The Toyota Way

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John Dabell

I trained as a primary school teacher 25 years ago, starting my career in London and then I taught in a range of schools in the Midlands. In between teaching jobs, I worked as an Ofsted inspector (no hate mail please!), national in-service provider, project...
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How can we improve the running of our schools?

Before becoming a teacher I once applied for a job with Toyota to work as a mechanic on their production line. The interview went well until the last question. The panel asked me, “Where do you see yourself in 5 years time?” and my honest answer wasn’t what they were looking for, “Teaching in a primary school.”

Despite messing up with Toyota, I have long-admired the way they do things and I have for many years injected plenty of Toyota principles into my educational practice because they focus on continuous improvement (kaizen) and respect for people. The company say,

We are never satisfied with where we are and always work to improve our business by putting forward new ideas and working to the best of our abilities. We respect all Toyota stakeholders, and believe the success of our business is created by individual effort and good teamwork.

I know schools aren’t factories housing production lines but the 14 principles that make up The Toyota Way make a lot of sense and are transferable to many other organisations so why not copy and paste what works? If there are tools available to help us continually improve our work and stay ahead of the times then we should cherry-pick and creatively use them to drive our own quality and efficiency.

Professor Jeffrey Liker in his book The Toyota Way lists these 14 principles as follows:

Principle 1

“Base your management decisions on a long-term philosophy, even at the expense of short-term financial goals.

Principle 2

“Create a continuous process flow to bring problems to the surface.

Principle 3

“Use ‘pull’ systems to avoid overproduction.”

Principle 4

“Level out the workload (work like the tortoise, not the hare).”

Principle 5

“Build a culture of stopping to fix problems, to get quality right the first time.

Principle 6

“Standardized tasks and processes are the foundation for continuous improvement and employee empowerment.”

Principle 7

“Use visual controls so no problems are hidden.”

Principle 8

“Use only reliable, thoroughly tested technology that serves your people and process.”

Principle 9

“Grow leaders who thoroughly understand the work, live the philosophy, and teach it to others.”

Principle 10

“Develop exceptional people and teams who follow your company’s philosophy.”

Principle 11

“Respect your extended network of partners and suppliers by challenging them and helping them improve.”

Principle 12

“Go and see for yourself to thoroughly understand the situation.”

Principle 13

“Make decisions slowly by consensus, thoroughly considering all options; implement decisions rapidly.”

Principle 14

“Become a learning organization through relentless reflection and continuous improvement.”

The 5S Approach

The 14 principles give us plenty to think about and explore and many can be applied to school settings for lean production: number 14 is an obvious principle every school is committed to.

One of the less obvious principles is number 7. Included in this principle is something called the 5S approach which are steps we can follow for making our work spaces more efficient and productive.

The 5S approach can act like a discipline guide for keeping a well organised and visual classroom so that it helps children become more independent and helps teachers spend more time on children and their learning. An inefficient classroom is a time thief but the 5S approach will help you steal the time back.

The 5 steps are:

  • Sort: Sort out unneeded items
  • Straighten: Have a place for everything
  • Shine: Keep the area clean
  • Standardize: Create rules and standard operating procedures
  • Sustain: Maintain the system and continue to improve it

In a classroom context, what does the 5S look like?

Step 1: Sort Yourself and Your Classroom
  • Sort exactly what it is you want children to learn. Can you cut anything out?
  • Do children have everything they need to do an activity?
  • Does your classroom have too much furniture?
  • Are there more desks and chairs than are needed?
  • Are wall displays cluttered and too busy?
  • Do you store unnecessary paperwork?
  • Can you remove what isn’t absolutely necessary?
Step 2: Straighten Your Classroom
  • Does everything in your class have a place?
  • Is everything in its place?
  • Is it accessible?
  • Do children know where to find what they need?
  • Are drawers, trays, cupboards etc clearly labelled?
  • Do you have allocated spaces for different types of learning?
Step 3: Make Your Classroom Shine
  • Are containers and storage areas clean and tidy?
  • Do you get children to clean up after themselves?
  • Is there a clear expectation that work-spaces and the floor space are to be kept ship shape?
  • Are children’s desks covered in things that aren’t needed for the task in hand?
  • Can we remove mental clutter and distractions?
  • Can we reduce waste and add value?
Step 4: Standardize Your Classroom
  • Do your labels do their job?
  • Is your classroom communicating or confusing?
  • Have you given consideration to where key information, timetables, reminders and menus are placed?
  • Do you have colour coding that differentiate between topics and instructions?
Step 5: Sustain Your Classroom
  • Do you maintain and keep on top of the classroom or does the classroom get on top of you and the children?
  • Do children have pride in their classroom and want to be there?
  • Is there an expectation of excellence?
  • Are standards maintained through regular updates and weekly checks?

You could say that this is just good ‘housekeeping’ but it is a useful guide to share with colleagues across the school to develop lean thinking and lean learning.

Has it been tried before?

Baerland Primary School in Rogaland, Norway looked towards the industrial sector and they have adopted a 5S way of working inspired by Toyota. Tom Kenneth Gilje is principal at Bærland school and he has introduced ‘lean’ among its staff and children from 2nd grade with great success. For a fascinating read into how the lean way is working then read the article by Torbjørn Netland here and find out about ‘lean’ via the Lean Forum Norway

The Toyota Way has a lot to teach us and can help us drive up our own standards and those of the whole school. Take a look at the principles again and explore further how they might help you continually improve. For a further and more detailed explanation of lean education and the Toyota Way then take a look at the video by Dr David Parsons, National Postgraduate Director at The Mind Lab by Unitec.

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