Lean Manufacturing: A Philosophy for Teachers?


Last summer, I had the privilege of working at my father’s business just as he was starting to put significant effort into implementing an approach called “lean manufacturing.” As its name suggests, lean manufacturing attempts to increase business profits by eliminating waste in all forms.

Eliminating waste has obvious advantages for a manufacturing business, but schools are not factories and students are not widgets. Can schools benefit from a “lean” approach to education?

Why Efficiency?

There are many parts of teaching for which efficiency is not a particularly desirable goal. For example, effective educators care about the individual needs of their students, but getting to know those needs is often an inefficient, and sometimes frustrating, process. On the other hand, the daily tasks of managing papers, grading assignments, recording grades, and returning papers can become so overwhelming that it feels impossible to spend time getting to know the needs of each individual student. This is where lean manufacturing concepts can help. By reducing the time it takes to complete routine, repetitious tasks, we can increase the time and energy available to do the inefficient, but important, parts of teaching.

Over the next several blog posts, I will be exploring what I have learned about lean manufacturing and how I have applied it to my classroom this year. All of these examples are works in progress, and there are plenty more places to work, but I hope these ideas will spark some thinking in these directions.


I will begin with a bedrock principle of lean manufacturing: kaizen. Kaizen is a Japanese word that means “change for better” or “improvement.” In the lean manufacturing context, it has a connotation of continuous improvement, rather than a one-time event. The strength of kaizen is that it does not attempt to fix everything at once. Taking a long-term approach to improvement lowers the pressure to get it right immediately. If a proposed solution does not entirely eliminate the problem, then the next iteration might be better. Kaizen embodies the aphorism, “Slow and steady wins the race.”

Continuous Improvement

I teach three to four math courses every year, and I have found it logistically challenging to keep up with all the papers I need to handle. For years, I had a folder that students used to turn in their assignments. Each assignment need to be graded, recorded, and returned, but because they were unsorted within the folder, I found myself handling the papers multiple times as I looked through the entire stack trying to find one particular assignment. Eventually, an aha! moment struck me, and I introduced a system of labeled manila folders that helped me track where each paper was in my process. One folder contained ungraded assignments, one contained graded assignments that needed to be recorded, and one contained assignments that were ready to be returned.

This was a dramatic improvement. However, since the folders were all the same color, I had to read the labels of all my folders to find the particular one I needed. In the next iteration of the system, I switched to folders that were different colors; now I can easily find the right folder. My students also benefit from this new iteration because it is much easier to locate a folder that is a particular color than one that has a particular label. It may only save a few seconds each time I use the folders, but the cumulative effect is worth the effort I put into setting up the system.

Collaborative Improvement

In addition to continuous improvement, kaizen seeks collaborative improvement. Employees at different levels of the business notice different inefficiencies, so everyone is encouraged to share their perspectives and their ideas for improvement. This helps employees feel that they are more than cogs in a machine—that their contributions directly affect the success of the company. Employee engagement rises, and productivity soars. In a similar way, if students feel that their contributions directly affect the success of a class, they start to take responsibility for their own outcomes, and learning increases.

I have been amazed at how often my students have had really good ideas for improving the processes in my classroom. From tweaks to our grading procedure to ideas for improving the décor of the classroom, my students have much to offer if I will just stop and listen to them. One example: in our grades 7-12, we have many more girls than boys. This means that our girls were waiting much longer than the boys to wash their hands when we dismissed for lunch. I had a sink in the back of my classroom, but it rarely got used because it had no soap or towel dispenser. My girls pointed this out, and we quickly remedied the oversight. Since then, their wait times have been reduced. It may be only 30 seconds per day, but over the course of a year, that adds up to significant savings. More importantly, we were able to show that we care about the frustrations of our students and value their contributions toward reducing those frustrations.

Of course, there’s the danger of students developing an entitled mentality or beginning to treat the classroom as a democracy, but by implementing student ideas in my classroom, I have developed a culture of collaboration wherein students work together to maintain and improve the momentum of the class. There is no substitute for student engagement in the classroom, and I’ve found tremendous benefit from giving students opportunities to make their own improvements.

What problems do you face again and again in your classroom? What small improvement can you make to start eliminating the problem? What solutions can your students offer to the problem?

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