom too. For example:

  • Walk in the Gemba to understand the possible reasons for a student’s escalation of behaviour at lunch. Could they be overstimulated in the loud lunch hall?
  • Trial a small and uncomplicated skills matrix if you manage a team or with TAs. Use as part of your existing appraisal process to guide and add value to conversations,
  • Look at all possible reasons for a student not engaging in your lessons before ‘solutionising’ with something like a subject report. Why does Sam always play up on a Friday? Because he doesn’t like lunchtimes on that day. Why? Because it gets too loud. Why? Because behaviour can sometimes escalate on Fridays. Why? Because two of the support staff don’t work Fridays. This needs a solution. 
  • What ‘wastes’ are there in your environment? Engage in conversations with leaders about what you have identified.

Ideally, after practices are implemented, they naturally link and feed into each other. Skills matrices will be updated as a result of CPD, Gemba walks and appraisals. Gemba walks will trigger problem solving projects and CPD suggestions. Waste spotting and process mapping will improve environments and support staff wellbeing.

It sounds like a Nirvana state, an unrealistic destination. But that’s the point- you never get there, but simply go forth and relish in the constant pursuit of perfection!

‘Progress cannot be generated when we are satisfied with existing situations’ Taiichi Ohno

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